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Paul O’Neill and the price of truth

Pay no attention to the backtracking that former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill has engaged in since his January 11 appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes. I’ve read the book that O’Neill took to the airwaves to promote — The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill, by journalist Ron Suskind. And it is every bit as incendiary as you’ve heard.

Consider the most damaging assertion — that Bush and his top advisers began plotting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein almost from the day they took office. After the 60 Minutes broadcast, the White House put out the word that it — like the Clinton administration before it — had merely engaged in long-range planning for the post-Saddam era. In an appearance on NBC’s Today show on January 13, O’Neill readily agreed, and disparaged the media for engaging in a "red-meat frenzy" over his remarks. Suskind, weirdly, went along.

In The Price of Loyalty, though, Suskind describes the Bushies’ obsession with Iraq, and O’Neill’s intense discomfort with that obsession. Suskind recounts the first meeting of Bush’s National Security Council, on January 30, 2001, and the "uncharacteristic excitement" expressed by Vice-President Dick Cheney over a photo of an Iraqi factory that CIA director George Tenet claimed was "a plant that produces either chemical or biological materials for weapons manufacture." Pressed by O’Neill, Tenet reportedly could produce no hard evidence. Or soft evidence. Or any evidence.

Noting Bush’s simultaneous desire to disentangle the United States from the endlessly complicated Israeli-Palestinian peace process and to dislodge Saddam, Suskind writes: "A major shift in U.S. policy was under way. After more than thirty years of intense engagement — from Kissinger and Nixon to Clinton’s last stand — America was washing its hands of the conflict in Israel. Now, we’d focus on Iraq."

And Suskind quotes O’Neill as saying, "Getting Hussein was now the administration’s focus, that much was already clear."

Much of The Price of Loyalty concerns efforts by O’Neill and his friend Alan Greenspan, chair of the Federal Reserve Board, to moderate the White House’s insatiable appetite for tax cuts for the rich. That effort proved unsuccessful even though Bush himself blanched at the idea of eliminating the tax on dividends (a favorite notion of Cheney’s), questioning the need to cut taxes for the rich yet again before giving in to the blandishments of his chief political adviser, Karl Rove.

Bush: "Didn’t we already give them a break at the top?"

Rove: "Stick to principle."

Suskind also recounts how O’Neill came to see himself, Environmental Protection Agency head Christie Whitman (since departed), and Secretary of State Colin Powell as the lone pragmatists, desperately trying to guide the president away from the disastrous course set by right-wing ideologues on issues ranging from global warming to war in Iraq.

A particularly telling passage concerns Whitman’s efforts — helped along by O’Neill — to drag the Bush administration into supporting some sort of anti-global-warming effort as required by the Kyoto Protocol. Ultimately, she failed. And when a group of right-wing Republican senators wrote to the White House to complain that any consideration was being given to global warming, O’Neill and Whitman detected the fine hand of Cheney.

"The letter’s brusque language, needlessly offending environmentalists, sounded like the Vice President," Suskind writes, channeling O’Neill. "The pertinent conclusions — that energy production was a first priority; that coal, the underappreciated national workhorse that produced half of the country’s power, needed protection; that lifting the burden of regulation was holy writ, and any carbon dioxide emission caps were a constraint on free, unfettered, essential American commerce — were the precepts Dick had encouraged in early meetings of the energy task force. His energy task force."

If Bush emerges from The Price of Loyalty as an incurious, scripted automaton with a penchant for bullying his underlings, Cheney comes across even worse — as a man who’s traded in the intellectual rigor O’Neill saw him display in earlier administrations in order to become an ideological warrior.

Cheney — who personally fired O’Neill — got his revenge for O’Neill’s subsequent disloyalty last week, telling the Los Angeles Times that O’Neill was a "big disappointment" as a cabinet officer. More substantively, the White House announced almost immediately that O’Neill would be investigated to determine whether any of the 19,000 documents he turned over to Suskind were classified; O’Neill insisted they were not.

O’Neill’s attempts to weasel out of the most controversial parts of Suskind’s book are remarkable. He even told Katie Couric he would "probably" vote for Bush this November, a stunning statement given the level of contempt he expresses for the president.

Those remarks are also totally at odds with The Price of Loyalty. O’Neill now appears to be trying to distance himself from it and to re-ingratiate himself with his old friends. So you might want to keep in mind that Suskind, in an "Author’s Note," writes that he allowed O’Neill to "read the finished manuscript to check for strictly factual errors. The few he spotted were corrected. His commitment to the accuracy of this book matches my own."

In other words, the book is as much O’Neill’s as it is Suskind’s. Read it and rage.

Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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