March 12, 1990 12:00 PM

John Sununu leans back in his chair in the West Wing of the White House and smiles contentedly. He is at home here, one door down from the Oval Office, and home for him is a comfortable place. Jovial and avuncular, the President’s chief of staff seems oblivious to the pressures that accompany what is arguably the second most powerful job in the land. This is, after all, a man whose wife calls him Johnny, who still collects baseball cards and who is terrific with kids—having eight of his own. Around the White House he is known for encouraging pranks and good-natured banter, and colleagues of both genders say he can be as cuddly and sweet as the teddy bear he resembles.

To Capitol Hill insiders, however, Sununu is anything but cuddly. In a government that is frequently criticized for promising one thing and delivering another, Sununu is the man who plays Tough Cop opposite George Bush’s kinder, gentler Officer Friendly. In recent weeks, for example, Sununu has been playing hardball on the environment. While Bush continues to talk in reassuring generalities about his environmental concerns, Sununu, apparently with Bush’s approval, has worked behind the scenes to take the teeth out of the Administration’s rhetoric on two key issues: global warming and revision of the Clean Air Act.

It is a criticism Sununu has heard before. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of the decisions come through here to go to the President,” he says. “I’m the guy who says, ‘No.’ ”

Yet as he begins his second year as chief of staff, he has already lasted longer than many pundits predicted. In fact he is enjoying something of a belated honeymoon after drawing early fire for his failure to round up congressional support for John Tower as Secretary of Defense. President Bush’s popularity is soaring, and congressional Democrats still feel conciliatory toward the Bush White House, hoping it will prove less intransigent than the Reagan team. Even the press, with a few exceptions, has been writing glowing valentines to Sununu in the age-old tradition of reporters cultivating a source.

Still, Sununu’s job as gatekeeper to the President is, by its nature, one that is likely to make enemies. It is no surprise that environmentalists, pro-choice advocates and liberals have run afoul of him. Yet Republicans have discovered that Sununu can be even tougher on his friends than on his enemies. Full of contradictions, he is, by turns, petty and magnanimous, a rigid ideologue and a cool accommodationist, an easygoing colleague and a bully.

Ultimately the key question about this former New Hampshire Governor is whether the very qualities that got him to the White House will eventually do him in. “He is the embodiment of the phrase ‘too smart by half,’ ” says one Capitol Hill Republican. “He is extraordinarily bright. But along with that comes an arrogance and a parochialism that is really unbecoming.”

Whatever one thinks of him, John Sununu does not come from central casting—in appearance, intellect, professional training or ethnic background. Short and stout, the 50-year-old chief of staff is a one-man melting pot. His father, John Sununu Sr., is descended from Lebanese and Greek Orthodox immigrants. His mother, the former Victoria Dada, was born in El Salvador to a Greek family that had settled in Central America. John Jr.—the eldest of three children—was born in Havana in 1939 while his family was on a business trip. (For several years before the war, his father—who was in the export business—distributed French films in Cuba.)

The family lived in a well-to-do section of Forest Hills, Queens, and—like Sununu’s own family today—was a straitlaced Catholic brood with a conservative Republican bent. At LaSalle Military Academy on Long Island, Sununu received so many medals at commencement that the school administrator told him just to wait onstage.

While at MIT, where he majored in mechanical engineering, Sununu married Nancy Hayes of Cape Cod. By the time he graduated, they had three children and Sununu was working at an engineering firm, Astro Dynamics, where he remained until 1965. He earned his doctorate at MIT in 1966, then began teaching at Tufts, where he served as associate dean of the college of engineering. In 1969 the Sununus joined an exodus of tax refugees from Massachusetts and moved to Salem, N.H. “We needed a larger home,” says Nancy. “The tax climate appealed to us, and it was only a half-hour commute to Tufts.”

In New Hampshire, Sununu served on his local planning board, then won a term in the state legislature. He ran twice, unsuccessfully, for the State Senate, then lost a race for the state executive council (a five-member team with veto power over many gubernatorial decisions) and ran, unsuccessfully again, for the U.S. Senate. “Every time I lost, I ran for a higher office,” he says. All that exposure finally paid off in 1982, when Sununu was elected Governor.

Governor Sununu inherited a $44 million state deficit and by 1985 had turned it into a $47.8 million surplus, thanks in part to a booming New England economy. But he also applied his technical mind to overhauling state accounting procedures. In 1984 he was reelected with 67 percent of the vote.

Everyone who dealt with Sununu was dazzled by his intellectual agility and his ability to spout numbers at the drop of a hat. Yet along with his brilliance came a caustic personality that earned him the nickname King John. “He almost perfected a way of alienating people,” says Paul McEachern, the Democrat who ran against him for Governor in 1986 and lost. “He would tell people their shortcomings, berate them, intimidate them with his intellect. In my book, that’s not the sign of a mature, well-adjusted person.”

“I do my homework, and I expect others to have done theirs,” Sununu says. “If people try to bluff, to pretend what they think is right is right, when it happens not to correspond to the facts, well, I’m not comfortable with that.” His politics, he says, are partly a product of his engineering background. “I’m a problem solver,” he says. “I analyze things. I believe there is a cause, a reason and a process.”

