Treasury's loose tongue

Paul O'Neill: Blunt-speaking former CEO's rash comments have been a liability for Bush.

April 28, 2001

GOVERNMENT officials may be staffing the borders to prevent foot-and-mouth disease from reaching these shores, but there's been no stopping Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's rampant foot-in-mouth ailment from embarrassing the Bush administration.

Mr. O'Neill, a blunt and demanding former corporate CEO, keeps getting himself in hot water when he speaks. What comes out may not be in line with administration policy - or common sense.

He has insulted a Democratic senator, been lectured on proper Senate etiquette by another, infuriated market traders, panicked currency investors, alarmed bond traders, angered conservative Republicans, bollixed the administration's tax-cut message and thumbed his nose at his own flagrant conflict of interest.

All this in just 100 days. We shudder to think what comes next.

Were he not in such a sensitive post, Mr. O'Neill's foibles might make for light amusement inside the beltway. And there's no denying his independent thinking and eagerness to tell it like he sees it is refreshing.

But a treasury secretary's every word is parsed for intent and reassurance. His job is, in part, to bolster market confidence when it sags and soothe worried allies abroad. He's also the president's lead economic spokesman.

That places a heavy burden on Mr. O'Neill, 65, who still seems to think he can operate like an Alcoa autocrat instead of a diplomatic cabinet officer.

Government doesn't work that way, as Mr. O'Neill should recall from his years as deputy budget chief in the Ford administration. It takes patience, perseverance, artful statements and willingness to compromise to succeed. And it takes common sense.

For instance, Mr. O'Neill was the one cabinet secretary who refused to sell his stock investments. That raised the specter of an ethics problem down and road.

After months of sharp criticism, Mr. O'Neill said he'd dump his Alcoa stock, worth more than $100 million. But it was too late. Before Mr. O'Neill could act (he still hasn't), a favorable ruling by a federal agency sent the price of Alcoa up 20 percent, adding $23 million to the value of his holdings.

It doesn't make the treasury secretary look good.

Nor did he help his cause when he suggested last week that Washington could pay for tax cuts by selling Treasury bonds - borrowing money in order to give it away.

That screwball notion boggles the mind. It doesn't build confidence in the Treasury secretary's judgment.

Perhaps Mr. O'Neill's stumbles will subside as he gets comfortable in his job. We hope so.

A Treasury secretary with a loose lip is a liability for any administration, especially in uncertain economic times.

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