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All Things Considered

John H. Sununu Recalls Barbara Bush, ‘The Rock of the Family’

Charles Tasnadi / AP

Former First Lady Barbara Pierce Bush, who died Tuesday at the age of 92, traveled to New Hampshire often to support her husband's presidential campaigns—and those of her sons, former President George W. Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. She was more than just the matriarch of a political dynasty, former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu recalls. 

Sununu, who served as Chief of Staff to President George H.W. Bush, joined All Things Considered host Peter Biello to share his thoughts on Mrs. Bush.

Tell us about your relationship with Barbara Bush while you worked at the White House. What was it like?

Well, I was very lucky. Historically some chiefs of staff and first ladies have not gotten along very well, but I had, when I was governor, had a chance to interact a great deal with the president and the first lady. And at that time the second lady, she was the wife of the vice president, and we got to know each other pretty well. So by the time I got to the White House, after having been a key part of the 1988 campaign as well, we had a very comfortable and very close relationship, which I'm proud to say we've maintained through the years.

And when did you see her most recently?

I was lucky enough to have dinner with Barbara Bush and the President a couple of weeks ago. I was at Texas A&M at the Bush Library. I did a two-day presentation for them on a Presidential Scholars series. And I was there with Andy Card (Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush) and we both were invited by the President and Mrs. Bush to have dinner with them in their little apartment at Texas A&M above the library the evening of March 8th. And, in retrospect, I am thrilled to have had that chance.

Describe her role and her influence in the Bush family. She's often called the enforcer?

Well, she's more than that. She is the rock of the family. 

Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR
Former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, while attending the Governor's inauguration in 2017.

And, frankly, the hub that connects all the pieces and the president and all the family count on her of being there to do that. She is a bit of a disciplinarian, as the children and grandchildren have attested too. But basically, it's more than ... I don't think her intention is just to be a disciplinarian, but it's one that sets the guidelines. She believes there is a right way to live your life and to deal with people and wants all the family to do it the right way and I think they may jokingly complain about it, but I think they were all thrilled that she's doing that.

And she's been coming here to New Hampshire for decades, for at least three Bushes running for president. What are your favorite memories of Barbara Bush here in New Hampshire?

Well, there's a lot of them, from the early campaign in '88, where we were getting the then vice president and Mrs. Bush acclimated to what I call the 'see me, touch me, feel me' style of campaigning that's important in New Hampshire. And she took to it. The first night in Concord, prior to the primary in '88, we had taken a furniture store and kind of made a living room setting out of one of the furniture displays, and I think 3,000 people walked through that night and had a Polaroid picture taken with the vice president and Mrs. Bush, and she stood through that whole process with a smile on her face. And really just made people feel that they were talking to somebody who genuinely cared about them.

And what about New Hampshire Republicans. How is the brand the Bush family brand of politics shaped Republicans here in New Hampshire?

Well, Republicans in New Hampshire are self shaping almost every election cycle.

But for the time being, when the president was vice president and then in the White House, I think the Republicans in New Hampshire considered themselves Bush Republicans. That may have drifted away a little bit over the years, and certainly Jeb Bush didn't find as receptive an audience for his primary battle. But it's interesting, going back to Barbara Bush, when he found it was going to be difficult, the secret weapon he tried to bring in to revive things, although she revived it a bit she didn't change it completely, he brought Barbara Bush in, and it was at least for that period of time a shot in the arm for his campaign because, once again, her personal relationship with the Republicans that New Hampshire was quite beneficial to Jeb.

And you obviously come from a very political family yourself. How did the Bush family inspire or instruct you, if at all, on how you've guided your children in political life?

I think the Bush family has been a good example to anyone who's involved in politics. Barbara Bush and George Bush managed I think to be combative in politics without being personal. And I think that the attribute that we in the Sununu family have tried to employ over the years. I think Governor Sununu today Governor Chris Sununu, certainly is a great example of it. Senator John Sununu, when he was there, was a great example. And the Bush family has been close to our family and I think served as a good model for that kind of interaction. 

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