WASHINGTON — If absolute power corrupts absolutely, in what way does constrained democratic power corrupt? In travel scandals, if John H. Sununu and his historical predecessor Sherman L. Adams, White House chief of staff under Dwight D. Eisenhower, are any example.
A quick review of the many parallels between Sununu and Adams: Both were governors of New Hampshire when they ran state campaigns of underdog candidates for the GOP presidential nomination. Both produced victories and were rewarded when their men won the general election. Both, in the White House, insisted on being addressed as "governor." Sununu and Adams also share many personality traits: intelligence, conservative politics, arrogance toward virtually everybody. Oh, yes, and Adams is one of Sununu's heroes. When Sununu came to Washington, he went to great lengths to secure the same license-plate number Adams once had.
But Adams left the White House in dishonor. True, he accepted a vicuna coat, but travel was the main cause. He and family members stayed in four-star hotels and charged the bills to a corrupt investor under government investigation. Adams had been warned that dubious travel billings are a formula for political trouble. Like Sununu, he dismissed the warnings.
Why do intelligent people like Sununu and Adams do foolish things with their travel accounts? A principal reason is that they long to feel important.
Democratic systems purposely create uncertainty about who holds real power. Elaborate constitutional cross-checking mechanisms prohibit holders of high office from exercising authority by fiat: Power manifests itself as the ability to influence rather than command, and that may be exercised from many points on the depth chart--not just the top.
Another aspect of democratic systems is an anti-regal civil tradition. So when people who have just ascended to high public office arrive in Washington, expecting to be treated as Big Men, they often experience letdowns. Washington offers little state opulence; there is an almost total absence of the power cues found in Hollywood versions of Washington, where every office window frames a sweeping view of the Capitol dome and even deputy undersecretaries of the Farm Credit Administration travel in limousines with gorgeous blondes.
New members of Congress discover, for example, they have not been assigned vast wood-paneled offices overlooking the Tidal Basin, but cramped cubbyholes off basement corridors. New foreign-policy officials discover, to their horror, that State Department headquarters is a crumbling blockhouse that makes a Wal-Mart seem elegant. And new White House personnel discover, even though they hold some of the world's most important jobs, that there are restrictions on matters as small as who can buy them lunch.
Thus, a longing for the trappings of power--for a false sense of authority--can set in. During office hours, the Washington skyline is laced with the beeline flights of dark-green helicopters, shuttling military officers from the Pentagon to appointments. Whether anyone saves time by this is an open question, but helicopter flights are a much sought-after perk on the part of senior officers.
Adams got into trouble because the kind of hotels that government per diem covers were insufficiently stately for his self-image. Sununu is now in trouble not just because he wished to avoid the indignity of having to stand in line with mere plebeians waiting to board a common commercial airliner. He longed for the full trappings of the power package--being swept by motorcade to Andrews Air Force Base instead of National Airport (where anybody who can afford a ticket can fly); having subalterns hovering about saying, "Gov. Sununu, your jet awaits;" being the sole passenger; signaling the pilot to depart with an imperial wave.
White House personnel taste this sensation occasionally--when they travel with the President aboard Air Force One. Officials with their wits about them enjoy such experiences, but realize this fantasy aspect of Washington life applies on a regular basis only to the President. Officials who want their egos flattered, like Sununu, strive to be little presidents.
One of the ironies of government cost-control regulations is that even top officials like Sununu can rarely obtain approval for first-class air fare. Yet the same regulations do permit them to fly as the sole passenger on military jets. So the taxpayer, rather than shelling out $1,000 to American or United, shells out $20,000 or $30,000 for a boarding pass on Air Force Express. Allowing senior government officials and members of Congress to fly first-class would certainly cost less.