The pitfalls of being Bush's 'pit bull' Lack of finesse cost Sununu his job

December 04, 1991|By Maureen Dowd | Maureen Dowd,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- No one expected John Sununu to go gently. And he didn't.

As his final act, the man hired by George Bush to be his political hatchet man took a swipe at the boss.

In thinly veiled comments in his resignation letter, Mr. Sununu made it clear that he felt betrayed because, in many ways, he was doing exactly what Mr. Bush had hired him to do.

The departing chief of staff was also obliquely reminding the president that this was not a matter of principle, but of ratings; his bullying tactics had been fine as long as the opinion polls did not go down.

"I assure you that in pit bull mode or pussy cat mode (your choice, as always), I am ready to help," Mr. Sununu wrote.

His reference was sardonic. He had called himself "a pussy cat" and kept a plush cat on top of the bookcase in his large West Wing office. But, at close range, it was clear that the toy animal was really a tiger, and that is exactly how Mr. Sununu saw himself.

As he stated his credo in his first month in Washington: "I don't care if people hate me, as long as they hate me for the right reasons."

When he boarded Air Force One in Meridian, Miss., yesterday after his resignation was made public, Mr. Sununu was asked by reporters whether he would be involved in Mr. Bush's re-election campaign. He used the question to suggest that his services were critical in turning around the 1988 election for a boss who likes to keep his hands clean.

"Maybe I'll do to whoever runs what I did to Dukakis in 1988," Mr. Sununu replied, referring to his no-holds-barred effort in the general election campaign to destroy Michael S. Dukakis' reputation as a competent governor of Massachusetts.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Sununu formed a close bond in the snows of New Hampshire, when Mr. Bush saw his dream to be president slipping away after a humiliating showing in Iowa.

"Whatever they did in Iowa, they will not reject George Bush in New Hampshire," Mr. Sununu vowed, as he dragged Mr. Bush down from his elite perch to start what he called a "see me, touch me, feel me" campaign. He encouraged Mr. Bush to ride a snow plow and wander around a snowbound Nashua, shaking hands and offering to help skeptical motorists dig out their cars.

On the surface, they seemed like an odd couple -- one tall, slim and patrician, the other short, pudgy and ethnic; one well-groomed, the other often slightly disheveled; one polite and conciliatory, the other rude and contentious.

But on matters of politics, George Bush and John Sununu were not so oddly matched. Mr. Sununu embodied the barbed-wire side of Mr. Bush's politics; in many critical ways, he was an accurate reflection of the way Mr. Bush believed things should work.

During the 1988 campaign, Mr. Bush conceded in interviews that he had to do some of the dirty work in attacking Mr. Dukakis; his alternating nice and nasty faces came to be known as "George the Gentle" and "George the Ripper."

But as president, Mr. Bush preferred to farm out to aides the duties of bully and gunslinger.

Mr. Sununu, plying his own ideological agenda, was happy to play the bad cop to Mr. Bush's good cop on volatile issues such as abortion and the environment. Mr. Sununu was blamed for conservative moves, even though Mr. Bush was the president and shared those positions.

When Mr. Sununu screamed at shocked House Republicans about why they had to support the administration's bipartisan budget deal, including unpalatable tax increases, Mr. Bush would sit silently watching, never telling his chief of staff to stop bullying the congressmen.

In the many times over the last three years when Mr. Sununu helped land the president in the political soup, the Washington political cognoscenti speculated that Mr. Bush was keeping his chief of staff only out of loyalty to Mr. Sununu for helping him win the New Hampshire

primary, or because Mr. Bush was too nice to fire anyone, or because he was too indecisive.

The truth is more complicated, and Mr. Sununu put his finger on it yesterday. While Mr. Sununu's lack of political skill in dealing with political Washington eventually cost him his job, and while his fatal flaw may have been in believing that he was smarter than Mr. Bush, the chief of staff was, often in an inept way, trying to fulfill the mandate he had been given by his boss.

In critical ways, Mr. Sununu exacerbated Mr. Bush's limitations, rather than making up for them, and whenever the spotlight swung away from foreign affairs, it became painfully apparent that this was a White House without a long-range agenda, without a communications strategy and without first-rate thinkers many top jobs.

But while he accumulated more power than had any chief of staff since H. R. Haldeman in the Nixon years, Mr. Sununu started sowing the seeds of his destruction early by flouting Washington's conventions.

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