The 'Air Sununu' Flap

A mini-scandal hits Bush's chief of staff. Could it become a lasting blot on the GOP?

John Sununu went to Washington to play the tough-cop role for George Bush, and even his enemies think he deserves an Oscar for it. As White House chief of staff, Sununu consistently does the hatchet work for the boss, leaving the president unspattered and free to sympathize with his own victims. But Sununu seems almost overqualified for the job. He turns cabinet members away from the Oval Office and baldly accuses them of leaking to the press. He tells high officials in open meeting to "Come back when you know what you're talking about." He gloated publicly when House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, who hadn't stood up 100 percent for Bush, was trailing in his race for reelection. And he dismissed a rebellious Republican senator, Mississippi's Trent Lott, as flat-out "inconsequential."

If you're going to make such armies of enemies inside the Beltway, you'd better be sure there are no chinks in your armor-- and last week Sununu was bristling with hostile arrows. Under pressure from The Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report, the White House released the records of Sununu's extensive travels aboard military planes. The reckoning became the instant staple of TV talk shows and radio call-ins, and at least a minor embarrassment for Bush and his party.

In just two years, Sununu had made 77 flights, at a total cost of more than $500,000 (box). He claimed that fully 49 of the trips were on official business, meaning that he traveled free and paid coach fare plus $1 for any family members who went with him. (The Air Force bills the White House $3,945 an hour for the twin-jet C-20, a military version of the corporate Gulfstream III, that Sununu usually uses.) An additional 24 flights were labeled political, with a sponsoring organization paying his fare at the coach-plus-$l rate. Only four trips, including two to a dentist in Boston, were listed as personal. From his salary of about $120,000 and $225,000 in leftover campaign funds, the former New Hampshire governor paid a total of $17,578 for his own and his family's wanderings, and political sponsors were billed about $53,000. That left more than $400,000 for the taxpayers to pick up.

As scandals go, it wasn't much. Sununu could have flown on commercial airlines-and his recent predecessors often did to avoid seeming improper. But official policy dating from 1987 requires Sununu and national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft to fly military, in order to stay in constant touch with the president over secure systems. There was no suggestion that Sununu broke any rules or even any ethical guidelines. At worst, said a Republican mandarin, "This is a guy who, at the margins, systematically did what the rules permitted." It seemed the sort of two-day flap that would quickly blow over.

But Sununu has been a scornful critic of wasteful bureaucrats, and signs were that he had stretched the envelope considerably. There were two trips to Colorado ski resorts, for instance, that were dubiously labeled official; Dick Needham, editor of the sponsoring Ski Magazine, told the Post that Sununu "comes for the pure enjoyment of skiing with us ... he was doing it on his own nickel." A "political" jaunt to Chicago coincided with the wedding reception there for David Carney, a longtime aide. "I promise you," said a White House aide, "there are several other examples of trips arranged around something personal he wanted to do."

Underlings rightly fear Sununu's power and vindictiveness, and none criticizes him openly; a senior Bush aide, assured of anonymity, calls him "the Saddam Hussein of bureaucrats." So given the chance, his enemies pounced gleefully on the mini-scandal. There were grave calls from Congress for yet more disclosures, including the names of all the chums who may have flown with Sununu. Columnists ranged from solemn ("His actions reek of hypocrisy"--Haynes Johnson) to sardonic ("Mileage champ in the Air Force's frequent-flier program"--William Safire).

And the boss was clearly displeased. For the record, Bush defended his aide: "He has my full confidence ... I don't like this jumping all over Governor Sununu when he has complied with the policy and has made full disclosure." But when he was asked point-blank whether Sununu's jaunts were excessive, the president said only, "You make that judgment." Aides said privately that Bush was truly "shocked and disappointed" when he saw the records. As a former top adviser put it, "This kind of behavior offends his puritan sensibilities." So Bush ordered his counsel, C. Boyden Gray, to review the whole policy "in light of practice and see if it should be altered in any way." Translation by a senior adviser: Bush will "defend him to the hilt, but the president doesn't like the perception this presents. He wants the policy changed so it won't happen again."

Sununu himself was passing the whole thing off with heavy jocosity. His opening line for two speeches last week: "Sorry I'm late. I couldn't find a place to land." And for now at least, he seemed safe in his job. But his enemies had counted coup, and his power was diminished accordingly; the arrows would surely fly again. For George Bush and the GOP, the danger was that Sununu's travels might become the kind of lingering symbol of ridicule that waste in military procurement was for Ronald Reagan. In political cartoons and the voters' minds alike, Air Sununu could be the $640 toilet seat of this administration.

Sununu made 77 trips by military jet in two years. Under the rules, he flew free on 49 "official" flights; political sponsors paid full coach fare plus $1.

Sununu paid $1,267 for the four flights he called personal: two visits to a Boston dentist, a trip to a New Jersey football game and a visit to his parents in Florida.

The chief of staff described the majority of his flights as official, including two Colorado ski trips with his wife. Each ski trip cost taxpayers about $30,000 at the Pentagon rate of $3,945 an hour for the twin-engine jet. Sununu reimbursed the government $2,022 for his wife's travel expenses.

GOP officials have paid the government or been billed about $53,000 for Sununu's 24 political trips. For one trip to a Chicago fund-raiser, costing $6,464 at the Pentagon rate, the government was given $642. Sununu and his wife also attended the wedding reception of a political aide.