At 2 p.m. on June 21, Kevin Sullivan was in a meeting about education--appropriate, since at the time he was assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the U.S. Department of Education. 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. 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. Her 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 immediately 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.
Sullivan--who 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--was with the Mavericks from the team's inception in 1980 and lasted 18 years. But imagine: In 1996 you're trying to sell Jim Cleamons to the Dallas sports media and Mavericks 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 world. Those are not the same jobs. This is not a lateral move.
He has spent the last week trying to prepare for the job, but 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 make jokes: "You deal with crisis communication--and if Roy Tarpley isn't crisis communication, I don't know what is," and he will laugh. And he will be sincerely thoughtful: "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...And, sure, now you're talking North Korea or immigration or the economy, and the subject matter is more important, but there are similarities 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 will prepare 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,'" Sullivan 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."