John Su­nunu could have writ­ten a tell-all. In­stead he wrote yell-all.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Car­los Lozada Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post. Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP

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.

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