Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Closer Look at Romney’s Surrogates- John H. Sununu 3/3

by Nomad

In this final post in the series, we will look at the mounting calls for Sununu's dismissal as Chief of Staff in George Bush, Sr. administration. Even after he had been warned about his questionable misuse of travel expenses, he failed to take the problem seriously. 

Pride Before the Fall
Those that said Sununu would not change were quickly proved correct. When barred from using military aircraft, he resorted to different modes of travel and different methods to pay for them.

According to investigative reporters, Sununu ordered a White House limo to take him to New York to a rare stamp auction at Christies. To make matters worse, Sununu then sent the car and driver back to Washington unoccupied while he returned on a corporate jet.

On June 18, 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported:
“Ever since the White House cut back on John H. Sununu's use of military aircraft for leisure and political travel, the controversial chief of staff has been soliciting free trips aboard jets provided by American corporations, White House officials said Monday.
In the latest instance, Beneficial Corp., a consumer credit firm headquartered in Peapack, N.J., provided a chartered jet for Sununu to return to Washington from a New York stamp auction and a New Jersey GOP fund-raiser last Wednesday night. Officials said other corporations are being asked to do likewise whenever Sununu makes similar trips. Sununu pays nothing for these corporate flights, which are perfectly legal. Beneficial officials said they expect to receive only partial reimbursement from the New Jersey Republican Party for Sununu's flight last week. In turning to corporations, Sununu is one of a growing number of top Administration officials who have come to rely on American business to provide air travel for trips that previously would have been funded by the government or paid for out of their own pockets.”
Across the country, editorials raged against Sununu. Senators like Barney Frank of Massachusetts, brought up the question of conflicts of interest and stated what a lot of people were wondering: Why did Sununu think the first class commercial flights were not good enough for him?

By the end of the summer of 1991, Bush realized that something had to be done about this problem. Sununu himself was seemingly unaware that he had fallen afoul of the president. 
The book, The Candidate: What it Takes to Win - and Hold - the White House, gives this humiliating illustration of Sununu's behavior:
Sununu was too proud- or tone deaf- to see that he was no longer on good terms with the president. He was not invited to a critical meeting at Bush's home in Maine, but he showed up anyway, only to leave at once after being denied time with the president. Bush arranged for his son, George, to talk with top players about the organization of the campaign, so that he could then tell Sununu how everybody felt about him; but even that didn't get the message through to Sununu.
Sununu did nothing all that unusual. Taking advantages of the perks of power is expected. The problem was the scale and Sununu’s lack of recognition of the problem he had caused the president.
He was unable to restrain himself from taking advantage of his position, and was unwilling to rein himself in, even after the president was forced to publicly admonish him. By pushing his privileges too far, Sununu became an embarrassment to the president, who was forced to defend him in public. A chief of staff should never put the president in this position.
And even, after all, this, Sununu hung on by his toenails. Bush was too dependent on Sununu. There wasn’t any question, however, of whether Sununu should stay or go. The problem was how to avoid any further embarrassment. As the Bush began to plan for his re-election, the problem must have weighed heavily on his mind. Sununu, privy to so much damaging information, had to be handled carefully. And what would happen if Sununu simply refused to resign? 

(In fact, that event had occurred in the administration of Andrew Johnson-successor to Lincoln- when the Secretary of War Stanton simply refused to leave. Eventually, it led to President Johnson's impeachment.) 

In any event, the final blow came directly from Sununu’s own hand- or rather from his own mouth.

Last Straw
In November of 1991, at a campaign fundraiser in New York, President Bush made a remark about the high interest on credit cards and how the economy might improve if there were limits on how much interest credit companies could charge. 
Unexpectedly the remark was seized upon by Republican Senator Alphonse D’Amato of New York who introduced legislation on exactly that principle. When economists and the financial community challenged the wisdom of D’Amato’s bill, a panic caused the Dow Jones to drop 120 points. D’Amato pointed to the president’s earlier remark. 

When reporters asked Sununu for a comment, he made that fatal but inevitable misstep. He said that the president’s remarks had not been part of the prepared speech, that the president had “ad-libbed.” The implication was that the  Bush's words were not officially approved. The White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater,  immediately contradicted Sununu’s statement and some in the administration reportedly told the press that Sununu himself was the author of the president’s speech. 

In his arrogance, he had forgotten the most important duty of his job as chief of staff- to draw fire away from the president. Sununu had done just the opposite. 
Instead of playing nice to the press, Sununu went out of his way to antagonize them further. In his book, The Modern Presidency, the author gives this snapshot of the demeanor of the Chief of Staff in his final days:
Sununu's general attitude toward the press was reflected in his public reaction to a Washington Post reporter who covered the story of the credit card flap. After a bill-signing ceremony on the White House lawn, he told Ann Devroy, loudly and in front of others: "You're a liar. Your stories are all lies. Everything you write is a lie."
(And now Sununu appears regularly on Fox News. Go figure.)
In one moment, Sununu had demonstrated why so many in his own administration were fed up with him and why so many simply couldn’t work with him or tolerate his domineering and abrasive personality. 
Nobody seemed all that sad to see the back of Sununu. 
The only remaining question was how to let him go.

