What if Ronald Reagan had begun his Administration by appointing the contentious Donald T. Regan rather than James A. Baker III as his chief of staff? Chances are that the Reagan years would have gotten off to a much rockier start than they did. George Bush seems to be running just that sort of unnecessary risk with his selection of New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu as White House chief of staff.
Sununu is a curious choice, particularly since it also means that Bush has lost the services of his respected and experienced vice presidential staff director and former White House aide, Craig Fuller. Passed over, Fuller will leave federal service for private enterprise. That is regrettable.
Both friends and foes credit Sununu, an engineer before he went into politics, for a quick intellect and a knack for details. But he is also described as tenacious, quick-tempered, aggressive, brazen, abrasive, arrogant and all-knowing. Not a good resume for that sensitive job. One Democrat who knows him well notes that while Sununu is a fiercely partisan Republican conservative, he is smart enough to know when to be confrontational and when not to. Bush must hope so.
Sununu emphasized that he will do President Bush’s bidding. But he also said that he will not shrink from making his own recommendations, particularly on domestic policy. That notion should send a shudder through potential Cabinet appointees for agencies like Interior, Energy and Health and Human Services.
As time goes on, the answer to the question of which is the real George Bush seems more and more remote. Everyone thought that, once the slashing election campaign was over, Bush would revert to his more traditional, moderate self. This notion was reinforced by his quick appointment of Jim Baker as secretary of state. But now comes the Sununu selection in a seeming attempt to appease militant conservatives, as in the Dan Quayle selection for vice president. Even Ronald Reagan did not go that far in quieting the right wing.
Sununu will get a chance to prove himself, of course. But Potomac politics provides a rigorous test: Learn to swim quickly or get out of the pool.