Podcast: John Sununu on Presidents Nixon and Bush
John Sununu was chief-of-staff to President George H.W. Bush
On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we’re talking again about the relationship between President Nixon and the late President George Herbert Walker Bush. Our guest is former governor of New Hampshire, and chief-of-staff to President Bush, John Sununu.
Governor Sununu is also author of a memoir about his time in the Bush White House, “The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H.W. Bush.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to the, “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. Today we’re talking again about the relationship between President Nixon and the late President George Herbert Walker Bush. Our guest today is former governor of New Hampshire and White House Chief of Staff to President Bush, John Sununu. Governor Sununu is also the author of a memoir of his time in the Bush White House, “The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H.W. Bush.”
Governor Sununu, welcome.
John Sununu: Thank you. It’s great to be on.
Jonathan Movroydis: You were White House chief of staff during a critical time in the 20th century history. How did you come to befriend President Bush and become a part of the White House staff?
John Sununu: Well, I was running for governor in 1982 and I had just won the primary and quickly called President Bush. Introduced myself to him, asked him to come up and do a fundraiser for me. And he did. Since our primary is in September and the election was November, his willingness to do it on short notice was critical and that started a friendship that developed over the six years I was governor. And certainly Vice President Bush at that time was smart enough to know that it’s a good idea to develop a good relationship with the governor of New Hampshire where the first primary is. Then ran part of his campaign at the general campaign in ’88 against Michael Dukakis, Dukakis was governor of our neighboring state in Massachusetts. And again, our relationship got even closer and I think he understood that a former governor understood issues. I was governor at that time, but soon to be former governor. I think he understood governors understood issues. He felt strong on foreign policy. He wanted somebody who understood domestic policy well. And he asked me to be his chief of staff just before the election, and I accepted just after the election.
Jonathan Movroydis: You were chief of staff during a critical time as I mentioned. The Soviet Union was in free fall, the Middle East sort of a complex situation there with the Gulf War and the Israeli-Palestinian situation. And China was just coming off the massacre at Tiananmen Square, and they were given most favored nation status. Could you detail just a bit what the world looked like when you became chief of staff when George Herbert Walker Bush was president?
John Sununu: Well, I’ve often said that I had the great fortune to be chief of staff during the three and a half of the most exciting years this country has ever had in terms of foreign policy impact. The world knew things were changing. George Herbert Walker Bush had been vice president to Ronald Reagan who had rebuilt America’s defense strength, and as a result I think the Soviets were beginning to understand they could not keep up economically or militarily. They had a new leader, Gorbachev, who was signaling that it was time…that he might consider it was time for change and coming closer to the West in terms of interactions, and trade, and a much more tranquil set of relationships between the Soviet Union and the European nations as well as the US. And he was hinting that he might let the Eastern European nations have self-determination instead of just being occupied by Soviet troops.
And on the other side of the world, the Chinese had begun to let the world know that they were somewhat important. The Nixon initiatives had opened things up certainly in China, accepted visitors and was talking more than they had historically. And so there was the sense of change in the air. There was even a sense of potential for settling the most complex issue on the planet, which seemed to be the Israeli-Palestinian issue. So those three issues were certainly an important part of the president’s agenda but he also understood that the western hemisphere had been neglected and wanted to reestablish relationships between the US and the Latin American countries. We had always had good relationships but they had stagnated economically, so George Bush also had on his plate as part of the agenda, a recognition of the importance of our neighbors in the western hemisphere. And I would say that set of issues encompassed what he wanted to look at in his first term, which turned out to be the only term, but certainly provided enough for him to recognize that important things could be done if you only could figure out how to do them.
Jonathan Movroydis: Then that’s the key question. Francis Fukuyama said that this period of time, he coined the term “The End of History.” Obviously there’s a lot of complex issues during this period of time. Was the United States, as the sole superpower, in the driver’s seat to grapple with all these complex issues?
John Sununu: Well, we were in the driver’s seat in terms of strength and defense. We were in the driver’s seat in terms of the world finally recognizing that they really needed to continue to follow US leadership. Margaret Thatcher had come into office in the UK during the Reagan administration. Gorbachev had come into power in the last couple of years of the Reagan administration. Mitterrand was in power in France, but they all recognized that individually they just couldn’t do anything. They could collectively if they joined with the US. And that’s really where the transition from Reagan to Bush was so important because although there was huge opportunity, it wasn’t clear how to do it. And George Bush spent the first couple of months in office sitting down and talking with people on what the right course of action was. And his patience created an impatience in the press.
