NEW YORK — Sitting in what "Crossfire" sidekick Michael Kinsley has dubbed the "Pat Buchanan memorial chair" has given John Sununu new faith in the humorous side of fate.
"I'm a strong supporter of George Bush, obviously," said Sununu, the former White House chief of staff. "To be here, commenting on Pat Buchanan's candidacy, is one of the pleasant ironies of life."
Sununu replaced Buchanan last week as the conservative slugger on Cable News Network's nightly opinion-talk show, which Buchanan abandoned when he hit the campaign trail to challenge Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. "It proves," Sununu said, laughing, "there is a God."
It also proves that the relationship between punditry and politics is growing increasingly closer. At a time when the stinging sound-bite dominates political campaigns and voters are expressing disapproval of many elected leaders, the TV pundit has gone from the Sunday-morning talk-show "ghetto" to prime time--and, in Buchanan's case, into primaries. TV programmers, meanwhile, are tapping newsmakers to be talk-show hosts.
Besides Sununu, for example, CNN recently signed former Democratic Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson to host his own talk show, "Both Sides With Jesse Jackson."
"There always has been a symbiotic relationship between the press and power brokers," said Rick Davis, executive producer for CNN's Washington-based interview programs. "If you ask a lot of columnists, I'm sure they'd tell you that they often get ideas for columns from their friends on Capitol Hill or someone in the Administration or someone who's on the same side of the fence ideologically."
Sununu resigned as White House chief of staff in December, under fire for a series of controversies, including his handling of domestic policies and personal use of government transportation. He had remained on Bush's staff as a counselor until Feb. 28, traveling with the President during his recent campaigning in New Hampshire.
Having someone with such close ties to the Bush Administration on "Crossfire" is different from assigning him to the White House beat, Davis said. "With a reporter, you're not supposed to be able to tell where they're coming from in terms of their own views," he said. "On 'Crossfire,' John Sununu is a commentator--he was hired for his opinions, and he's not hiding them."
Sununu was surprisingly relaxed on camera during his first week--and surprisingly soft-spoken in an interview, for a man who was said to have ruled the White House staff with an iron grip, at times even overruling Cabinet-level officials on policy matters.
'I'm enjoying myself, but I would almost rather be a guest every night," he said of the new job on CNN. "It's easier to answer questions than to ask them--it takes less preparation."
During a "Crossfire" discussion last week of the Seattle Times' printing allegations of sexual harassment from several unnamed former employees of Sen. Brock Adams (D-Wash.), Sununu expressed strong views on the power of the press to "overwhelm anyone, even a senator of the United States" with stories quoting unnamed sources. But off-camera, Sununu did not rise to the bait of critiquing the news media or discussing whether he felt they "got" him with leaks from his opponents in the White House.
"I don't want to talk about the press relative to me personally," said Sununu, who is planning to write a book on the news media. "Sometime when I'm good and ready, I'll do it my way, under my conditions. I would prefer to discuss (the press) the way I've described: I'd like to have your $19.95."
But Sununu said that he considered many White House correspondents quite capable--among them Helen Thomas of United Press International, Brit Hume of ABC and Frank Sesno and Charles Bierbauer of CNN. "I'm not pretending to be a journalist; I'm a commentator and questioner," he noted.
Kinsley, the New Republic columnist who is cast as the liberal pugilist in "Crossfire" debate, suggested Sununu as a replacement for Buchanan after Buchanan decided to run for President.
"I heard on the radio that Sununu, the combative conservative, had resigned," Kinsley recalled. "I thought he sounded like what we were looking for on 'Crossfire.' "
Kinsley said he did not have any qualms about a Bush strategist commenting on the presidential campaign. "The fact that John worked at the White House is sort of a plus," he said. "The President of the United States has had no defender on 'Crossfire' in the past couple of years; Buchanan was sometimes stuck with me defending President Bush."
In his first week, Kinsley said, Sununu was "extremely pleasant and painfully accommodating. He's obviously been leaning over backwards. His reputation is as an ogre and some sort of madman. I'm sure the producers are hoping a bit of that will come out on the air."
Buchanan recently said that he intends to take his Presidential campaign all the way to the California primaries in June. His job at CNN, network executives have said, will be waiting for him when he returns--presuming, of course, that he doesn't get elected.
"I don't have any political ambitions myself," said Sununu, a former governor of New Hampshire. "When Buchanan returns, I'll step off 'Crossfire.' I just thought it would be interesting to be here during a political year."