John Sununu felt it this week when First Lady Barbara Bush rushed to do damage control. It is called the kiss of death.
It occurs in politics and sports when the chief executive, manager or designated spokesmen steps forward to dispel rumors about a team’s major player being on the ropes:
Sununu benched? You’re kidding.
Sununu in the doghouse with the general manager? No way.
Sununu on the trading block? Impossible.
Sununu falling out of favor with the first lady? “It isn’t true, and it’s ugly and I don’t like it,” said Mrs. Bush about published reports that she thought the chief of staff should be replaced.
Sununu’s job in jeopardy? “I don’t think it’s ever been in danger,” said spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
The innermost circle can tighten in its public defense of the beleaguered chief of staff, but the president and the people close to him must be aware that Sununu, like budget director Richard Darman, is hopelessly out of sync with the people of America. Headed into a presidential election year that could threaten Republican dominance of the White House, Mr. Bush cannot afford top staff that is disconnected with the country.
Presidential politics unfortunately is one of appearances, not substance. Sununu, and to a lesser extent Darman, have demonstrated repeatedly that they have the capacity to undermine even the most carefully orchestrated campaign to refurbish the presidential image. On civil rights, official joy riding at taxpayer expense, extended benefits for the unemployed, economic stimulus to generate jobs, Sununu marches to a different drummer from heartland America. He and Darman keep the president out of step, or worse, as was the case this week, they force him to backpedal. Leadership, in this time of economic crisis, cannot be put on idle until January.
The chief of staff and the budget director are ’80s holdovers, men who prospered during the Reagan era when the country was devouring its economic seed corn and the public was riding high on its shrinking home equity.
In one sense, they are throwbacks to the era of the palace guard, the court of the imperial presidency.
They may not realize it yet, but in the ’90s, they have become political refugees.
It’s just a matter of time.