And if you go back, you will see editorials written by folks at the Times and the Post criticizing him for not knowing what to do, not understanding how important the opportunity was. All these self-proclaimed geniuses who turned out to be absolutely wrong in the long run. And the president had the discipline to consult with people. And interestingly enough, one of the people he relied on for good advice was Richard Nixon. He always had a great relationship with President Nixon. He had served as his representative to the UN for almost two years. He had served in a very graceful way, although certainly was one of those who advised the president of the difficulty of his position, but Bush was serving as chairman of the Republican National Committee in the last few months of the Nixon administration. And so George Bush did have a respectful relationship with him and counted on him to really, the areas he needed to ask him for advice, so what his views of what was going on in the world.
And Richard Nixon felt comfortable enough with George Bush to send him memos. Really brilliantly written, very detailed and sometimes very long memos on issues that he thought were critical, and George Bush just ate those up. He valued the fact that here was somebody he could talk to, who he felt understood the nuances of what was going on in the world as well as he felt he and his advisors, Jimmy Baker, Brent Scowcroft, myself as chief of staff, we would get involved in conversations and he would bring out the Nixon memos and we would review what the president had said.
Jonathan Movroydis: When did you first meet Richard Nixon?
John Sununu: I had a very interesting opportunity either December of ’79 or January of ’80. My wife happened to be the chairman of the Republican National Committee in New Hampshire before I became governor and before I got into serious politics, so she was chairman. And the New York state Republican committee politely and kindly invited us down to a very high dollar fundraising event. I think it was $25,000 a couple. We were fortunately complimentary, but Richard Nixon had agreed and this was a time when he was just coming out of his sort of post-presidency isolation, just coming out of it. And they sat us at a dinner with a kind of a square structured table about 40 couples that we were part of that. And at the end of dinner, Richard Nixon stood up and for two hours without a note, kept the group spellbound with a discussion of what was going on in the world.
He talked about Brezhnev, who was then running the Soviet Union. He talked about Valéry d’Estaing who was president of France. He talked of Margaret Thatcher who was just moving into a being considered as a prime minister in the UK. And he went almost country by country around the world talking about the issues that were occurring there, the country’s relationship with the U.S., the opportunities for the US., and how the personalities of the leaders of those countries had to be taken into consideration as the US formulated its responses to what was going on in the world in 1980. And it was unbelievable. The shame of it I’ve often said is that I’m sure nobody recorded it because I’ve never been able to find a recording of it. But to me it was the best and most masterful two-hour presentation on foreign policy I’ve ever heard. And that was my introduction to the president, President Nixon. We chatted a little bit afterwards, had the, of course, the requisite photographs taken, which he signed for me and we have here, but it was really, as I called it earlier, a Tour de Force that was unbelievable.
Jonathan Movroydis: Talking a little bit about President Nixon’s foreign policy acumen. You had mentioned earlier a little bit about how the memos that President Nixon sent to President Bush and how you, the president and some of his foreign policy advisors would take them into consideration. Speaking about the downfall of the Soviet Union and how the Bush administration could shape the future of US-Russia relations and the independent states that came out of that period. How did President Nixon believe the United States could shape those relationships?
John Sununu: Well, I think one of the interesting memos he did write was in ’91 just after he had visited Moscow, I believe. And he wrote, I don’t know, my recollection was about 10 pages, a memo to the president to give George Bush his views on what was happening. And this was a very critical time in the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall had fallen a year earlier. Elections had taken place in Poland. Czechoslovakia and Hungary and all the Eastern European countries that had seen the light and they were all declaring their independence and having elections, and Gorbachev had signaled his willingness to let that happen. It had occurred. And now, the crumbling, if you will, was coming inside the Soviet Union as some of the republics were getting restless and the Soviet Union was about to transition from a collection of republics to being primarily Russia and a bunch of friendly republics not aligned as strongly as they were under the USSR.
And so he wrote a memo to the president and the first two, my recollection is the first two sentences in there, he emphasized the collapse of the economy in the Soviet Union and that the empire was disintegrating. And he then went on to talk about the details of what he had seen in there, about the suffering of the Soviet people, about the economy collapsing. Things were worse then, than they had been in some of the bad days before. And he talked a little bit about the impact this was having on Gorbachev. That it was finally a strain although most people didn’t notice it. Richard Nixon sensed that there was both a physical and psychological strain on Gorbachev. And this was very important for George Bush because Bush always tried to put himself in the other person’s shoes as he negotiated and tried to be mindful of making everything win-win. And I think this, if you will, this cautionary message from Richard Nixon on Gorbachev was an important part of the way Bush handled those days.
