O'Neill's sour grapes

January 15, 2004|By Linda Chavez

WASHINGTON - Having been fired by President Bush as secretary of the Treasury, Paul H. O'Neill is now trying to even the score, but he may hurt himself more than the president.

Mr. O'Neill's collaboration with former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind on the book The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill may soon land Mr. O'Neill in a heap of trouble.

The Treasury Department is already investigating whether the former secretary improperly took government documents with him when he left, some of which may have been classified. (Mr. O'Neill claims they were all cleared with the general counsel of the department.) And Mr. O'Neill's public appearances to date have made him look both petty and clueless.

It's no fun getting dumped by the White House - I know, I've had some experience on this score when I was nominated to be secretary of labor in 2001. But like it or not, presidential appointees serve "at the pleasure of the president," and Mr. O'Neill clearly had lost the president's confidence by the time he was pushed out - and for good reason. Mr. O'Neill had serious policy disagreements with his boss.

Mr. O'Neill was an implacable foe of tax cuts in the face of a growing deficit, brought on by a recession and the war on terrorism. Mr. O'Neill made his case directly to the president on a number of occasions, as Mr. Suskind describes in careful detail in the book.

But the president ultimately rejected Mr. O'Neill's deficit-hawk approach and went for a second round of tax cuts, which are now roundly credited with helping spur the economy out of recession and back to strong growth. Mr. O'Neill could have quit then - or at any point he felt he couldn't carry out the president's agenda. But he didn't. He hung on until Vice President Dick Cheney called him in to ask for his resignation.

Mr. O'Neill's description of the inner workings of the Bush White House and Cabinet is certainly fodder for the administration's critics. He depicts the president as disengaged, lacking intellectual curiosity and much personal warmth. But his description of his first meetings with Mr. Bush, when he was still being considered for the job of Cabinet secretary, certainly differs from my experiences at roughly the same time.

Mr. Bush and Mr. O'Neill met at the Madison Hotel, which was also the venue for my interview with the president.

Mr. Suskind describes, accurately, the cat-and-mouse game of sneaking potential appointees into the hotel through the underground garage and up service elevators, undetected by the press corps keeping watch outside. But the George W. Bush whom Mr. O'Neill met with seems very different from the one I encountered just a few days later. Mr. O'Neill's George W. Bush is aloof, uninformed and downright unlikable.

Mr. O'Neill's account, as Mr. Suskind relates it, has Mr. Bush ordering Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. around like a servant, more interested in securing a cheeseburger than in asking his prospective Treasury secretary any substantive questions.

"Bush looked impatiently at Card, hard-eyed. `You're the chief of staff. You think you're up to getting us some cheeseburgers?' Card nodded. No one laughed. He all but raced out of the room," Mr. Suskind writes.

The scene was certainly nothing like what I encountered. Mr. Bush and Mr. Card displayed an amiable, almost bantering relationship, and Mr. Bush was not only personable but well prepared to talk substance on labor policy with me. He asked good questions and had clearly done his homework on me, reciting some of my more controversial positions on everything from minimum wage laws to affirmative action. It was very much a two-way conversation.

Mr. O'Neill now says that he wishes he had not described the president's performance in Cabinet meetings as "a blind man in a room full of deaf people." Mr. O'Neill told NBC's Katie Couric on Today Tuesday, "If I could take it back, I'd take that back because it's become the controversial centerpiece. And I'm afraid that it will cause people to have an impression without actually reading the book."

And Mr. O'Neill admits he'll probably vote for the president in November. "I don't see anybody that strikes me as better prepared and more capable," he told Ms. Couric. He may be bitter, but apparently he's not stupid.

Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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