Seldom has a White House memoir been so palpably mistitled as The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H. W. Bush.
The 413-page apologia, complete with index (which is likely to be one of the better-read sections), masquerades as former White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu’s tribute to his political patron, Bush 41—a bid to correct the record concerning the first George Bush’s underappreciated one-term presidency.
The book certainly offers a raft of justifications, some of them convincing, for a reassessment of the elder Bush’s time in the Oval Office, but it seems we’ll have to wait for Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham’s George Herbert Walker Bush biography for a truly independent judgment of the 41st president.
At its core, The Quiet Man is actually about the indispensable White House service of John H. Sununu, an exceedingly noisy man who moved to Washington after serving as governor of New Hampshire, where he played a key role in Vice President Bush’s 1988 primary victory, thus stabilizing his wobbly presidential campaign after Kansas Senator Bob Dole (and even the Reverend Pat Robertson) nearly dealt Bush a mortal blow in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.
Ultimately, The Quiet Man is Sununu’s occasionally laughable attempt to paint a self-portrait so completely at odds with widely known facts as to render himself almost unrecognizable. Even so, Sununu can’t help coming off as a bit of a dweeb; he’s an aggressive autograph hound who can’t help annoying Margaret Thatcher and Joe DiMaggio alike for their signatures, and a frustrated comedian (much like David Brent of The Office) who can’t stop repeating his repertoire of stale jokes.
Sununu also—no surprise—engages in a goodly amount of score-settling in these pages, with political detractors and members of the Washington media establishment coming in for abuse. According to Sununu’s account, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich brazenly betrayed the president, going back on his word to support tricky budget negotiations with the Democrats in 1990 (much as Bush was forced to go back on his own word, given at the Republican convention two years earlier, of “Read my lips: No new taxes!”).
Bush’s secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, had trouble producing a competent battle plan for the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, according to Sununu, and a dissatisfied president sent him back to the drawing board. General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was so consumed with burnishing his public image that he busied himself sucking up and leaking to Bob Woodward.
The Washington Post’s senior White House correspondent, Ann Devroy, and the paper’s star political columnist, Mary McGrory, get especially harsh treatment. McGrory, “the Post’s diva,” is “egregiously witless,” Sununu writes. And Devroy—generally acknowledged as a generator of more scoops than her competitors—“always seemed less interested in getting the story right than in getting something into print first, usually with a more sensational spin than most of the other reporters.”
Sununu continues: “Once, when I asked how she could print a story that she knew was untrue, she told me: ‘I don’t worry if something is true. It’s my job to get into print what I hear, or what I can piece together from what I hear.’”
I knew Ann Devroy. Ann Devroy was a friend of mine (and my boss years ago when she was political editor at The Post and I was one of her reporters on the national desk). And if Ann Devroy ever said anything remotely like that to John Sununu, I’ll eat his book, index and all.
Shockingly, Sununu has zero to say about The New York Times’s Maureen Dowd, whose stories so enraged him that he once vowed to the “stunned” White House press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater (according to Fitzwater’s memoir): “I will destroy her. If it takes me the rest of my life, I will destroy her. I don’t know where or when, but I’ll get her.”
Maybe, on reflection, it’s not so shocking that Sununu would stand down with regard to Dowd. She writes an influential Op-Ed column in The Times, and can fire back at will. McGrory and Devroy are unable to challenge his assertions because, alas, they are no longer with us.
Sununu’s rose-colored portrayal of his caustic tenure as the president’s top aide—a position from which he was sacked after The Washington Post’s Devroy (!) revealed his rampant misuse of government aircraft and limousines, along with his and his wife Nancy’s improper solicitation of corporate jet travel, while his arrogant and rude behavior with Cabinet officials, White House staffers, and members of Congress left him friendless and defenseless—ventures well beyond historical revisionism into what might be called “omissionism.”
For instance, while conceding that he “probably could have—should have—handled it better,” Sununu insists that the only reason he commandeered military jets and corporate aircraft instead of flying commercial to family ski vacations, golf dates, and even dentist’s appointments—to say nothing of using a White House limo to travel to New York for a Christie’s auction at which he bought $5,000 worth of rare stamps—is that he was required to by a presidential directive signed by Ronald Reagan.