And then Richard Nixon, I thought, was very prescient in pointing out that Yeltsin who was in many places in the press being treated as a buffoon, and who later on transitioned through being a great strong leader and then back to a buffoon. Yeltsin surprised Nixon with both his capacity to understand things, his support for private ownership for example. His recognition of the fact that some of the republics had to be let go. His recognition that it was not smart to continue sending money to places like Cuba and Afghanistan. So Nixon’s conversation with Yeltsin really was an important confirmation of a sense that that had been developing in the White House that we were going to have to take Yeltsin seriously. And, again, it made it easier for George Bush to come to that conclusion having received the memo from Richard Nixon.
Jonathan Movroydis: On the Gulf War, Nixon wrote a lengthy policy memo to President Bush of military diplomatic and political advice about Iraq. Among the advice was not to link the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue with Saddam Hussein’s withdrawal from Kuwait, and to receive a greater financial contribution from Japan and Western European countries and receive bipartisan domestic political support. How did the Bush administration react to this counsel, President Nixon’s guidance on the Gulf?
John Sununu: It had the advantage of both being right and coinciding with George Bush’s perception and Jimmy Baker’ and Scowcroft and mine and others who were advising the president on what the right way to go was. It was sort of novel in the sense that getting other people to pay if they don’t participate, was a novel initiative that Baker executed perfectly following the advice of President Nixon in the sense that Baker and Bush had anyway. George Bush also went to Congress to get support. He gained support out of the house quite easily. It was more of a struggle in the Senate where George Mitchell really on a very partisan way, tried to keep Democrats from voting for it. Where really we almost, we had to lobby one by one and I think we eventually got 51 votes.
I remembering lobbying about a dozen senators individually. Jimmy Baker had about the same amount, Scowcroft had the same amount. And of course when we had somebody significant that we had to really get over the top, George Herbert Walker Bush was always ready to have him visit him in the Oval Office and try to put the last selling message on them. So we ended up with 51 votes, but going to Congress was consistent with the recommendation that we did get from President Nixon. And President Nixon was consistent all along in his views on how to deal in the Middle East. In his recommendations to President Bush. President Nixon had a broad feeling that it was time to recognize that a great development had taken place in the Arab countries, that they had developed economically, that oil had given them economic strength.
That they were significant contributors to the world economy, that they had spent a lot of that oil revenue on building a military, strengthened the number of the countries there that was significant, and certainly were not in the same situations they were in terms of strength 25 and 30 years earlier. And he urged President Bush to recognize that he ought to be dealing in the Middle East with a more even-handed approach in terms of the relationship between the Israelis and the Arab countries and the Arab countries, Israelis and the US, and was always consistent with that message. And you could read it in that memo — it was being interwoven amongst the lines that he had written down for the president.
Jonathan Movroydis: In addition to being an avid watcher of the Middle East and Russia, Nixon was also the country’s preeminent China watcher. And this is something that Bush was also deeply invested in as well, obviously being president. But before that being President Nixon’s special envoy to the People’s Republic of China, and as this director of the CIA and as vice president, China, always a big issue throughout President Bush’s career. Did Nixon offer any counsel to President Bush, as China especially was going through many of its economic and social changes at the time?
John Sununu: Well, one of the most critical pieces of advice from President Nixon came through one of the most difficult periods for George Bush; the Bush George Bush administration that occurred in ’89, In April of ’89, the protests in Tiananmen Square broke out. I think they lasted about six weeks into the first week of June. And certainly, the world reaction was one of really horror in terms of how aggressive the Chinese finally became at the end there and breaking up the protests with the tanks. And I think over 1,000 or 2,000 people were killed. And the immediate reaction, at least from amongst a number of the political figures in the US was huge sanctions and huge this and huge that. Everybody wanted an overwhelming response, and George Bush really recognized that it was important to think in the long-term.
And I do recall, I think the first week in June, maybe someday in the middle of the first week in June, Bush picked up the phone and called Richard Nixon just after the last horrible accident in the square is my recollection. And they had a long conversation and Richard Nixon cautioned the president to think in the long-term, to recognize how complicated Chinese leadership is and how Chinese leadership thinks in the long-term, but react in the long-term to things that they consider affronts in the short term. And so he urged the president to create a process in which there could be a informal continuation of communication even while the world was condemning what was going on in China. And Bush wisely responded with…attempt at response, he wrote a pretty tough letter to Deng Xiaoping, in the middle of the activities at Tiananmen.
