Don’t Rap Reagan, Bush Aides Told : Sununu Admonishes Staffers Over Anonymous Criticism
White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, reflecting the concerns of President Bush, admonished White House staff members for a third time Monday to halt the flow of quiet, anonymous criticism of former President Ronald Reagan that has crept into their conversations with reporters in recent weeks.
Some Bush aides, seeking to distinguish their boss from his predecessor, have been portraying Reagan as a chief executive who simply followed the directions of his staff.
Sununu, according to a member of the senior White House staff who asked not to be identified, told the staff Monday to stop building Bush’s stature by tearing down Reagan’s.
And another senior aide, reflecting annoyance with the issue, muttered when asked about it: “Make the story go away.”
The issue arose after columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote that former President Richard M. Nixon wrote a note of complaint to Sununu after reading a story by Owen Ullmann of the Knight-Ridder news service in which White House aides criticized Reagan.
Ullmann wrote that Bush supporters have derided Reagan “for needing cue cards to speak, a map to get around the White House and a coterie of aides to do his thinking.”
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater told reporters that Sununu has told staff members not to get caught “making jokes” about Reagan. “He says, ‘I don’t know whether this is true or not, but if it is, don’t let it happen,’ ” Fitzwater said.
When asked whether Sununu’s remarks amounted to a “gag order,” Fitzwater replied: “Get serious.”
Staff members, he said, were told that “it’s not helpful to voice those kinds of criticism. That’s all. . . . This is ridiculous, and don’t do this.”
Fitzwater, who was Reagan’s spokesman before becoming Bush’s, said: “I don’t know anybody who has been bad-mouthing Reagan. Many of us worked for him, most of us owe our careers” to him. “Ronald Reagan was one of our greatest presidents, and everyone here certainly believes that. If they don’t, they’re in the wrong Administration.”
Fitzwater said Bush has had “frequent” conversations with Reagan since assuming his job on Jan. 20. He said that they have discussed “current events . . . Administration policies . . . personal things--that kind of normal conversation.”
But Reagan spokesman Mark D. Weinberg said in Los Angeles that he could recall for certain only three telephone conversations between Bush and Reagan since Bush’s inauguration. Bush is said to have had at least that many conversations with former President Jimmy Carter since assuming the presidency.
At the same time, Weinberg said, “President Reagan has the highest regard for President Bush and thinks he’s off to a terrific start.”
A White House staff member who also worked for Reagan took the view that little can be done about suggestions from his colleagues that Reagan’s presidency was less than perfect.
“I just guess it’s sort of like fashion,” he said. “There is a natural tendency to look for new things, to idealize the new and to be tough on the old.”