Bush Throws Sununu Over the Side--But Will It Help? : Politics: Instead of helping things along, one of the main purposes of the job, the now-former chief of staff had been gumming up the works.

<i> Hendrik Hertzberg, a senior editor on the New Republic, served on Jimmy Carter's White House staff</i>

White House chiefs of staff come in two basic models--the noisy and the quiet. Samuel K. Skinner will almost certainly be the quiet type. John H. Sununu, whom President George Bush traded in last week, was one of the noisiest of the noisy.

The quiet ones--Lyndon B. Johnson’s Harry McPherson, Jimmy Carter’s Jack H. Watson Jr. and Ronald Reagan’s Howard H. Baker Jr. come to mind as examples--generally do a better job than the noisy ones, though, of course, there are exceptions. Reagan’s James A. Baker III, now secretary of state, was probably the most effective chief of staff the White House ever had, and he was noisy--albeit in a quiet way.

But the noisy ones, such as Nixon’s H.R. Haldeman and Reagan’s Donald T. Regan, do have one distinct advantage over their more diffident brethren. When the ship of state starts taking on water and someone has to be thrown over the side, they make excellent ballast. The noisier the chief of staff, the more satisfying the splash.

Sununu may or may not have done a good job in the White House. That depends on whether you look at the first half of his suddenly abbreviated tenure, when Time Magazine praised him as “Bush’s most inspired choice for any senior post,” or the second half, when no news story about Sununu was complete without the word “disarray.” But to all appearances, he had the makings of a first-class scapegoat.


However fine a fellow he may have been in private, Sununu was unlucky enough to have a public personality tailor-made for the part. Overweight, fussy and supercilious, he couldn’t help calling up grade-school memories of the prototypical chalk monitor, the grade-grubbing prig who used the petty privileges gained by currying favor with the teacher to lord it over his schoolmates. The only thing he didn’t get an “A” on was “works well with others.” On the contrary, he bullied and lectured the rest of the kids, all the while smugly flaunting his perfect test scores. No wonder he got his glasses broken as soon as the principal’s back was turned.

Yet Sununu is proving disappointing even in the role of scapegoat, for which he seemed so ideally suited. The difficulty is not that he lacks the requisite qualities, but that the kind of trouble the Bush White House finds itself in cannot be remedied by the political equivalent of human sacrifice.

If the Bush Administration’s problems were a matter of ethical lapses, say, or merely of disorganization, then the defenestration of Sununu might be just the ticket. But the trouble is more chronic than that. The real problem is that the Bush team hasn’t a clue about how to reverse the country’s long-term underlying economic and social crisis--and if it did have a clue, it would likely be prevented from putting that clue into action by a combination of the deficit, the Democratic Congress and its own anti-government ideology. Trying to solve that problem by firing the chief of staff is, to vary the usual metaphor, like repainting the lines on the Titanic’s shuffleboard court.

This is not to say the White House will derive no benefits from Sununu’s departure. After all, a chief of staff is not supposed to be a visionary. In practice, he is more of a glorified office manager and secretary. If he’s doing his job right, a surprising amount of his time is spent just keeping the machinery humming along. Especially in recent weeks, Sununu had been gumming up the works, not lubricating them. Among other things, the unresolved question of his future was preventing the President from getting his reelection effort up and running--which Bush did at the same time as he announced Sununu’s fate.


Skinner, an affable smoothie in the Bush mold, is sure to handle such banal but crucial chores as deploying perks far better than the abrasive Sununu. He is not likely to repeat such elementary Sununu mistakes as denying the secretary of defense the use of a helicopter to nip up to Camp David for a meeting with the President--an incident that prompted gloating at the Pentagon last spring when Sununu got in trouble for using official planes and limousines to take him to dental appointments and stamp auctions.

Like many “noisy” White House aides before him, Sununu so reveled in the power of his job that he ended up forgetting how derivative and fragile that power is. The hubris that helped bring him down is a reminder of how far we have come from the traditional conception of the White House staff--set out, in 1936, by Louis Brownlow in a study conducted for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Brownlow thought the White House staff should be kept small, and he coined a famous phrase to describe the most important attribute of a presidential assistant: a “passion of anonymity.”

In recent decades, of course, the White House staff has ballooned so that it now numbers in the thousands, and its members have developed a taste for rawer passions than the passion for anonymity. Nonetheless, as Sununu has discovered, there are limits to self-aggrandizement that even the most exulted of White House aides transgress at their peril.

The sharpest such limit--the “line of death” for White House aides--forbids blaming the President. Sununu crossed it on Nov. 25, when he told an interviewer that Bush had “ad-libbed” a bonehead proposal for capping credit-card interest rates. Sununu’s gaff made his demise inevitable. It was, by the way, a perfect example of Kinsley’s Law of Gaff’s, promulgated by the columnist and commentator Michael Kinsley, which states that a gaff occurs when some political figure inadvertently tells the truth.


With Skinner in the chief of staff’s office, White House morale will rise. There will be no more hectoring of Republican members of Congress, no more unpleasant mini-scandals about the use of military aircraft for personal purposes, no more anonymous back-stabbing--at least of the moment.

It will be a kinder, gentler White House. But that will be a mixed blessing. Sununu was the closest thing to a “movement” conservative in the Bush inner circle. It was he who wielded the club on social issues like abortion and civil rights. His departure will deepen the Administration’s alienation from the hard-shell Republican right, which has never fully trusted Bush and does not regard Skinner as one of its own.

Now Bush faces a primary challenge from the articulate conservative spokesman Patrick J. Buchanan. The Buchanan danger is most serious in New Hampshire, of which Sununu is a former governor. That’s one of the reasons Bush is keeping Sununu on as “counselor to the President” until March. The other is to assuage the perk-loving Sununu by giving him a few months of access to the privileges of a Cabinet position--the “counselor” title carries Cabinet rank.

There is no sign yet that Sununu is about to accept a large advance from a book publisher. But Sununu, an engineer by trade, has no private fortune. What he does have is a taste for luxury and eight children approaching college age. Somewhere in Manhattan at this moment, some clever publisher is surely reflecting on the commercial prospects of a Sununu memoir. Sununu knows all the secrets of the Bush White House. It goes without saying that he would have to reveal them if he wanted to make a truly noticeable, truly remunerative noise in the world. And Sununu is nothing if not noisy.