Having been fired by President Bush as Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O'Neill is now trying to even the score, but he may hurt himself more than the president. 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 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. (O'Neill claims they were all cleared with the general counsel of the department.) And 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 O'Neill clearly had lost the president's confidence by the time he was pushed out, and for good reason. O'Neill had serious policy disagreements with his boss; the only mystery is why O'Neill didn't quit before he was fired.
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. O'Neill made his case directly to the president on a number of occasions, as Suskind describes in careful detail in the book. But the president ultimately rejected 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 economic growth. 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.
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. O'Neill's description of his first meetings with Bush, when he was still being considered for the job of Cabinet secretary, certainly differs from my experiences at roughly the same time.
Bush and O'Neill met at the Madison Hotel, which was also the venue for my interview with the president as well.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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