How to Quit Somebody
The time came for Sununu to take the fall on the imperial sword; the only problem was Sununu still hadn't gotten the message. Ultimately, the president recruited his son, George W. Bush, to deliver the bad news to Sununu at a breakfast meeting at the White House.  
The President's son, George W. Bush, told Mr. Sununu .. that he no longer had any political support, a message that a senior Republican ... called "a hint so broad that it would be hard to miss."
So it must have gone something like: Pass the marmalade, Johnny, oh, and by the way, you're fired.
When, on December 4, 1991, John Sununu submitted his resignation letter, the New York Times reported it in this way:

John H. Sununu resigned today as the White House chief of staff, telling President Bush that he feared he would be "a drag" on the President's re-election campaign after months of bruising political attacks in which he had become the symbol of the increasing disarray in Mr. Bush's domestic policy team.

Mr. Sununu and the White House portrayed the departure as voluntary. But it followed meetings in which Mr. Bush listened to Mr. Sununu's arguments that he should stay on and then decided to follow the advice of top-level Republicans who urged the removal of his chief of staff.
All and all, a pathetic tableau vivant: with Sununu- danish in hand- begging for his job (or at least, still, attempting to negotiate), not understanding that the nervous, embarrassed president, in asking for his resignation, was actually attempting to be kind to Sununu. (In a corporate setting, he would have been fired long before this point.) The president's son there to hold Sununu's hand when he breaks the news. 
Meanwhile, in the shadowy background, his colleagues, victims of his rudeness, were sighing in relief while cool-headed campaign advisers were loudly scratching that problem off their lists.

Immediately after resigning, Mr. Sununu, rather tellingly, said to reporters in Mississippi that "the President was kind enough to let me make the decision." 
In his resignation letter, Sununu wrote:
But in politics, especially during the seasons of a political campaign, perceptions that can be effectively dealt with at other times can be- and will be- converted into real political negatives. And I would never want to not be contributing positively, much less be a drag on your success."
(Given his remarks in this campaign, Sununu must not feel the same degree of loyalty for Romney.)

President Bush also played his assigned role by announcing that he had accepted Sununu's handwritten letter of resignation "with reluctance, regret and a sense of personal loss." He also stated that Sununu would stay on as a presidential adviser, but few journalists swallowed that. In reply to Sununu's resignation letter, the president stated that he looked forward to working with Sununu as "a trusted adviser outside government." 
That's what a White House door sounds like when it slams shut.

With the Sununu problem out of the way, Bush's advisers were now free to give him the vital advice the president had needed. The first question: who should replace Sununu? 
The first name they suggested to replace the self-centered, rude and power-hungry Sununu, was the Secretary of Defense, Richard Cheney. Some great advice. (Admittedly, wiser counsel prevailed and Samuel Skinner, the Secretary of Transportation, was finally appointed as the new Chief of Staff.)

The fact that he was able to hold on to his position for so long was an either a sign of President Bush’s loyalty to his staff or a testament to his weak leadership. 
In the public’s mind, it was more the latter than the former. Delaying and denying a rather common managerial problem left exactly the wrong impression- one of an administration in disarray, an economy on the slide, and an unhealthy wimp at the helm.  
The New York Time article on Sununu's resignation also noted:
The removal of Mr. Sununu seemed designed to give the President a chance to dispel the aura of confusion and hesitation that has hurt his Administration in recent months.
In the end, the damage was done. The perception that Bush couldn't control his own staff stuck. 
The following month, the president made a trip to Japan where, through no fault of his own, he became the laughing-stock of the nation. During a state dinner, the president suddenly fell in and vomited into the lap of the Japanese prime minister. His collapse (with Barbara Bush, leaping from her chair, to rescue her husband) was caught on video and became comedy gold for late night talk show hosts. More seriously, it reawakened the concerns over the president's health.

Rightly or wrongly, many blamed Sununu for Bush’s re-election defeat to Bill Clinton. Had Bush had an adequate chief of staff, according to the conventional wisdom of the day, a person who permitted greater access to his own advisers, then perhaps the president would have been more aware of his slide in public approval ratings. Maybe, the Bush critics argued, he would have been more motivated to address the state of the economy. 
Instead, Sununu continued to assure him that the glow of the Iraqi conflict would guarantee his re-election. There was nobody to disagree with that assessment because Sununu had so restricted the access to the president.  

In the end, whether Sununu was the main -or even a partial- cause of the Bush’s loss or not, it was the president himself who felt the sting of defeat. Sununu, himself, had left the epicenter of the disaster on the last commercial flight out of town. 
*    *    *    *

This, then,  is the historical record of the man that Mitt Romney has chosen to speak on his behalf. His surrogate. This is the man that Romney has put his trust in. The man that Romney has chosen to speak on his behalf. 

That, I think, is a speaks volumes about the kind of president that Romney would make.