And then he wrote…my recollection is he wrote a second letter following the conversation with President Nixon. And then sent Scowcroft over to China a couple of months later in a quiet, but it ended up not staying quiet, visit to China to at least indicate to him, to the Chinese and to Deng in particular with a private conversation that was held in China, that the U.S. would look forward to a resumption of a stronger relationship if the Chinese could clean up their act. And then basically return themselves to being a nation not seen as so abusive to their own people but one that recognized human rights within China. And the Chinese gave lip service to that, they moved in that direction. And a lot of the ability of the world to have any influence in China and investment in China, and participate in bringing China into letting its people have a little bit more open society and more economic freedom at least was triggered by the response of George Bush to a very difficult situation with a response that was very consistent with the recommendations he received from Richard Nixon.
Jonathan Movroydis: President Nixon, his primary interest was foreign policy. As president, he obviously had to deal with domestic policy as well. He was also the veteran of many political campaigns, at least three presidential campaigns and two vice presidential campaigns. Did he offer any advice, any counsel in this area in terms of getting things done politically, working with the Hill, campaigns? Did he offer any sort of advice in this area?
John Sununu: Well, it’s interesting. There’s an interesting parallel between Richard Nixon and George Herbert Walker Bush on the fact they both ended up being pretty good domestic presidents as well as foreign policy presidents. But their foreign policy has for a while overshadowed their domestic performances.
George Bush passed more domestic legislation than any American president except Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt, including the Civil Rights bill, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Clean Air Act, the budget bill that was so much criticized at the time that ended up generating for the country, the only surpluses that’s ever had in the last few decades. And Nixon started the EPA. He certainly focused on issues that were consistent with the changing economy. And so both the presidents did a lot domestically but didn’t quite get credit for it in the early years after they left office, but historians are beginning to give them credit for it.
In terms of advice, it’s one area that I never saw Richard Nixon interact directly with the president. But I received probably on half a dozen occasions as chief of staff, calls from President Nixon, commenting on issues that were going on. And generally, he threw a tidbit in there as to what he thought might be worthwhile on domestic issues.
I remember one time he wrote me, we were battling an environmental issue and he wrote me a long-handwritten letter telling me that the White House was right in holding on against extreme environmentalism. And the interesting thing about the letter that I always remember and I remembered about all the letters from Richard Nixon is the one that came in handwritten had an ever-increasing indentation as he went down the page. But he did comment on the phone to me on issues and in writing on domestic issues. And I think he expected me then, which I did of course take the message into the president. I think he communicated with the president directly on the foreign policy stuff and he took advantage of having a chief of staff that he felt comfortable talking to or writing to, to talk to about the domestic policy issues.
Jonathan Movroydis: They often call the relationship between presidents, a special club. Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, journalists, have called it a president’s club. It’s even the name of their book. What can the relationship between President Nixon and Bush who saw eye-to-eye on many things but not always saw eye-to-eye, teach us about political relationships, especially those at the presidential level today?
John Sununu: You know, presidents, former presidents and presidents understand that they have gone through something that only a handful of people, you know, in modern times have done. And they respect the fact that decision making in the White House is not a simple process. Pundits make it look simple when they write about it. Politicians who criticize make it look simple. But anybody who goes through the Nixon Library, anybody who goes through the George Herbert Walker Bush library, anybody who goes through any presidential library and takes the time to look at the White House process, understands how complicated it is. Former presidents recognize it immediately. And I have not seen any former president who was unwilling to take a call from a sitting president and not answer and give confidential advice whenever asked.
And I think obviously the closer the personal relationship to begin with, the more often those calls and questions will come, and certainly the closer the relationship, perhaps the more respected the advice will be treated. So it’s a special relationship. It’s a relationship based on shared experience, shared understanding of how complicated things are, and the welcoming when the president receives those kinds of recommendations or advice. I think it’s welcomed by any president. And one of the most important things in the whole process is that, traditionally that advice has been kept confidential. And I think that combination of respect and confidentiality makes the presidential relationships and the former presidential relationships involved in that, one of the great assets chief executives in the United States will have.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Governor John Sununu, former governor of New Hampshire and White House Chief of Staff to George Herbert Walker Bush. Our topic was, President Nixon’s policy counsel to the late President Bush and their relationship.
Governor Sununu, thank you so much for joining us today.
John Sununu: Thank you. Enjoyed doing it.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org on iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. This is Jonathan Movroydis signing off.