That’s John H. Sununu, the new White House chief of staff, coming down the slopes on a late winter day in the mountains of New Hampshire, looking a little like a friendly, bundled-up pear on skis. He pulls to a neat stop in front of a waiting television camera crew to take questions about that weekend’s charity ski event.
But the reporter wants to know about a much less pleasant topic--the failing nomination of John Tower to be secretary of defense. In a minute and a huff, Sununu skis away from the interview--only to tumble into the snow 10 feet away from the rolling camera. Wipeout.
Now, three weeks later, there is mounting concern that Sununu and his staff are crashing into snowbanks of a different kind as they try to guide President Bush through the political gates of the Washington slalom.
Criticism of Three Areas
In at least three crucial areas--the personnel shop, the office directing Bush’s relations with Congress and the team responsible for communicating Bush’s message to the public--the staff already has come under sharp criticism.
“There has got to be some sort of shake-up,” said one senior Administration official who asked not to be named.
And one senior White House official, while acknowledging no major problems, suggested that changes eventually may be made. “We went into this knowing that at some point we might want to bring in a few (new) people,” he said.
Bush’s staff members and other supporters--more than a dozen of whom were interviewed for this report--unanimously believe that the President and his aides have ample time to recover.
“They’ve had a couple of stumbles,” said one close adviser to the President, speaking, like many others, on condition that he not be identified. “But whatever mistakes might have been made will be corrected. It’s a learning curve for them.”
Agreement Marks Progress
As one sign of progress, after weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations led by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Bush announced Friday an agreement with congressional Democrats over renewed non-military aid for Nicaragua’s Contra rebels.
However, complained one former campaign aide as he reviewed the roster of generally young and inexperienced White House staff members: “They’ve taken a bunch of grade B ballplayers, and they’ve taken them to the World Series. They have no long-ball hitter.”
Staff shortcomings share the blame for a variety of problems that President Bush has encountered in his first two months in office.
Most notable was the failure to mobilize quickly enough to save the Tower nomination in the Senate. When Bush visited Asia at the height of the confirmation battle, none of the most senior staff remained in Washington to carry the President’s message to Congress.
One long-time Bush supporter, pointing in particular to the handling of the Tower nomination, said: “George Bush’s Administration is not going to rise or fall over what goes on these first few weeks, but it is symptomatic. It’s a very upsetting thing.”
Likewise, the Administration initially fumbled when the savings and loan crisis landed at the White House like a greased watermelon in the opening days of the Administration. When one of Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady’s initial plans--a tax on savings and checking accounts--bombed politically, Sununu chose initially not to repudiate it but to say that it remained under study.
There are signs that the White House staff is beginning to react more sharply to problems. A senior aide to a Cabinet member said that although the staff members were late in focusing on the Eastern Airlines strike, “when they did, they were ready to go.”
More broadly, observers of the White House staff are quick to criticize what they perceive as its failure to help Bush communicate a vision of what he wants to do as President.
Calls Staff Ineffective
“The White House staff is inexperienced, remarkably ineffective in focusing Bush, in setting an agenda that can be communicated easily to the American public and the world,” said a Republican who is well-placed to assess the President’s aides.
“There has been a sense of miscalculating, a lack of accurate information, an inability to look forward, an inability to strategize on the mix of issues and an inability to get Bush to play offense on the issues.”
Sununu, at a recent weekend conference of senior Bush advisers and Republican legislators in Charlottesville, Va., was asked about the President’s agenda, according to one person who was there.
“That’s what we’re here to find out,” Sununu reportedly responded. “What do you think it ought to be?”
Another Republican, whose job as a lobbyist puts him in contact with key figures throughout Washington, complained that no one is overseeing the effort to convey the President’s message to the American public.
Wants Efforts Concentrated
“That is the job that should shepherd the resources of the presidency and marshal them on one, two, three or four big things until they are accomplished,” said this Bush ally. Instead, “they are doing 48 things and all of them badly.”
