In presidential politics, the man cable-television pundits may fear most is a 73-year-old retired mechanical engineer from southern New Hampshire.
John H. Sununu, the former Granite State governor, is Mitt Romney’s most pugnacious and ubiquitous surrogate, and he’s shaking up the 2012 campaign.
“He is our party’s honey badger,” says GOP chairman Reince Priebus, playfully referencing an Internet meme about a relentless badger.
Over the past year, Sununu has castigated Fox News’s Juan Williams, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, among many others, for defending the president’s record or touting left-leaning positions.
Most of Sununu’s televised battles have become viral sensations on YouTube. His volatile exchanges with O’Brien alone have garnered over 300,000 views.
During a recent visit to his home near the Atlantic coast, and in a subsequent follow-up interview, Sununu told me that he relishes his unique position in Romney’s hierarchy.
“I should be playing golf and skiing,” Sununu chuckles. “But I’m scared to death for my kids and grandkids.”
By day, Sununu operates as a campaign confidant, advising Romney strategists. By night, usually during primetime, he heads to Saint Anselm College’s small TV studio, puts on an earpiece, and unloads on the Obama campaign.
Sununu’s specialty is the harsh rebuke, and his persona is part Archie Bunker and part schoolteacher. During a recent interview with frequent foil Soledad O’Brien, for example, he mixed Congressional Budget Office citations with a dressing-down of the host.
“All you’re doing is mimicking the stuff that comes out of the White House and gets repeated on the Democratic blog boards out there,” Sununu said. “Put an Obama bumper sticker on your forehead when you do this.”
Politico took similar comments and edited them together into a montage, “Sununu’s greatest hits.” In the clip, Sununu calls the Obama team “dumb” and “delusional,” and he criticizes the president for his “smarmy philosophy” and “Chicago-style gutter politics.”
“I think you can be tough and aggressive with facts in a way that you cannot be tough and aggressive with emotional retorts,” Sununu explains about his approach. “Most of the people that try to be tough on TV are really just being emotional and not factual.”
For Sununu, who left his job as Bush’s White House chief of staff in late 1991, the cable appearances have been a kind of political comeback. He never really retired from politics, but his Romney work is his first major foray on the national scene in years.
And in many respects, Sununu’s biting commentary echoes his sharp-edged defenses of George H. W. Bush, his close friend of three decades. He is reprising a familiar role as the pit bull with a Ph.D., defending a temperamentally moderate Republican nominee from New England.
“It is remarkable that Sununu mixes so well with the cautious Romney crowd, and Romney himself,” says Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia. “My guess is Romney appreciates Sununu’s brains, savvy, and fearlessness. He often says what Romney would like to, but won’t dare.”
In May 1990, Time magazine put Sununu on its cover. The headline, which was plastered over a photo of a gruff-looking Sununu, read “Bush’s Bad Cop.” At the time, he was the “power to reckon with,” they wrote.
These days, Sununu is not Romney’s gatekeeper, but he is, as he puts it, the “crazy uncle” for Romney’s hundreds of staffers in Boston, many of whom were children when Sununu was working in the White House.
“I give [the campaign] as much time as I can and they are kind enough to say they want all of it,” Sununu says. “But I also understand the problem of overexposure, and I’m not looking to be seen; I’m looking to be effective.”
William Safire, the late New York Times columnist and Nixon adviser, once wrote that Sununu, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former dean at Tufts University, is a “quasi-genius, reportedly with an intelligence quotient of 180.”
Sununu brushes that aside, but seems confident in his cable clashes regardless. “Frankly, I don’t really prepare,” he says. “I’m an old man of 73, and I’ve been around a long time. If I don’t know something by now, I probably never will.”
Of course, Sununu’s tenure as a very visible Romney supporter has had some rough patches. In July, during a campaign conference call about small-business policy, his comments about the president created a national controversy, rather than the usual Romney-camp cheers.
“I wish this president would learn how to be an American,” Sununu told reporters. Hours later, after the quote became a headline, he walked it back, saying the “president has to learn the American formula for creating business.” The attention the episode attracted revealed Sununu’s new prominence, as well as the perils of his brash, extemporaneous style.
Sununu has always toed the line between acerbic and over-the-top. After he left the Bush administration, he became a co-host of CNN’s Crossfire. “I understand the process of politics and the game of television,” he says. “I loved doing it, but the time demands were pretty rough,” and after a few years as an on-air analyst, he headed home to New Hampshire.
In 1996, Sununu’s son, John E. Sununu, won a House seat, and was elected to the Senate six years later. For much of the late 1990s and during the Bush 43 years, Sununu was an outside adviser to his son. But after his son lost his Senate reelection race in 2008, Sununu decided to reenter the fray, at least within New Hampshire.
Sununu became state-party chairman in 2009, and in 2010 he led New Hampshire Republicans to historic gains. Romney, who owns a summer home in Wolfeboro, N.H., was mulling a second presidential run as Sununu rebuilt the state party. He had become friendly with Romney, who he first met in 1994, when Romney was running for Senate against Ted Kennedy. “I never really got to know him back then,” Sununu says. “When I became chairman, however, he was one of the most helpful people.” They often huddled on Romney’s lakefront deck, talking politics and about the 2012 stakes.
In October of last year, as the Republican presidential primary began to heat up, Sununu endorsed him. “I helped the governor get confident with the hand-to-hand political combat that’s necessary to win in New Hampshire,” Sununu says. “We got him on a bus and took him around the state, even up to Berlin, N.H., a small town where candidates never go.”
Ever since, Sununu has had Romney’s ear. In background conversations, two Romney staffers say the senior staff recognizes the importance of the relationship to the presumptive nominee, who has tried to broaden his inner circle beyond family members, former Bain Capital associates, and loyal Beacon Hill advisers.
Sununu’s surprising popularity this cycle on TV and the web is an added bonus, one staffer says: “He is important to the governor as an adviser but he has also become an important adviser to the communications shop, since he is willing and able to go anywhere and debate anyone.”
“The liberal media says [Romney] isn’t tough, but he is,” Sununu tells me, as we browse his collection of political memorabilia, stretching back to his days at the state capitol in Concord, N.H. “And I think you can tell that I’ve enjoyed going out there and pointing that fact out to the press.”
Sununu laughs, but emphasizes that he has only a supporting role. “Look, I’ll keep contributing until they ask me to stop,” he says. “And at some point, if it doesn’t make sense for me to keep doing it, I’ll go play a few more rounds of golf . . . just like our president.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.