The Personal in Politics

John Sununu, chief of staff for President George H.W. Bush and one-time governor of New Hampshire, talks in a Tufts podcast about campaigning and the road ahead for Republicans and Democrats

Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.

Recorded the week before the death of President George H.W. Bush, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, who served as Bush’s chief of staff from 1989 to 1991, reminisced in this episode about his time spent with the late president while Bush campaigned for the all-important New Hampshire primary. Sununu also shares his predictions for the 2020 presidential race, weighing in on whether a Republican should contest President Trump for the GOP nomination.


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HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.

The week before the death of President George H.W. Bush, Tufts University’s Chris Swan spoke with former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, who served as President Bush’s chief of staff from 1989 to 1991. Sununu reminisces about his time spent with the late President Bush while campaigning for the all-important New Hampshire primary, reflecting on the “face-to-face” style that he says works well in his state. He recalls how President Bush met voters over breakfast at McDonald’s, Denny’s, Dunkin’ Donuts—sometimes as many as five restaurants on any given morning.

And looking ahead, Sununu considers the crowded Democratic field for 2020—and whether a Republican should contest President Trump for the nomination. Let’s listen in.

CHRIS SWAN: Today, I am happy to welcome John Sununu, former Governor of New Hampshire, from 1983 to 1989, and a very interesting piece here—chief of staff for President George H.W. Bush, back in eighty-nine to ninety-one. And I want to get right to it. So let’s talk about elections. We are looking ahead to these upcoming elections in 2020. How important is New Hampshire?

JOHN SUNUNU: Well, you can’t get to be president if you don’t win the New Hampshire primary, and I think there’s only one exception to that. So, it is important. It is a great process that we have that allows candidates, that may not be the candidate of the big money, to come in and build up a little bit of a name and a reputation so that they can go elsewhere after doing well in New Hampshire and be supported.

SWAN: I wanted to ask you, how does one actually campaign in New Hampshire for a presidential election?

SUNUNU: Well, in New Hampshire, a lot of the campaigning is what I call “see me, touch me, feel me” campaigning. It is face-to-face. John McCain, for example, had 300 and some odd town meetings where a couple of hundred people would come and he would talk about what he was interested in and walk around afterwards and try and shake as many hands, and look as many people in the eye.

When George Herbert Walker Bush lost in Iowa, and we had ten days in New Hampshire to pull it all together for him, I made him go to three, four, five breakfasts every morning. The press thought it was crazy, but he would go to McDonald’s, Denny’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and walk around, shake hands with everybody and talk to everybody while they were having a coffee and a donut.

It is that personal contact that has to be a significant part of your campaign. It’s not everything, but without that, nothing else you do up there will work.

SWAN: Let’s talk about the candidates if you will. First, the Republican side: Do you see anyone trying to run against Donald Trump in 2020?

SUNUNU: Oh, I’m sure there will be a handful of folks that want to oppose the president. I suspect you might see Ben Sasse, you might see John Kasich, and a couple of others, but it is hard to beat a sitting president in New Hampshire for the primary, although Lyndon Johnson did beat Gene McCarthy roughly 60 to 30, but he thought that Gene McCarthy’s 30 was so significant, he dropped out. That has happened. But it’s tough to beat them in New Hampshire.

SWAN: You mentioned a couple of good names there. I was wondering was: there anyone that you think should actually run against Donald Trump?

SUNUNU: No, at this stage, I really think party division would be a horrible mistake for the Republicans, and it really obviously depends on the next two years, but I’m not going to be throwing out names to oppose the president at this stage.

SWAN: OK. Now, go the other side: Democrats. Twenty-something [candidates]—how many ever you want—who do you think will be running?

SUNUNU: Everybody, and they will all be trying to buy a constituency. You’ll hear the greatest collection of, I think, giveaway policies that you’ve ever seen. We’re going to pay off your tuition loans. We’re going to give you free health care. We’re going to put everybody that comes across the border on every welfare program in the country.

I think the Democratic Party has a dilemma. They did well in the Congressional races because those are much more local. But when they try and put a national agenda together, they’re going to find that the extreme wing of their party is tugging them awfully hard and they’re going to suffer the same kind of pain that Republican suffered for a long while with the hard right tugging on the right flank of the Republicans.

SWAN: So let’s expand this. Instead of asking this question as to who should run, who do you fear, if you will, or who do you think may have the greatest opportunity to actually take out the sitting president?

SUNUNU: No name that’s out there, in my opinion, comes to the top of the pile at this stage. If you asked me who the frontrunners are, I would say it’s Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, and they’re both octogenarians—or almost octogenarians, which is not a good place for the party to be.

SWAN: Let’s reflect back on your stint at the White House as the chief of staff for George H.W. Bush. What are your impressions of the United States’ current political climate? Compare that to what you saw when you were there in the eighties and nineties.

SUNUNU: Well, look, there’s always an evolution in process. And I have to put everything in the context of how presidents communicate. Franklin Roosevelt discovered the radio and went to his fireside chats to go directly to the people. And then John Kennedy discovered network TV, used it brilliantly. Bill Clinton discovered cable TV, tucked his saxophone under his arm and went on all those shows and talked directly to his constituency. Barack Obama was the first to make use of social media—he did it in a broad sense. And now you have Donald Trump discovering that every morning this 50 million people who wake up to see what the dear leader has tweeted.

So, this process of communication has become much more targeted to people and yet more remote because you’re not looking at them in the eye. As a result, I think it’s caused a much more of a sharpness to occur in the discourse. Everybody can have their own Twitter account and argue with 20,000 people that they’ve never even seen and be as obnoxious to them as they want and never suffer the response of a tough stare back.

