The Man Called 'Nunu'

Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater had barely reached the podium of the White House press room when the shouting started. "Has Boyden Gray been fired?" one reporter bellowed. "What about Nunu?" yelled another, derisively employing the Bush family's nickname for chief of staff John Sununu. Fitzwater smiled wanly and shook his head. "No, no, everybody's on the job," he said. It was the straight line the reporters had hoped for. "That's what we're afraid of!" they jeered.

The comedy routine had a serious subject and offered the latest example of a White House being run--into the ground, it seemed--by Sununu and a president uncharacteristically out of touch with the inner workings of his own White House. As George Bush was preparing to sign a new civil-rights bill last week, the administration managed to anger conservatives and liberals alike by hinting, and then denying, that it would abandon the principle of affirmative action in federal hiring. Gray, Bush's White House counsel, took the fall, calling the reversal on affirmative action ,'my mistake." But everyone in the press room--and in the Oval Office down the hallway--knew who the chief villain was: the man called Nunu.

Sununu is the Disorganizing Principal in what suddenly looks like a flummoxed administration on the eve of an election campaign in which Bush will need all the savvy direction he can get. The economy, which can make or break presidencies, remains weak. Wall Street and the business community, Bush's putative allies, are confused and angry. Even the gulf war victory looks less lustrous, as Saddam Hussein continues to rattle around in Baghdad.

The election contest is still Bush's to lose--but there will be a contest. Talkshow flamethrower Pat Buchanan and Southern neo-Nazi David Duke will pinch Bush on the right. Meanwhile, GOP insiders worry, Democrats are learning to speak in the Reaganesque language of tax cuts and resentment of big government. "George Bush needs to turn on that country music station of his, " said Randal Teague, a longtime conservative activist, "and listen to his ass being turned into hamburger."

The president will bounce on choppy domestic seas as long as Sununu has the conn. He can't forge agreement among Bush's warring economic advisers, who are divided between Wall Street traditionalists and unrepentant supply-siders. His grab for mastery of Bush's as-yet-undeclared reelection campaign has paralyzed and incensed the insiders who ultimately will be in charge. Movement conservatives think he's taken too many hits to be useful--even if he hadn't abandoned them on last year's budget deal. GOP moderates despise his in-your-face approach to social issues such as abortion and civil rights. The result is a White House that looks, by turns, conservative, moderate, cynically manipulative--or simply incompetent. "It's worse than drift, it's dangerously reactive," said GOP strategist Eddie Mahe. "John contributes to the sense of confusion."

Deciding Sununu's fate may pose the ultimate contest between Bush's vaunted sense of loyalty and his equally famous will to win. Ritual sackings of chiefs of staff are just that--a Washington ritual, and last week it looked like the administration was preparing one. Cabinet secretaries privately, but nearly unanimously, renewed their calls for Sununu's ouster. Barbara Bush, NEWSWEEK has learned, told friends she was "disgusted" by Sununu's confrontational style and no longer believed him to be a political asset. Bush himself had little to say publicly. But, NEWSWEEK has learned, Bush told a confidant that he no longer feels comfortable with his man.

Sununu's fate is bound up in decisions Bush soon will have to make about his campaign reelection team. The president had hoped to play the Olympian role of world leader until after his State of the Union Message next January. Now, insiders say, he could formally open his campaign offices as soon as next week. Sununu's enemies hope that when Bush does so, he will use the occasion to ease Sununu out. Late last week a removal party was being formed by top Bush advisers in search of what one called "a way for Sununu to make a graceful exit." The president spent the weekend at Camp David considering his options. He asked his son George, NEWSWEEK has learned, to "sound out" Bush stalwarts about whether they'd join the campaign if Sununu is involved. The expected answer: no. The advisers' hoped-for result: Sununu's departure.

Sensing peril Sununu recently began a visibility offensive--on the mistaken assumption that to be seen is to be safe. He became a bookers' delight, showing up on every show this side of the Home Shopping Network. But the pressure seemed to be getting to him. In one interview he blamed the business community for giving Bush conflicting advice. And moments after Bush signed the civil-rights measure into law, Sununu stormed across the Rose Garden to confront Washington Post reporter Ann Devroy, who had reported Sununu was to blame for Bush's recent proposal to limit credit-card interest rates. "You're a liar!" he snapped, in full view of the press. "Everything you write is a lie!" It was vintage Sununu vitriol, but a self-destructive act to pull in the Rose Garden. "He's desperate," says one senior administration official. "He sees his job disintegrating."

To try to save himself, Sununu has become a one-man policy-and-polities shop. The result has been more tumult than order. Bypassing Bush's trusted national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, Sununu pressured the president to postpone his Asia trip. That failed to impress domestic critics while making a mockery of Bush's claim that he would not be hectored into ignoring foreign policy. En route to New York on Air Force One, Sununu, according to The Washington Post, penciled into Bush's speech a line calling for bankers to lower credit-card interest rates. Bush spoke the line; the predictable happened. Congress moved to pass legislation. The stock market slumped. Bush's own economic advisers--who had been sidestepped--went ballistic. Bush was forced to demand that Congress ignore his idea, even as he complained that Congress ignores his ideas. Sununu, in yet another television appearance, denied authorship of the added lines, saying Bush "ad-libbed" the remark--thus violating chief-of-staff rule No. 1: never blame the boss.

Sununu's safety net has been his ties to conservatives. But he has lost his standing with the right by presiding over a White House that conservatives view as a counterrevolutionary conspiracy of Wall Street Republicans. He has even alienated key conservatives in New Hampshire, where he was once governor, by meddling in local elections. Now Bush faces a potential primary challenge there from Buchanan, who edged closer last week to declaring his candidacy. New Hampshire conservatives, eager to send Bush a message and exact revenge on Sununu, are lining up with Buchanan even if they don't like him much. "You know the saying," said one veteran New Hampshire Republican. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

Sununu's handling of the civil-rights bill may have been designed to curry favor with the right. If so, he botched the job. Gray and Sununu had been searching for months for a way to roll back preferential-hiring principles that date back nearly 30 years. They thought they had found their vehicle in the paperwork surrounding the bill Bush and congressional leaders agreed to last month. Gray's plan was to use the "signing statement" to encode a restrictive definition of affirmative action into documents judges will rely on to interpret the law. Gray circulated his proposal late Wednesday afternoon. Cabinet members and key Republicans were furious. Bush was forced to rededicate himself publicly to civil rights-leaving the right feeling sold out once again. Sununu left Gray, known for his political tin ear, to take the full blame. But NEWSWEEK has learned that Gray's proposal was discussed at a senior staff meeting chaired by Sununu a week earlier. "It was [Sununu's] job to catch the problem," said a senior administration official. "He didn't, because he didn't want to."

Bush can survive the wrath of movement conservatives; it's middleclass "swing" voters he needs to worry about. His response to the problem is characteristic: he's firing up the jets on Air Force One. This week he is scheduled to visit Ohio, always pivotal in presidential politics. Next week it's the South, home base for GOP presidential candidates. Then off to California and Pearl Harbor. Bush will unload on Congress--as soon as it leaves town--blaming legislators for failing to enact his modest domestic agenda. He's still counting on the economy to slowly rebound. But no amount of hope, travel or Congress-bashing will solve the problem personified by Sununu: the White House gridlock on domestic policy. Until Bush himself decides what needs to be done to revive Americans' faith in a prosperous future, firing John Sununu won't be of much help. But he has to start somewhere.