WASHINGTON—Anyone who may be wondering why John Sununu wanted to become White House chief of staff need only dig out a speech the retiring New Hampshire governor and mechanical engineer gave five years ago. Addressing the 1983 winter meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Sununu said that good public policy depends on good technical information flowing into the government. But too often, he said, the quality of the information deteriorates as it moves up the chain of command from the source to the policy maker. His solution? “At worst,” Sununu told his audience of engineers, “we have to be at the right hand of the decision maker. At best, we ought to be sitting in the chair.”

Now Sununu himself will be sitting in the second most important chair in the White House. He arrives there after serving 16 years as an associate professor and dean at Tufts...

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