When John Sununu comes home from a hard day at the White House, he relaxes the American way: in front of the television.
"He's great at the clickah," Nancy Sununu reports in her thick Massachusetts accent, describing her husband's viewing style. "I think he watches probably six programs at once. He basically only watches Headline News. CNN. No editorializing. I think he just likes to watch what people think is the news of the day."
The Sununus, who live in Oakton, "watch a fair amount of television," Nancy says. John Sununu, whose favorite teams are the Yankees and Giants, loves watching sports; together they like " 'Family Ties' or Bill Cosby, 'Who's the Boss?,' some of these family programs that are kind of funny. 'Night Court' and 'Cheers.' We also watch a lot of the old black and white programs like 'The Donna Reed Show' and 'Dobie Gillis.' "
In some ways, the pair themselves seem a throwback to the black and white era of the 1950s, the time they were growing up. Washington glitz has no appeal for them, they say, and they don't much like to socialize here. Asked whether they ever have dinner with George and Barbara Bush -- just the four of them -- Nancy smiles gently. "We don't mix business and pleasure," she says.
John Sununu and Nancy Hayes met when they were freshmen in college. He was at MIT, studying mechanical engineering (he would go on to get a PhD, doing his thesis on the "Flow of a High Temperature, Variable Viscosity Fluid at Low Reynolds Number," which an MIT spokesman translates as the study of fluids flowing through pipes and pipelines). She was a physical education major at Boston University who found him "fun to be with." They were married at 20, had their first child the next year, and now have eight children in all: Catherine, 30; Elizabeth, 29; Christina, 27; John E., 26; Michael, 23; James, 21; Christopher, 16; and Peter, 11. The two youngest are still at home.
By all accounts, there are no rebels in the brood. When I mention this to Nancy Sununu, she knocks on wood. Kids, she says, live by example. You teach them right from wrong, she says. And then: "I don't think you ever really give up. I still look at my 25- or 30-year-old and say, 'I don't think you ought to wear that' . . . A lot of people feel that at a certain age, you kind of give up and let them be independent. I honestly believe that a child never likes to be totally independent, no matter what age.
"We never ask them how they register," she adds, but she knows they are all Republican. "Some of them are very, very conservative, but no, no Democrats."
The daughter of two schoolteachers from Brockton, Mass., Nancy Sununu seems to provide a kind of haven that allows her husband to survive in the free-fire zone. A tall, attractive woman with blue eyes and close-cropped hair, she is fond of saying things like "Whatever Johnny wants" or "If Johnny's happy . . ." I ask her whether she worries about his weight and his physique. He works from about 6:45 a.m. to 8, 9, midnight. Can she get him to work off some of that rage on a bicycle instead of a phone? Does she pull him away for vacations?
"People often say, well, you really ought to make him go on vacation," she says. "But if he's not ready to take that vacation, then it's not a vacation. He's miserable because he's thinking of things he should do. We're miserable because he's not happy. And my theory is that when he's ready to work out or exercise, then he'll do it, and it's only going to aggravate him to try and get him to do it before he's ready."
It's fairly old-fashioned, this view, but to see Nancy Sununu as her husband's doormat would be to miss a couple of things. First, she is a woman of strong views. And second, she's not afraid to express them.
I see a little of this when she talks about her one-time desire to challenge Rep. Chuck Douglas (R-N.H.). The Sununus have kept their family home in Salem, N.H., where they moved in 1969 to escape high taxes in Massachusetts. Nancy Sununu served on the school board there.
"I have known him over 15 years," she says of the thrice-married and thrice-divorced Douglas, "when he was married to his first wife, and his moral values then were not anything that I would even care to talk about with my children. And over the years, it hasn't gotten any better. In fact, worse." She is speaking matter-of-factly; this matter of morals is black and white with her. "I don't really feel that he represents New Hampshire people and New Hampshire values all that well."
She says she never talked about the possible challenge in detail with her husband, "although he knew what was going on because people talked to him too," and he said she should "do whatever I feel like doing." In the end, she decided her 11-year-old needed a little more time with her at home.
No matter -- as it turned out, she helped get rid of Douglas anyway. The congressman's Democratic opponent used a negative quote from the chief of staff's wife in a direct-mail piece late in the campaign. And though Nancy Sununu later said she didn't condone this, Douglas was beaten in a stunning upset, giving the seat to the Democrats for the first time since 1912.
CAPTION:Sununu family members on a skiing vacation.