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Bush's Accomplishments 'Just Beginning To Be Appreciated,' Says His Chief Of Staff


We're continuing to remember the legacy of George H.W. Bush today. John Sununu was his chief of staff from 1989 to 1991. He wrote the book "The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency Of George H.W. Bush." John Sununu joins us now. Thank you very much for being with us today.

JOHN SUNUNU: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: This was your friend, so our condolences. And help us understand who he was, as far as you're concerned.

SUNUNU: Well, I think the best way to describe a net - net, if you will - and George Bush is that in a single term in a four-year presidency, he helped reshape the world and did wonderful things for America in terms of domestic legislation. And I am absolutely convinced that history will treat him a lot better than the early history of press - of the press treated him at the end of his administration. It was a great administration, and people are beginning to understand the impact it had.

SIMON: What was it like when he was confronted with trying to figure out the U.S. place in the world as the Berlin Wall came down and the world was - as we knew it was in such disarray?

SUNUNU: Well, he understood that this was a very important time in the world. He had a great sense of what had come before. He had been in World War II, understood the post-war relationships. He had served at the CIA. So he understood the details and the nuances of what had to be done probably better than anyone.

Reagan had set it all up by rebuilding America's defense structures, which clearly induced Gorbachev to start thinking about a better way to do things. And George Bush understood that in order to get that done, he was going to have to manage some very important and significant personalities - Gorbachev, Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl. All these folks had to be brought into a common understanding of the details of what had to be done.

And that's what George Bush did best. He worked with people and tried to make everything win-win for everyone. And I think, in an odd way, he made it look so easy that people don't appreciate how difficult a task he had.

SIMON: And let us note today, at a time of - I think everybody agrees - marked partisanship, he was president during a time when Democrats held majorities in Congress. How did he maneuver that?

SUNUNU: Well, it was 260-175 the Democrats held the House, 55-45 in the Senate. And he managed to pass more significant domestic legislation than any president except Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt.

We had that controversial budget agreement that took care of a real financial crisis for the U.S. He was able to pass the amendments to the Clean Air Act that had been stalemated for 13 years. He passed the Americans With Disabilities Act. He passed the Civil Rights Bill. He passed the legislation and the rules that opened up the energy structure in the country. His record of domestic legislation is quite amazing and, really, is just beginning to be appreciated by people.

SIMON: What was the key to his relationships with people who disagreed with him?

SUNUNU: He always put himself in the other person's shoes and tried to understand that there were two sides to everything and looked to make it win-win. And he was really good at that. He did it with Danny Rostenkowski on the budget. He did it with Mikhail Gorbachev on moving things quickly to a change. He did it with Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand, who were initially adamantly opposed to the reunification of Germany. And yet, he found a way to slowly but surely move them to a point.

And I think the reunification of Germany has been an underappreciated, significant act to that whole process. It really allowed Europe to come together and move forward as a unified structure.

SIMON: John Sununu, former governor of New Hampshire who was President Bush's chief of staff. Thank you so much for being with us, Sir.

SUNUNU: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.