And if you’re not looking at somebody when you’re having this kind of an argument, you tend to be much more obnoxious, much more unwilling to listen to the other side at all, and much more unwilling to come to common discourse.

I’ve said that the problem in the country is not trying to figure out how to come together. The problem in the country is to figure out how we can continue to stand apart, but in a civil manner with civil discourse. We’re never going to obliterate differences. We’re going to be apart in issues and desires for policy. But what we have to do is not try to figure out how to erase the differences, but how to argue for compromise in a civil way.

SWAN: To touch on that compromise and that common ground, I know that you did this when you were chief of staff and that you were able to broker deals, if you will, on the Clean Air Act and certain things. How do you think we can find such common ground for some of our issues that we face today—infrastructure, other areas that we may find of interest?

SUNUNU: Well, I think the first thing you do is you at least argue a little bit about settling on a common fact-based database. And I think that’s the easy part, and I don’t see people doing that, unfortunately. But if we have an infrastructure problem, let’s find out what it really is. Look, everybody likes to fudge the data, and we do have an infrastructure problem. For example, we need to redo our bridges and so on.

But stop giving me statistics on how unsafe our bridges are, where a significant portion of that statistic is that the approach to the bridge is not up to the latest highway standards. And stop making the public feel that every bridge they’re going to cross is going to fall down and next month or so. We have to go back and get an honest set of data so we know what we honestly need to do and how we can prioritize the assets that we have in order to address those problems. That’s not being done, and it’s not being done because, frankly, a lot of the people that are involved in this process have never had to do anything constructive before they got to legislate what this country needs.

SWAN: So we reflect back on your own personal history. You are the first Arab-American governor of New Hampshire. Can you speak to the topic of immigration reform?

SUNUNU: Well, actually, a more interesting piece of information: I’m the first governor in New Hampshire whose last name ended in a vowel except for a couple of silent e’s from my predecessors.

When I went to Washington to talk to the consultants about running, they said there is no way you’re going to get elected in New Hampshire with a name like Sununu. Then twenty years later, my son got elected senator and everyone said, well, the only reason he got elected in New Hampshire is his name was Sununu. So, names work in funny ways.

Look, immigration is an important component to the growth of America, but it’s got to be legal immigration. My grandparents came through Ellis Island; they came through the process. I have lots of relatives that have come through the gateway in New York, and that’s an important part of the process.

This idea that we allow compassion to justify doing things in a way that are improper, I think, is a false sentiment that is hurting the country across the board. We can have compromise on immigration legislation if people stop trying to justify illegalities. We have always been a country that has wanted to have a process that brings you through the door, not over the fence.

SWAN: If you could pick a policy that existed in the country today that you could rewrite, what would it be?

SUNUNU: In an odd way, I’ll give you a policy related to the academic world. I think we have created a structure where the federal government has gotten involved in higher education to the point where we’ve imposed so many requirements that. . .  Look, I chaired the finance committee here at Tufts for five years. I would have departments come to me and, say, well, they’re demanding we have counseling, we need nine counselors. No, you don’t need nine counselors; you need eight counselors. And yet people have used federal imposition of what seemed to be good ideas on the higher education community to the point where the price of higher education has gone through the roof. And take all those policies that are related to getting an education on a campus like Tufts, let’s go back and unwind them a bit so that we’re not looking at $80,000 a year requirements to come here.

SWAN: So, let me ask a question associated with your time here at Tufts. Again, you were here from 1966 to 1982 and—

SUNUNU: I refer to those as the golden years.

SWAN: They were great years on this campus. I’ll go with that. And you served both as a professor in the mechanical engineering department and as well as associate dean in the School of Engineering—at that time of a college of engineering. What would be your message today to the students who want to get involved in politics?

SUNUNU: Well, first of all, they ought to make a distinction in the head if they want to get involved, whether they want to get involved in public service in government versus getting involved in politics, going seeking elected office, and they’re really two different avenues of approach. 

But frankly, get yourself prepared in your profession, know what you’re talking about, and then go do it because the circumstances of the moment will be much more important in dictating whether you succeed or not than any advice I can give you.

SWAN: Let me probe this a little further. As an engineer, I am one, I know that you are one as well. I’m curious as to whether or not you favor engineers over other disciplines who may be interested in politics—or the other way around.

SUNUNU: Well, I favor a good mix in politics. It needs a little of everything, but there are certainly right now, far too few people that are quantitatively literate. It is amazing that a lot of legislation is crafted without people understanding what the numbers they’re putting in the legislation really mean or demand or imply or force people to do.

So right off the bat, I think engineers can make a contribution by being part of the process and bringing to the table a little bit of quantitative literacy, a little bit of problem-solving capacity, a little bit of synthesizing pieces of a solution together to get an overall solution. And I think there are significant aspects of the discipline that would be very significantly appreciated in the process. There’s far too few of us in the game, and I know of three, but there’s too few of us in the game.

SWAN: All right, so let me get to the final question here. We’d love for you to tell us one more thing about yourself that people don’t know. It can be anything.

SUNUNU: Well, I started collecting baseball cards at the age of nine, and I’m still collecting baseball cards and I have a really great baseball card collection.

SWAN: I too have a baseball card collection, but I stopped collecting after a while. So, I’d like to thank John Sununu for coming in today. I appreciate it.

SUNUNU: Thank you. This has been fun.

HOST:  Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, and Dave Nuscher. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Anna Miller recorded this interview with Governor Sununu. Production support provided by 5 to 9 Media. Special thanks to the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and the School of Engineering. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time, be well.

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