By Robert Wilonsky, Dallas Observer
Jan 10, 2009
A decade ago, I interviewed Kevin Sullivan on his last day as the Dallas Mavericks' vice president of communications, a job he'd held for 18 years — since the team's inception in 1980. It seemed like a good idea to do another exit interview today, because Sullivan, pictured above with President Bush, will once more be out of a job a week from today. He will still hold the title of White House Communications Director till January 20, and there will still be work in need of finishing, but come next Friday, Sullivan will be out of the West Wing. After all, desks need to be cleaned out and walls need to be cleared off in advance of the next administration's move-in date, 11 days from now. The West Wing will need a fresh coat of paint.
In these waning days of the Bush Administration, for which Sullivan has worked since May 2005, he has not yet many chances for reflection. Only yesterday, Sullivan accompanied the president and First Lady to General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia, where he delivered a speech about No Child Left Behind -- echoing one of Bush's first speeches as president concerning education reform. Following that, there were other duties to which Sullivan attended, including setting up Bush's interview with his hometown newspaper.
Yet, for a moment upon his return to D.C. from Philadelphia, Sullivan realized that, yeah, this just might be his final trip aboard Air Force One. And, for a moment, he got a little wistful. "I just thanked the crew," he tells Unfair Park today. "There were a few people who brought a camera. I did't think of it."
Does he wish he had?
"Yeah," he says. "Kinda."
As I've written many times before, Kevin Sullivan has always ranked among my favorite people in the world. He's among the most patient, loyal and thoughtful men with whom I had the pleasure of working, even when the job wasn't particularly pleasurable -- or perhaps you've forgotten the names Roy Tarpley, Jim Cleamons and Jim Jackson.
When Bush tapped him to become White House communications director in 2006, it was a jolt to those of us who who spent long hours in the bowels of Reunion Arena with Sully, as he was known then and now. Yet it made sense: Sullivan had worked with Don Carter since more or less the day he created the Dallas Mavericks out of thin air; why not the guy who used to own the Texas Rangers?
For the last two-and-a-half years, Sullivan's duties have been vast, from overseeing the White House Web site to approving press-conference backdrops to making sure the president was briefed and prepared before speeches and events at the White House. If an event took place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Sully was probably in charge of it -- White House Tee-Ball on the South Lawn remains one of his favorites.
He was working as assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the U.S. Department of Education when Dan Bartlett approached him about moving into the West Wing in June 2006. Since then, well, he's been in the White House during two of the most tumultuous years in modern American history -- a former Mavs man holding his own with the likes of Karl Rove. And what has he learned in his time in office? Everything. Some of which he will even share.
"This is what I want to do when I can sleep in — I want to reflect on all this stuff," he says. "The president was tested in a way very few presidents have been tested with one thing after another, and whether you like it or not, he made his decisions based upon what he believed to be in the best interest of America, not his political fortunes or personal popularity. Now, I want people to like me. It's part of my nature. But he made really tough decisions knowing they were going to be unpopular, and had to absorb the blow from the public and the media and Capitol Hill, and it never got to him. His spirit never wavered.
"And it was his spirit that propelled the whole place, and that's the most amazing thing. He came here with a set of values he promised he was not going to veer from. He listens to people. He gets a lot of counsel and makes a decision based upon that. People who say he's not inquisitive and stubborn, it's a bunch of malarky. And to watch him make these difficult decisions knowng they were unpopular and believeing they were in the best interest in the country was eye-opening, enriching."
Sullivan will, most likely, never write a book about his time in the White House; that's not the guy he is. Besides, I've been after him for years to write his Mavericks tell-all; Lord knows there are enough Bush books to last a lifetime.
For now, he will most likely go to work as a strategic communications consultant. White House press secretary Dana Perino likes to say that after working in the White House, a former staffer's shingle could read, "You Call That a Crisis?" Sullivan, who has two boys and two girls, will remain in D.C. till at least the school year's over. Then, he's not quite sure where he will land.
Of course, had you asked him during the Quinn Buckner glory year if one day he expected to be among the President of the United States' constant companions during one of the most definitive periods in American history, Sullivan probably would have said no to that as well. So, we shall see.
When Sullivan took the job, he told then-White House press secretary Tony Snow, "I think I know all the things I don't know about this job." Snow told him, "No, you don't." And he was right.
"I didn't want to be a tourist" while working in the White House, Sullivan says. "Like Michael Jordan, where sometimes his teammates would say they would stand around and just watch him. You have to keep your head in the game. It can't be, 'Gee, isn't it something? Wow, this is my last time on the plane.' You gotta keep your head in the game. It has been an extraordinary personal experience. Nothing will every match it. I've been incredibly blessed."
Sullivan sends an e-mail he received in September from Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton's former press secretary. It reads as follows:
"The time there flies fast. Take some time to enjoy and absorb the surroundings. You'll never work again in a completely interesting place where every colleague is a total super star. So savor it."