John Sununu could have written a tell-all. Instead he wrote yell-all.
Some Washington memoirs come out too soon. Written when the relevant administrations are still in office and before the authors, fresh from their awkward farewell gatherings, have fully processed the events they’re describing, these books are great for journalists and partisans on the hunt for details, contradictions and scoresettling. They’re not always as useful to history.
John H. Sununu’s memoir, “The Quiet Man,” comes out too late. This story of the author’s years as chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush is more than two decades removed from the events it chronicles. Yet it doesn’t reflect the emotional distance or insights that can come with time. Sununu remains both bitter toward old antagonists (notably, the Washington press corps, congressional Democrats and Newt Gingrich) and in the tank for his old boss. This book is more time capsule than history; it could have been written in 1993. It also feels late in its strident defense of a one-term president whose reputation has already been rehabilitated and seems headed toward even greater heights.
Sununu’s main stated goal is to rescue Bush’s underappreciated domestic legacy from those who see him only as a foreign policy president, inheritor of Ronald Reagan’s electoral votes, a patrician lacking “the vision thing.” After the accomplishments of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Sununu asserts, “the domestic legislation of George H.W. Bush is the most prolific, consequential, and precedent-setting of all modern presidents’.”
Since Bush is far too modest to say all this himself — the president, not the chief of staff, is the quiet man here — Sununu decided, with George and Barbara Bush’s blessing, to break his vow against memoir-writing. “I am thankful to the president for allowing me to do the bragging on his behalf,” he writes.
Bush’s domestic policy achievements were undoubtedly significant, and no one can begrudge Sununu his victory lap. The president signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, modernized the Clean Air Act and reauthorized the Civil Rights Act. He grappled with the $100 billion-plus clean-up of the savings and loan crisis. And he negotiated a multi-year budget deal aimed at taming the deficit — the same deal that forced Bush to back down from his famous “Read my lips: no new taxes” pledge of the 1988 GOP national convention.
At times it seems as if Sununu’s main objective is to remind us that Bush is a great guy. He lauds the president’s “commitment to principle”; his “grace, manners, gratitude, and humor”; and his “strong moral and cultural compass.” Sununu also compares Bush to Winston Churchill and Babe Ruth. (Favorably.) No weaknesses or shortcomings are entertained, save perhaps in the interview-question sort of way: “The president was always expecting others to be as fair, rational, and cooperative as he was.”
Alas, they weren’t. Sununu decries the “very partisan and sometimes cunning” Democratic leaders in Congress, who he says were harder to negotiate with than the Soviets. And he dismisses Gingrich, that “glib and emotional congressman from Georgia,” as more intent on setting himself up to become House speaker in 1994 than on working with the White House to forge lasting and productive budget legislation.
Oddly, Sununu writes about the problems that carried over from the Reagan administration as if Bush had no role in them whatsoever, as if the vice president had simply been a bystander, lacking agency or influence. The slowing economy? The expanding deficit? The frayed relationship with Congress? Blame Reagan for all that. Yet the author is more than happy to claim partial credit for accomplishments that came after Bush’s single term, suggesting that the president’s vision on the economy, education, welfare reform and trade deals laid the groundwork for greatness to come — even if it came under Bill Clinton. It seems intellectually inconsistent to hold both positions, but, hey, it’s his book.
Sununu’s longest and most riveting chapters detail Bush’s foreign policy triumphs, inadvertently emphasizing that the president was always more comfortable and more skilled in the international arena. Countless volumes have been written about the end of the Cold War, the Soviet collapse and Germany’s reunification — including “A World Transformed,” coauthored by Bush and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft — but Sununu still offers memorable moments. How Bush artfully wooed French President François Mitterrand at the Bush home in Kennebunkport, a meeting that paid dividends later when Bush sought European financial assistance for former Soviet satellite states. How the president brought together Poland’s military rulers and opposition figures for an emotional lunch at the U.S. Embassy there. How Bush, bored at a Paris meeting of world leaders, quietly started writing limericks about them. And how German Chancellor Helmut Kohl gobbled at least two dozen pastries during a meeting with Bush. “Scowcroft and I couldn’t help exchanging subtle looks of amazement,” Sununu writes.
Where inconsistencies emerge — such as Bush declaring that “the days of the dictators are over” shortly before ousting Panama’s Manuel Noriega, yet eagerly working with Middle Eastern strongmen and the Chinese leadership — Sununu doesn’t bother to clarify, explain or defend. He also sidesteps any personal responsibility for some highprofile Bush missteps. He blames speechwriter Peggy Noonan and campaign communications guru Roger Ailes for the “read my lips” line, telling readers that he had been “uncomfortable” with the phrase because “it was a promise that I knew would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep.” And he distances himself from Bush’s nomination of David Souter to the Supreme Court, even though Sununu, a three-term New Hampshire governor, had appointed Souter to that state’s high court. Souter became a nightmare for conservatives, joining with the court’s liberals on key decisions regarding abortion and affirmative action.
Readers catch glimpses of Sununu himself, beyond the campaign attack dog and Oval Office gatekeeper. For example, the chief of staff had a habit of asking notables for their autographs. He persuaded Margaret Thatcher to sign a T-shirt, got Ted Williams to sign a photograph and even asked Mikhail Gorbachev, at the end of the historic Malta Summit, to sign two envelopes postmarked with newly issued joint U.S.-Soviet stamps. “From then on at the end of every meeting we had with Mikhail Gorbachev,” Sununu recalls, “the very last thing he did was turn to me and ask if I had brought anything for him to sign.”
The chief of staff also had a penchant for tone-deaf humor. When Bush declared his dislike for broccoli and outraged producers sent two truckloads to the White House, first lady Barbara Bush announced that she would give it to the homeless. Sununu recalls: “I couldn’t resist commenting to her, in a private aside, ‘Why do you think they left home in the first place?’ ” Nothing like a good homelessness joke in a book championing conservative domestic policies! And before a presidential trip to Colombia, Sununu cracked to reporters that he was going to disguise the press plane to resemble Air Force One, so it could be a decoy for potential attacks by drug cartels.
Sununu says the Bush presidency was the “the last time an administration really got it right — working for the country’s common interest, above partisan sniping and electoral self-interest.” So why just the one term? Sununu is unconvinced by the Clinton rallying cry “It’s the economy, stupid,” instead blaming Bush’s shoddy reelection team (the mastermind of the first campaign, Lee Atwater, had died in 1991), his disorganized White House operation (Sununu had stepped down over travel expense controversies) and a partisan media unwilling to recognize Bush’s accomplishments.
The Washington press corps — “a very large, complex, well-funded, and self endorsing network of egos” — is a recurring foil for Sununu. The late Washington Post reporter Ann Devroy comes in for particular criticism, as does the New York Times editorial board (“they really had no clue”). So does basically anyone who dared question the judgment, intentions or achievements of the Bush presidency. Sununu remembers headlines that irked him, columns that enraged him, even background attributions that he considered unfair. The guy forgets nothing.
Which is good for a memoirist. Usually.
President George H.W. Bush and his chief of staff, John Sununu, at the White House in August 1990 during Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait.
THE QUIET MAN The Indispensable Presidency of George H.W. Bush By John H. Sununu Broadside. 412 pp. $28.99.