Reagan, said Michael K. Deaver, a former close aide, “had broad themes. He didn’t want to get stuck in the minutiae of how it happened. A lot of what George Bush has to do is refine and clean up and extend what happened (under Reagan). He might be the best guy to do that because he understands” how the government works.
When Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, he had the advantage of succeeding a Democrat. And, for his staff, he had his pick of Republicans eager to press ahead with his conservative agenda.
Bush, by contrast, has moved to the White House at a time when ideological fervor has subsided. Consequently, said a former Reagan White House aide who was closely involved in the Bush transition, the appeal of working in the White House has ebbed.
Begins With Roosevelt
The broad structure of the current White House staff dates back to the 1939 reorganization of the office of the presidency, which gave Franklin D. Roosevelt six top-ranking assistants and about a dozen other aides.
Back then, in the words of Samuel Kernell, a UC San Diego political scientist who specializes in the staffing of the presidency, the White House staff was seen as “insignificant go-fers,” described by the wheelchair-bound Roosevelt as “my legs.”
Now the White House staff numbers more than 300, with about 15 top-ranking presidential assistants. “They have enormous power,” Kernell said. “The President needs them to make decisions for him. Otherwise, he gets overwhelmed.”
Bush, according to a senior adviser, made it clear that he wanted a Cabinet stronger than his White House aides. He did not want the White House staff to dictate policy to the departments.
“There are not a lot of heavy hitters over there” at the White House, this adviser said when the President took office. “That’s the way Bush wants it.”
Sununu Says He’s Satisfied
Sununu expresses nothing but satisfaction with the team assembled beneath him.
“I think things are going well,” he said in an interview in his White House office, just a few paces from the Oval Office. “I’m very happy with the staff. They have brought the talent and the commitment and the energy I have expected.”
Others in the West Wing speak the same sentiments but with less assurance. “I actually think it’s going OK,” said one senior Bush aide. He added, almost apologetically: “I may be in a minority on that.”
Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor who managed Bush’s presidential campaign during last year’s crucial primary there, has a reputation as a short-tempered autocrat. According to the well-placed Republican source, Sununu is still learning that while “the governor is king” in New Hampshire, “here you have the total opposite, especially in the fishbowl of the White House.”
Sununu has become, in Kernell’s words, “an easy target.” But he has quickly earned the loyalty of his staff and is given credit for using a puckish sense of humor to “keep people from taking themselves too seriously,” said one senior aide.
Considered Smart Politician
Even his critics agree that he is a smart politician who is likely, one said, to “get his act together eventually.”
Regardless of how effective it has been, the White House staff clearly reflects Bush’s activist presidential style, said Thomas C. Griscom, a director of communications in the Reagan White House who now teaches at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“The White House staff isn’t going to be the dominant player” that it was during Reagan’s eight-year tenure, Griscom said. “It will be a supporting player. That works as long as there are no snafus.”
“You’ve got to give the President and the President’s team a chance to function,” he said. “The team right now is like a brand new car. You’re still kicking the tires. The tests are yet to happen.”
Staff writers David Lauter and Cathleen Decker contributed to this story.
The First Floor at The White House
1. President’s study.
2. Edward M. Rogers
Deputy assistant to the President and executive assistant to the chief of staff.
3. Andrew H. Card Jr.
Deputy Chief of Staff
4. John H. Sununu’s Assistants
5. John H. Sununu
Chief of Staff
6. Dan Quayle’s secretaries
7. Dan Quayle
8. Brent Scowcroft
National Security Adviser
9. Robert Gates
Deputy National Security Adviser
11. B. Jay Cooper
Deputy Press Secretary
12. Stephen Hart
Deputy Press Secretary
13. Marlin Fitzwater
14. Cabinet Room
15. Patty Presock
Executive assistant to the President
16. Tim McBride
Personal assistant to the President
17. David Bates
18. Assistant to David Bates