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Professor Sununu to the Kremlin

ANYONE out there who still needs persuading that this a different world from even a year ago should consider this: White House chief of staff John Sununu spent much of last week in Moscow, sharing management tips with the Soviet leadership. He wasn't trying to give broad strategic counseling on the really weighty issues. Rather, Governor Sununu was there to explain the executive process, paper flow, the ways in which issues are brought to president's attention, how his appointments schedule is managed.

The Sununu mission can be seen as part of a larger education in democracy in the East, where grass-roots parliamentarians are being tutored by their Western counterparts in such things as setting the agenda for a meeting and learning to disagree without coming to blows.

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So it is at the chief executive level. As Mikhail Gorbachev has tried to move power from the Communist Party to the Soviet government, so the Soviets must learn to support that executive.

That the visit occurred as planned, despite the Gulf Crisis, shows how seriously the Bush and Gorbachev administrations take their relationship with each other. (Is Gorbachev's an ``administration''? Only yesterday it would have been a ``regime.'')

There's another point here, too: Sununu's decision to go ahead with plans set well in advance for the Moscow trip demonstrated the principle of sticking to long-range goals undeterred by the crises of the moment. (He was of course able to be in touch with the White House at all times, and could have gotten through to President Bush on his cigarette boat off the Maine coast from anywhere inside the Kremlin.)

When the machinery of a White House staff is working as smoothly as it should, it is silent and nearly invisible. One is most aware of the White House process when it malfunctions - as happened at the time of the furor over President Reagan's visit to the cemetery, a storm that blew up while right-hand-man Michael Deaver was out of town.

Sununu has not quite the reputation for smoothness, for sweating all the details without appearing to sweat, that James Baker had as chief of staff. Sununu's shirttail sometimes comes untucked - unlike Mr. Baker's, or for that matter, the president's. But clearly the White House has run well under Sununu. His occasional loose shirttail makes for a useful contrast with the president. And though the chief of staff, a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, may fit parts of the engineering stereotype, he is also a manager and a political leader, who has held elective office and shown that he could deliver New Hampshire for George Bush in 1988.

He calls his philosophy ``the acorn theory of management'': the idea is that it's preferable to deal ``with a dozen problems when they're acorns rather than one big problem with it's become an oak tree.''

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, has become a veritable oak forest. But at least its leaders are seeking help; in fact, the Sununu expedition was a sort of return visit, reciprocating one this June by a team of Soviet efficiency experts. (When does an oxymoron cease to be an oxymoron?) That team was headed by Gorbachev aide Mikhail Shkabardnya, like Sununu an engineer by training.

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``They were smart enough to understand that the needs of their new presidency'' were very distinct from the ``more autocratic ruling structure that they had before,'' Sununu said of the Soviets.

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