SAN FRANCISCO (01/27/2000) - Whatever the arena, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu comes armed with an opinion. And in his most recent transformation from political architect to Internet adviser, this former chief of staff for President Bush is quick to taunt.
"The Internet is one of the slowest technological evolutions in history," Sununu says. "The industrial revolution came along much faster." Nevertheless, Sununu claims kinship with his cyber cohorts. "That's me," he says. "I'm a geek."
Last week Sununu, 60, announced that he would advise the startup Grassroots.com, helping the Web site for political activism "cut through the red tape." While a startup with political leanings may seem like an obvious transition into cyberspace for the politician, it's hardly Sununu's first brush with technology. Having written a thesis called "The Flow of a High-Temperature Variable Viscosity Fluid at Low Reynolds Numbers," the future governor spent his youth conducting research for Owens-Corning on heat transfer, even as he completed a doctorate in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While working as a consultant after graduation - writing simulation software in Fortran - Sununu made his first leap into politics, running for one of New Hampshire's seats in the U.S. Senate in 1980. That bid failed, so in 1982 he ran again; this time, for governor. He won, and served three terms before being tapped by President Bush to become chief of staff - an appointment that came about because the governor had helped Bush win the 1988 New Hampshire primary.
Sununu quickly earned a reputation as the President's pit bull - always on the attack in defense of his boss, and refusing to back down from his beliefs, even if his behavior angered some members of his own party.
He seemed to walk with the president's favor curled tightly around him. But his rocky three-year tenure came to an abrupt end after the public learned that Sununu had used government planes for his personal and political use. After submitting a five-page letter of resignation, Sununu appeared to be a man without an upcoming fight. It was an uncomfortable position for so opinionated a man.
Yet before Republicans could sweep out his ghost, Sununu found a new platform from which to cast judgment. "I was driving over to Crossfire and listening to NPR, and they were describing that Sununu had just resigned," says Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate and former cohost of the CNN show. "They said he was smart, conservative and aggressive, and I thought, 'That sounds perfect.'" Opinions are the game on political television; agreeable guests and friendly chatter make for poor ratings. Sununu kept the numbers on Crossfire high by provoking liberal ire. "He was very snarly," says Kinsley, who was the show's left-wing voice. "He's legendarily a tough character, although he was perfectly nice personally."
After leaving the show, Sununu returned to work as a consultant and has now leapfrogged on to the Internet. And he's shown that he's as comfortable with programming as with policy. While leaving Grassroots.com's coding to its programmers, Sununu spends his downtime writing software to solve a legendary code from Thomas Jefferson's writings that leads to treasure buried in Virginia. Sununu has already spent three years tinkering with the code.
Even armed with the language of this new science, though, Sununu may find a clash of style between his antagonism and Silicon Valley's laid-back manner.
"Of all the Washington types clamoring aboard the good ship Cyberspace, he's very qualified," Kinsley adds. "Though I would like to be a fly on the wall when John Sununu starts interacting with the Silicon Valley types."
With Grassroots.com off the ground with its first round of funding, and investments in other, unnamed Internet startups, the game has already begun.
However, for the former governor, it's never fun until the words fly.
"He doesn't say something purely for provocative impact," says Perla Ni, cofounder of Grassroots.com.
Perhaps - but once Sununu decides to make a point, he doesn't let go. "With all due respect to the people in this Internet revolution who are patting themselves on the back, I keep reminding them that the Arpanet has been around for 30 years," he says, mentioning the early precursor to the Internet. "This is not the fastest."
And so, before an opponent has entered the ring, round one goes to Sununu.