'Bad cop' Sununu haunted by reputation as bully


WASHINGTON -- A reporter who had covered White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu for a decade in New Hampshire got a call from the then-governor on the day before she left the state to take a new job and get married.

"I understand congratulations are in order," Mr. Sununu told Candy Thomson, who was working for the Concord Monitor. She replied that, yes, that was the case, and said thanks.

"I didn't say I was offering them," Mr. Sununu responded. "I just said they were in order. What I really wanted to say was, 'F--- you.' " Then he hung up, according to Ms. Thomson, who is now editor of the Anne Arundel County Sun.

Mr. Sununu's office declined to comment on that episode yesterday, but associates say that it is typical of an attitude that not only has put his job with President Bush in jeopardy, but also has so annoyed Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, political colleagues and aides that not many would be sorry to see him go.

"There's a lot of New Yorker in him, one of those people who like to holler obscenities at traffic for the sport of it," an administration official said.

Mr. Sununu tends to live life by his own set of rules and offer a Bronx cheer to those who don't like it, colleagues say.

In serving Mr. Bush, his chief of staff often has talked about a "constituency of one," as though no one else's opinion mattered.

Now, though, even Mr. Sununu is said to fear that he might have miscalculated.

His enemies are out to get him, he thinks, or at least to be encouraging the press reports about the ethics of his using military jets, government limousines and corporate planes for private purposes.

Charles Black, a Republican political consultant and close friend in whom Mr. Sununu has been confiding, agrees with that assessment but adds, "The list of people involved is a whole lot shorter than some accounts would have you believe. I think there are a lot of second- and third-stringers who are cooperating in this."

Mr. Sununu's reputation for rudeness, arrogance and bullying was well known in New Hampshire when Mr. Bush tapped him for the top staff job in his administration. In fact, the appointment was delayed for a month or more as Bush advisers, including James A. Baker III, now secretary of state, tried to head it off.

But Mr. Bush was grateful to the New Hampshire governor, who had worked hard to assure a Bush primary victory in that state when it was desperately needed.

The president also needed to have a tough guy at his side to say "no" when that was necessary, aides have said.

Further, Mr. Sununu -- who can also be charming, witty and delightful company when he chooses -- "was like a jolly elf" on the Bush campaign plane, a top official recalled.

The jolly elf mostly disappeared, however, after the new chief of staff came to Washington.

"He was assigned the role of bad cop, and maybe he took to that a little too quickly," said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire lawyer with strong Republican political connections.

"He hasn't had the opportunity . . . to display much of his other side, and I think that's too bad."

Mr. Rath says most of Mr. Sununu's problems result from "impatience, trying to fit 30 hours into a 24-hour day."

He also has shown impatience with staff members who make mistakes, Republican members of Congress who don't follow the White House lead, Cabinet members with their own agendas and others he considers to be less intelligent than he is. (His IQ has been reported to be near genius level.)

The chief of staff was warned months ago by a close associate that he had created so many enemies, he should tread carefully on even minor matters of ethics so as not to give them any ammunition.

But he continued to use military jets for personal and political travel frequently, including a family ski weekend in New Hampshire that he said was official business because he was competing in a charity tournament while he was there and thus was promoting volunteerism, as advocated by Mr. Bush's "thousand points of light" program.

When controversy over such trips resulted in a public rebuke from Mr. Bush and a restriction on Mr. Sununu's access to the military planes, the chief of staff took a chauffeured government car to New York to attend a stamp auction, where he spent $5,000.

Again, he was puzzled at the outcry, Mr. Sununu told friends. He had been working on the car phone the whole time, and as for the stamps, "it's not like it was a frivolous expense; it was an investment," Mr. Black said.

Even so, there was a second presidential rebuke, a public declaration from Mr. Bush that this trip was "unique" and would not "set a precedent."

Meanwhile, Mr. Sununu was focusing on finding businessmen willing to ferry him to and from political fund-raisers in return for what a spokesman for one of his corporate sponsors, the Beneficial Corp., acknowledged was a chance for "involvement with the White House."

He departed for the last of such trips a few hours after White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater had been peppered with questions about it that he couldn't answer.

Following a third rebuke and a public apology last week, Mr. Sununu is said to be disappointed, hurt and willing to stay put for awhile.

But he is resisting all suggestions that he take commercial flights or Amtrak.

It's just not in Mr. Sununu's in-your-face nature, friends and colleagues say, to let his critics have the last word.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad