Robert Novak

Cheney, a close friend of Laffer, was aware of this assessment. Why, then, did Cheney press O'Neill on an unsuspecting Bush? Cheney, O'Neill and Donald Rumsfeld had worked together in both the Nixon and Ford administrations. But Cheney was also being too clever by half. Alan Greenspan, another colleague of Ford days, was O'Neill's friend. Cheney hoped the Treasury secretary might deter Federal Reserve Chairman Greenspan from inflicting the same damage on the new President Bush that helped defeat his father for re-election. In fact, Greenspan joined O'Neill in undermining Bush tax policies.

For nearly two years, O'Neill was a loose cannon in a regimented administration -- retained that long because Bush does not like to fire anybody he appoints. After the 2002 elections when I had been told that O'Neill soon would "resign," he was still traveling the globe and declaring the need for tax increases.

Having turned over thousands of documents to Suskind, O'Neill finds himself bewildered that the book became an anti-Bush screed. Whether Suskind's detailed accounts of White House meetings come from documents, O'Neill's notes or interviews with O'Neill is unclear. But participants who are no longer in the government told me Suskind had many things wrong, especially Bush portrayed in one meeting as worried about his last tax cut favoring the rich.

Has anything been learned from Cheney's big mistake? While a contrarian seated at the table may be useful, it should not be the secretary of the Treasury. O'Neill's successor, railroad magnate John Snow, is a non-contrarian loyalist but appears to have disappeared from sight. If Bush is re-elected, he needs a voice at the Treasury to address and support him on tax, Social Security and Medicare reform. Paul O'Neill's reappearance on the Washington stage demonstrates how badly he failed in that role.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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