On June 21, Kevin Sullivan was in a meeting about education—most likely, since at the time he was assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the U.S. Department of Education. Anyway, it was 2 p.m. E.S.T. He got an e-mail on his Blackberry from Dan Bartlett, counselor to President George W. Bush and the man in charge of the White House Press Office and the offices of communications, media affairs and speechwriting. Bartlett told Sullivan he wanted to get together in precisely one hour. Sullivan didn't know why. Very little about his job at Education—which involved everything from the writing of speeches to running the Web site to doing P.R. work to dealing with everyone from mayors, special-interest groups and non-profits—involved his dealing directly with the White House. And his conversations with Bartlett never amounted to more than pleasantries in passing and Bartlett's mentioning to Sullivan how Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings always had nice things to say about him. So what, exactly, did Bartlett want on a Tuesday afternoon?
It took no more than 30 minutes for Sullivan to find out. It took no more than that for Bartlett to tell Sullivan, "I want to talk to you about Nicolle's job." Nicolle is Nicolle Wallace, who was White House communications director until late June, when she moved to New York to be with her husband, Mark Wallace, whom Bush had asked to join the U.S. delegation at the United Nations. Nicolle Wallace's job involved talking to the people Tony Snow, the press secretary, did not. Snow, the former Fox News anchor, handles the White House press corps, while Wallace talked to the out-of-towners calling for White House comment about something some Congressman said back home. That's when she wasn't involved in long-term strategy planning—preparing the talking points, figuring out how to spread the message, getting to the nitty-gritty of policy and trying to make it palatable for the public, hoping not to deal with a crisis. In short, and for those who prefer the visual aid: Tony Snow is C.J. Cregg, played by Allison Janney, while Nicolle Wallace was Toby Ziegler, played by Richard Schiff. If you watched The West Wing. Now the president wanted Kevin Sullivan to be his Toby Ziegler.
"And I immediatley said to Dan, 'I'll do it,'" Sullivan says. "I told him right away, it's an honor to be considered,' which I mean. I was just blown away at the thought that these guys wanted to consider me for that job." The disbelief in his voice is genuine; the sincerity too. The last thing a guy who ever worked for the Dallas Mavericks P.R. department ever expected was to get that same job in, ya know, the White House.
But that, more or less, is how Kevin "Sully" Sullivan got his job as White House communications director, which he officially begins July 24. More about Sullivan's transition from Reunion Arena to the White House after the jump. --Robert Wilonsky
Sullivan was with the Mavericks from the team's inception in 1980 and lasted 18 years, during the lean years, the mean years and in-between years that included the 1988 Western Conference Finals against Los Angeles. He spent the years between the NBA and D.C. at NBC, where he oversaw the network's major sporting events for and with Dick Ebersol, the second most powerful man at NBC behind only Robert Wright. And he's worked closely with Secretary Spellings, served as a Bush domestic policy planner during the president's first term and as his senior advisor while he was governor of Texas. And there are other minor details, absolutely; those in a second. But first, imagine the transition.
In 1996 you're trying to sell Jim Cleamons to the Dallas sports media and Maverick fans. In 2006 you're helping explain, decipher and, especially, defend the president's position on North Korea, Iraq, immigration and the rest of the bleeding world. Those are not the same jobs. This is not a lateral move. Do explain, Sully.
"Nicolle was actually involved in my recruitment from NBC in March 2005, because Spellings thought highly of Nicolle when they worked together during the first term," says Sullivan, who is known only as "Sully" to those who worked with him during his tenure with the Mavericks. "The secretary asked Nicolle to talk to me when I was considering the job with education. I knew Nicolle was so well-regarded, and it was amazing just to be considered for her job. So over the next two and a half weeks I met with a number of people, including the president a week ago today, and on Saturday they offered me the job. I don't know who recommended me to Dan. I guess it was, ya know, [Chief of Staff] Josh Bolten's open to new ideas and a fresh perspective, and I guess it was Margaret Spellings' recommendation, since she's held in really, really high regard by the White House staff."
It is here that perhaps it's necessary to interject the following: Whatever your political prejudices, keep them in check for the moment. This is not a story about policy, or about the people who make and execute it, but about a guy genuinely liked, and rightly so, by the local media who dealt with him while he was with the Mavericks and found Sully to be nothing less than honest in every single encounter (perhaps one has to allow for the occasional exception, for the sake of fact-checking). In short, this is about a great guy getting a great job, not about how well he's doing it. He hasn't even started it.
Which means he hasn't quite prepared for it. Such a thing, he has been told, is impossible. Sullivan will try, on occasion, to compare and contrast his tenure with Don Carter's basketball franchise with his job in the White House. He will say things like, "The sports training is really good from the standpoint of you have things like deadlines and you work lots of nights and weekends," but you get the sense he doesn't buy it. Or he will say things like, "And you deal with crisis communication—and if Roy Tarpley isn't crisis communication, I don't know what is," and he will laugh, but you know he knows it isn't anywhere near the same thing. The closest he can come to describing what he means is when he says this:
"During my year in D.C. there is no question about people's commitment and devotion to the cause," he says. "We had this at Education, because nobody does it for the money, only the right reason—to make an impact." A note: Sullivan spoke this way before he moved away from Dallas. That's why he's in Washington now, probably the only guy to go from doing P.R. for Abdul Jeelani to spinning for George Bush. That's a guess. To continue:
"Well, at the Mavs we had the same belief in the cause, especially during the '90s," he says, referring to the 11-win seasons and rotating-door coaches. "You work every night and every weekend, and on game day you're there from 8:30 in the morning till 11 at night and back again in the morning. You had to be a true believer, so I like being around people who are committed. We had that the whole time I was there. The team was part of the community. You felt like you were part of something. And, sure, now you're talking North Korea or immigration or the economy, and the subject matter is more important, but there are similaries in sports. You have to believe in the cause."
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And, yes, when Sullivan met with Bush, they briefly spoke about the Mavericks. Bush asked Sullivan if he was working there the night owner Don Carter and general manager Norm Sonju hosted Bush in 1989, when he was among the group of investors buying the Texas Rangers. He sure was. But there was not much small talk. That's not exactly what a president needs out of his White House communications director.
For the next few days, then, Sullivan prepares for his job explaining the White House to the world, or at least most of the country. He has no idea what it'll be like. That much he knows about the job.
"I told Tony Snow, 'I know what I don't know,'" Sully says he told the press secretary after he accepted the position. To which Snow responded, according to Sullivan: "I thought I knew what I didn't know, but I had no idea." Nonetheless, says the man who was working for the Mavericks when Dick Motta was coaching Abdul Jeelani, Tom LaGarde, Geoff Huston, Jerome Whitehead and Winford Boynes to an opening-night stunner over San Antonio, only to win 14 more the rest of the season, it's kinda like...that.
"I never thought it would go this far," Sullivan says. "It's very humbling. Every time I walk into the White House my heart skips a beat. That's what Dick Motta said when he found out they were gonna have an expansion team in Dallas: 'My heart just skipped a beat.' I don't know why that just popped into my head."