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The Big "O"
by Vincent Fiore
13 January 2004Paul O'Neill

Paul O'Neill's accusations sound like nothing more than a frustrated man's attempt at recognition.


This week, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill will debut his new book, The Price of Loyalty.  So on Sunday night, O'Neill began his promotion with 60 Minutes' Lesley Stahl conducting the interview.  In what has become the hallmark of O'Neill's tenure as Treasury Secretary, he let his thoughts be known regardless of consequence.  During the interview, O'Neill in essence characterized the President as a disengaged leader, equipped with a 100 word vocabulary and the ability to nod his head yes or no.  In his book, O'Neill underlines this outlook, saying Bush was like a "blind man in a room full of deaf people" and complaining that White House aides had to essentially divine the will of the President, or as he puts it, "blind man's bluff ."

So here is what will be thought of as a major impediment for Bush to handle during the campaign of 2004, a tell-all book from an “insider,” a fired cabinet member. Or is it? As a former CEO of Alcoa for 12 years, O'Neill was used to being in charge. Having worked in the Nixon and Ford administrations in positions at OMB, he had a taste of government and knew how it worked.  But as his time at Treasury clearly shows, none of those positions helped O'Neill navigate the halls of power and become an integral team player for the Bush administration.  Either unable or unwilling, O'Neill could never embrace James Carville’s recent adage of the "beauty of the unspoken thought."  Once introduced by Bush as a man with a "steady voice, who can calm people's nerves, calm the markets, and calm those who would speculate on the dollar," O'Neill was a continuing train wreck in slow-motion.

After being tapped to head Treasury in December of 2000, O'Neill promptly sent the US dollar into a tailspin when he opined to a German newspaper that the US was not interested in "pursuing a policy of a strong dollar."  In July of 2002, O'Neill assaulted the Brazilian currency markets by stating his belief that any loan from the International Monetary Fund to Brazil, "doesn't go out of the country to Swiss bank accounts."  Two days later, after the Brazilian currency markets lost 5% of its value, O'Neill turned a lame hand at redemption, remarking that the Brazilian government has been building "a strong foundation for real economic activity thanks to its remarkable job of maintaining sound fiscal and monetary policies."  But the damage had already been done.

During the collapse of energy giant Enron, O'Neill stunned Fox News Sunday host Tony Snow when he quipped regarding Enron's sudden fall, "companies come and go...its part of the genius of capitalism."  There are many other examples of O'Neill's tinplated political ear, but they all add up to an inability to communicate and be a team player.

The former Secretary also states the Bush administration was looking at removing Saddam Hussein from power within mere days after the 2001 inauguration.  This in itself is no surprise, yet it is treated as one by an incredulous media. The Pentagon, which is part of every administration, has been looking at options to remove Saddam since "regime change" became the official policy of the US government back in 1998 during the tenure of President Bill Clinton.  So when O'Neill says the President "was finding a way to do it," he is speaking of a policy created three years before Bush ever entered the White House.  It is a misleading and disingenuous statement at best.

Further, O'Neill statements belie the reporting of one of Washington's premier editors, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.  In Woodward's 2002 book, Bush at War, Woodward details a President who gave "specific answers, often very detailed" about his policies regarding the war on terrorism.  Woodward details how Iraq was off the table for the administration, and that Iraq would be dealt with later.  The President himself stated, regarding Iraq: “We have to be patient." (September 19, 2001).  In Woodward's book, he displays Bush's managing style and ability, which often included sitting back and letting his cabinet officers freely speak their minds, and having frequent one on one meetings with virtually anyone who asked, including Colin Powell, whose counsel Bush heeded and went the International route through the UN. Being a former CEO himself, Bush often runs cabinet meetings in this style.  As commander-in-chief, he would set the agenda and listen to proposals, and then make the decision, something that O'Neill should be intimately familiar with.

O'Neill's accusations sound like nothing more than a frustrated man's attempt at recognition. Ineffective as a positive force in the Bush White House, his book basically relates the tale of a man (namely himself) out of step in today's political arena and unable to work with others either his equal or above him in the power chain. O'Neill himself sat at many of these National Security meetings, as Woodward's book tells. The “unilateralist” charge is an old one, now being replayed yet again by the Democratic Presidential candidates who wasted little time in echoing O’Neill’s sound bites. To sum up Paul O'Neill's brief tenure as the Bush administration's Treasury secretary, one need not look further than his own words featured in a Washington Post editorial from August of 2002: "I'm constantly amazed that anybody cares what I do." Indeed.

Vincent Fiore is a freelance writer.

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