Bush On Sununu: 'Yeah, I'm Going To Support Him'

Posted: June 25, 1991

WASHINGTON — For the second day in a row, President Bush yesterday publicly backed chief of staff John H. Sununu, telling reporters "Yeah, I'm going to support him" when asked about the controversy.

Sununu, for his part, brushed off the controversy over his travel and pledged, for the first time in public, to remain in office at least until the end of Bush's first term in January 1993.

"Look, I've been in Washington for a while now to realize that it's all part of the process, it's part of being chief of staff," Sununu told reporters.

The White House had hoped that the unwelcomed attention on Sununu had abated weeks ago after the combative former New Hampshire governor was slapped on the wrist by Bush for his frequent use of military jets for personal and political travel.

But the controversy has grown in recent days in the wake of disclosures that Sununu was chauffeured at taxpayer expense to an auction of rare stamps in New York City, solicited corporate jets for political travel and allegedly misled White House staff members about one of the solicitations.

Bush made his comment about Sununu in response to shouted questions from reporters as he was leaving a Rose Garden ceremony. In the past, when aides have come under fire, he has gone out of his way to make a public display of his support. But no such steps were taken yesterday.

According to some administration officials, the next few weeks could determine Sununu's fate in the Bush administration. Absent another embarrassing disclosure, they said, Sununu might able to rehabilitate himself. But more revelations could prove fatal.

Aides described Bush as averse to firing anyone, particularly a political ally such as Sununu who was instrumental in Bush's come-from-behind victory in the 1988 New Hampshire primary that put Bush on the path to the presidency. But Bush, like any public official, jealously guards his image and doesn't want it tarnished by the actions of an underling.

"How can he not be (upset)," said one administration official of Bush. ''I just don't think he (Sununu) has an understanding of how people see these things. He's been in politics for a long time, but from a two-bit state.

"Here's a guy that was very successful in pushing everybody around in a state where nobody put it under a microscope. Now, he's playing in the big leagues. It hasn't sunk into his head that he's playing on a different kind of stage."

Another GOP insider cautioned, "Stories about his demise and an end to his effectiveness are very premature. If he stays, time may not heal all wounds, but it can go a long way."

In this view, Sununu may not be able to repair his public image, but can remain useful to Bush as a hard-nosed negotiator with Congress and architect of domestic policies - the roles he now plays most frequently.

"The damage to his image is very substantial," said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who studies the government and the press. ''He's become a target for Jay Leno. You can't do much worse in politics than be the butt of jokes by late-night comedians.

"But his powers are totally derivative," Hess added. "As long as the President supports him, what difference does it make? Most of the people he deals with will have to take his word that he's speaking for the President."

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