Some critics believe Sununu’s faith in his logic borders on arrogance. “His way of arguing is to say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. Let’s talk,’ ” says New Hampshire State Sen. Susan McLane, a Democrat. “He is very bright. But he can be cruel and rude. He has a real character flaw when it comes to listening.”

When he was Governor, the issue surest to ignite Sununu’s temper was the controversial nuclear power plant at Seabrook, N.H. Even when construction delays and licensing snags ran the plant hopelessly over budget and turned it into a political liability, Sununu adamantly supported the project. As one Massachusetts Democrat puts it, “He’s a Shiite Muslim on nuclear power.” In the 1986 election, Sununu’s plurality was less than a quarter of what it had been in 1984. At the end of his second term, citing the difficulties of raising and educating eight children on his Governor’s salary, Sununu decided to return to private life as an engineering consultant.

Lee Atwater emerges from his office at the Republican National Committee with a guitar and proceeds to play a few blues chords. Then he begins to rhapsodize about John Sununu. “No politician has ever done as much for another politician as John Sununu did for George Bush,” he says. Then he says it again. This is the Republican litany. “In my business, the only way to get a true evaluation is in foxhole times,” Atwater says. “In those last 10 days before the New Hampshire primary in 1988, he was like a field general. He made the difference.”

Culturally, Atwater and Sununu are at opposite poles. The 39-year-old party chairman has just cut an album with such bluesmen as B.B. King; Sununu’s taste runs to Zamfir, whose plaintive flute melodies are hawked on late-night TV. But when it comes to politics, the two men have been in harmony since their days on the front lines in New Hampshire, which proved so crucial to both men’s ascendancy.

In March 1987, Atwater, then national chairman of the Bush presidential campaign, concluded that Bush would lose the Iowa caucuses. A victory in New Hampshire became essential, and Atwater turned to Sununu. The Governor, using his influence with mayors, sheriffs and planning board chairmen, personally recruited Bush “captains” for most of the 234 towns and cities in New Hampshire. But it wasn’t enough. A few days before the primary, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas was ahead in the polls. Atwater felt a TV ad attacking Dole as straddling key issues could make the difference—but his candidate thought it was too tough. Atwater sent Sununu to see Bush. By the time Bush came around, however, it was the Saturday before the primary and too late for New Hampshire’s only commercial VHF station to change its advertising schedule. Sununu and Atwater drove to the station, where Sununu sweet-talked the manager. “It is extraordinary for a sitting Governor to do that,” says one campaign source. “Sununu’s help was decisive.” His reward was the White House job.

A year into the Bush Administration, John and Nancy Sununu are comfortably settled into their home in Oakton, Va., 35 minutes from Washington. Nancy, 50, says the house feels empty now that all but two of their children have grown up and gone. But the most difficult aspect of their move has been financial, she says, with almost half her husband’s $96,600 salary taken up by tuition. Nancy herself works for the Republican Governors’ Association and says she may run for the New Hampshire congressional seat now held by Republican Chuck Douglas. More likely, her candidacy is just an idle threat meant to torment Douglas, who has taken political potshots at her husband and whose “family values” she says she finds objectionable. (He has been divorced three times.) Sununu, who has been called squeaky clean even by his critics, is the standard against which she judges such things. “I think that family values are stronger among ethnic Americans, and that comes through with Johnny,” Nancy says. “Our home life is a lot of fun. He is really a very funny person. He’ll make a joke about anything, he’ll tease us all the time.”

Arriving at his office each morning by 6:45 A.M. Sununu meets with the President at 8 A.M. and at 4:30 P.M., but during the course of the day may see Bush as many as a dozen times. Said to have the President’s ear as much as any single adviser, Sununu says he expresses his own opinion only when the President asks, and he asks most often about domestic issues such as education, the environment, health care and law enforcement. “This is a President who likes to get involved in the decision sequence early,” says Sununu. “So I make people available to him early. My job is to help everyone the President wants to see get access to him.”

On Capitol Hill, Sununu has received praise from such unlikely sources as Sen. Ted Kennedy, with whom he hammered out compromises on a bill giving new rights to the disabled. But his prickly character is remarked on at least as often. Early on, senior staffers at the White House began to tell each other they had been “Sununued”—that is, summoned to Sununu’s office, ordered to do something and then been cut off when they offered an opinion. Sununu reportedly hung up on one congressional committee chairman three times during a heated foreign policy debate and once screamed at a congressional aide so loudly he could be heard down the hall. “In Washington you just can’t scream at senators and get results the way you can in New Hampshire,” says one Republican operative.

So far, though, Sununu has been able to control himself more successfully than many of his detractors predicted. Former House Majority Whip Tony Coelho, now a New York City investment banker, debated Sununu during the 1988 presidential campaign and says, “He’s caustic, direct and very ideological. But he fights for what he believes in, and at some point he’ll work something out. Someone has to do the dirty work. People bellyache because he’s effective.”

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