“The reason for this policy was understandable,” Sununu writes, noting that ordinary communications were spotty in the early ’90s. “In a world where critical events come to a head almost instantly, the president needs to reach his key staff immediately.” (Needless to say, Sununu leaves out the lavish details of his far-flung travels.)
Fitzwater, who was both Reagan’s and Bush’s loyal spokesman, presented the authoritative narrative of Sununu’s downfall in his 1995 memoir Call the Briefing! Fitzwater noted that one such flight on “Air Sununu” involved a nearly empty 12-passenger C-30 corporate-style jet from Andrews Air Force Base to Salt Lake City and then on to Vail, Colorado, and back, at a cost to the taxpayers of $30,000.
“As the story unfolded,” Fitzwater wrote, “Pentagon records revealed that between April 1989 and April 1991, the governor had made seventy-seven trips on military aircraft, forty-nine of which were listed as official, meaning that the government and, consequently the U.S. taxpayers, had footed the bill, which was estimated to be over half a million dollars. It was the kind of abuse of power that makes people’s blood boil.”
Fitzwater went on to report that Sununu, then as now, “self-righteously tried to hide behind a 1987 White House directive” that “was just a self-serving perk”—a luxury then-Secretary of State George Shultz got Reagan to approve so he could take a presidential jet to his homecoming weekend at Stanford University. After the scandal exploded, Sununu refused to admit error to the Washington press corps—“I’m not going to give them a damn thing,” he told Fitzwater. “It’s none of their business”—thus compounding his public-image problems and the escalating political damage to the Bush White House.
In another departure from generally accepted reality, Sununu portrays his defenestration as his own idea—“I finally decided that I did not want to burden either the president or the [reelection] campaign”—while contemporaneous and credible accounts instead described a man toiling desperately to marshal political support and keep his West Wing office.
“They will never get me!” he screamed at Fitzwater as the scandal mushroomed—although in Fitzwater’s account, Sununu pleaded with underlings to speak to the president on his behalf in a campaign to save his job, and ended up sobbing on the day the deed was done.
The chief of staff didn’t even take the hint after a grim visit from George W. Bush, the future president, who suggested that Sununu’s continued presence at the White House was causing severe heartburn. “I attributed it,” Sununu recounts, dismissively, “to the personal concern of a son for his father.”
Sununu—who confides that he received special dispensation from his erstwhile boss to write the Washington tell-all he promised he’d never write—spends many pages dutifully (sometimes tediously, in the dull prose of government press releases) listing Bush’s various legislative and foreign policy accomplishments, not least of which was the successful diplomatic and military juggernaut that forced Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to end his occupation of Kuwait.
Typical chapter opening: “Helping end the Cold War, fixing the budget crisis, getting historic environmental legislation, and unleashing America’s domestic energy capacity were all great achievements, but George Bush was just getting started.”
To give the author his due, Sununu’s ringside-seat accounts of Bush’s persistent courting of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the tactful delicacy with which he handled the breakup of the Soviet empire, Bush’s deft touch with the hardnosed Chinese leadership, and the skill he brought to assembling the international coalition that supported the first Gulf War (while ending the adventure when the goal was met), make one yearn for an apparently bygone era when an American president had a knack for foreign policy.
And Sununu includes an irresistible anecdote about an understandably bored president, passing the time while enduring 35 droning speeches by world leaders at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe by penning limericks—“some of them quite bawdy.” Sununu writes that Bush kept passing them back as notes to him and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. “I made sure to destroy all the notes,” Sununu recounts. “The only ones I clearly remember ... were one that started, ‘There was a Big Chancellor from Bonn ...’ and another that ended, ‘Only Dennis, her husband, could catch her.’ ”
In another anecdote, apparently to illustrate Bush’s penchant for personal phone calls, Sununu writes that “I often joked that his dialing finger was an inch shorter at the end of his term than it was at the beginning.”
It’s apparent from this memoir that Sununu’s middle finger is at least an inch longer.