WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush's inner circle had been braced for weeks for Paul O'Neill's kiss-and-tell book, and so was not surprised when he attacked the president he served. From the Bush administration's first day, O'Neill as secretary of the Treasury proved nothing but trouble. He was Dick Cheney's big mistake.
O'Neill never would have been considered for the Bush Cabinet had it not been for Vice President Cheney, his colleague in government dating back to the Nixon administration's first year. Cheney realized immediately that O'Neill at the Treasury was no team player but a disruptive influence opposing the president's plans while poisoning morale in his own department. O'Neill, as protagonist in "The Price of Loyalty" by journalist Ron Suskind, repays his patron, the vice president, by describing him as a sinister force.
O'Neill choosing as his amanuensis Suskind, who embarked years ago on a deconstruction of the Bush White House, suggests vindictiveness after being sacked late in 2002. The book has attracted the most attention by asserting the Bush team was preparing to attack Iraq even before 9/11, but O'Neill by his own admission offered little input to foreign policy. Suskind is inadvertently most valuable in exposing O'Neill's role as the president's hair shirt, not his advocate, on economic policy.
It was predictable. O'Neill, a career bureaucrat who left government for private business and wealth as Alcoa's CEO, entered the Treasury fully committed against much of George W. Bush's campaign platform. He had argued for higher taxes dating back to the first President Bush and passionately pressed for radical action against global warming.
During 12 years in Pittsburgh running Alcoa, O'Neill had no contact whatever with the Republican Party. The single telephone call ever placed to him by Sen. Rick Santorum, the Pittsburgh area's prime Republican, was not returned. The problem with Republicans at the Treasury over the last 35 years has been that few had anything to do with politics. Bill Clinton's first two holders of that portfolio, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and the celebrated Robert Rubin, were Democratic activists.
Arthur Laffer, the pioneer supply-side economist who had worked closely with O'Neill at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), telephoned a Bush transition official with a warning. While O'Neill is extraordinarily smart and a master of bureaucratic maneuver, said Laffer, he is undependable, has no frame of reference and promises vast trouble ahead.