Incurious George

The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, The White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill By Ron Suskind, Simon & Schuster, 348 pages, $26.00

George W. Bush has had a cold winter, and it's not chiefly the Democrats' doing. The weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- and with them the raison d'être for Bush's war -- proved to be fictitious. Worse yet, it began to dawn on the American people that their president had nothing new to offer them to fix the economy.

The emperor-has-no-clothes moment for this administration came, I'd argue, this January during Bush's State of the Union address, which revealed to all the world a president plainly disconnected from the concerns of his people and flat out of ideas to address the nation's problems. By the evidence of all polling, the policies for which he took credit -- chiefly, a Medicare "reform" that helped drug companies and tax cuts for the rich -- don't resonate with the public. Nor did he trot out any proposals to allay the public's anxieties about lagging job creation, diminishing health coverage, or rising college-tuition costs. Indeed, the most specific problem the president raised was that of steroids in sports -- a detour so utterly irrelevant to most Americans' concerns that many surely wondered if this Bush, for all his down-home manner, wasn't as out of touch with their lives as his father had been.

But then, this administration has really had only two ideas since its inception: cutting taxes on the wealthy and deposing Saddam Hussein. And for those who wonder how an administration could be so disconnected from other concerns and perspectives, we now have this account of the inner workings of Bushland from Paul O'Neill, secretary of the treasury during the administration's first two years until his adherence to two dangerous doctrines -- empiricism and traditional Republicanism -- did him in.

The Price of Loyalty is the second memoir from disgruntled former Bush officials that former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind has shaped into a finished narrative. His first disillusioned traveler was John DiIulio, who ran Bush's office on faith-based initiatives until he realized that he was the only inhabitant of the West Wing who cared about domestic policy as distinct from politics. (DiIulio memorably characterized Karl Rove and his ilk as "Mayberry Machiavellis.")

Now comes O'Neill, or, rather, O'Neill and Christie Todd Whitman, Bush's former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, who also appears in this volume to tell her own horror stories of science trumped by ideology. For Republican moderates who couldn't cotton to the administration's narrow zealotries, a Suskind-authored sympathetic account of their travails has become the preferred form of self-justification and, apparently, therapy.

At the center of O'Neill's story are a pair of sphinxes: Bush and O'Neill's old friend Dick Cheney, who recruited him for the Treasury job in the first place. The truly riveting scenes in the book -- and Suskind is an accomplished storyteller -- are O'Neill's regular meetings with Bush and his irregular meetings with Cheney. In his weekly briefings with the president, O'Neill is unnerved by Bush's almost aggressive lack of curiosity. The president rarely asks him anything, never seems to react, just looks at him "with the flat, inexpressive stare to which O'Neill had become accustomed." In time, O'Neill becomes convinced that Bush doesn't read briefing papers and doesn't want to entertain proposals that deviate from his goals of cutting taxes or overthrowing Hussein.

O'Neill spent much of his tenure trying to diminish and forestall the tax cuts, fruitlessly running a stream of dismal economic numbers by a couldn't-care-less president. A longtime deficit hawk, O'Neill linked up with his buddy Alan Greenspan to try to condition the cuts on the state of government finances, but such hoary fiscal prudence was as naught next to Bush and Cheney's sense of entitlement. "We won the midterms," Cheney told O'Neill after the 2002 election, to justify his (or the president's; it's not clear whose) decision to cut taxes on dividends. "This is our due." It's seldom that you hear policy justified solely on the basis that the spoils go to the victor, but Cheney's declaration is remarkable also because it's almost his only clear declaratory statement in the book. As with Bush, Cheney's normal mode was to sit in silence, though as O'Neill recounts it, Bush was spacing while Cheney was plotting.

The most detailed revelations in O'Neill's account are those concerning Iraq. As a member of the National Security Council, the treasury secretary routinely attended council meetings and recounts that as early as the first such gathering, on January 30, 2001, just 10 days after Bush's inauguration, the central topic was how to topple Hussein. CIA Director George Tenet produced a photo of an Iraqi factory that might be producing chemical or biological weapons, though he could adduce no more than circumstantial evidence that this was the case. (Cheney, O'Neill recalls in a nice touch, waved everyone in the room to come closer and see the nefarious facility for themselves.)

While O'Neill depicts Bush and Cheney as sinister in their silence, his Greenspan comes across as unusually gregarious and clear. O'Neill headed up an administration task force to develop corporate governance reforms in the wake of the Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom disasters. He and Greenspan were allies in proposing stricter CEO accountability for company reports. At one task-force meeting, encountering resistance from administration economists Lawrence Lindsey and Glenn Hubbard, Greenspan exploded at the manipulation of earnings statements to boost stock prices. "There's too much gaming of the system until it is broke!" he cried. "Capitalism is not working!"

In the end, CEOs successfully pressured the White House to water down O'Neill's proposals for greater CEO accountability. But, then, the Bush presidency is government by and for CEOs. In one 2002 meeting of the administration's leading economic players, an uncharacteristically unscripted Bush ventured his own analysis of business' reluctance to invest: "The economic uncertainty is because of [Securities and Exchange Commission] overreach," he said. Until three weeks previous, the SEC had been headed by Harvey Pitt, the most laissez-faire chairman that the commission had ever seen, but Bush's empathy for nervous CEOs apparently knew no bounds.

O'Neill had been a notable CEO himself, presiding over Alcoa, and if this book is any evidence, he has more than his share of CEO arrogance, self-satisfaction, and self-delusion to show for it. But he also comes across as an archetype of an earlier age and an earlier Republicanism. He has an almost loony nostalgia for the Nixon administration, in which he worked, extolling the seriousness with which Richard Nixon took matters of policy and contrasting that with the reign of the political types -- Rove most especially -- in the current White House. (The names "Haldeman" and "Ehrlichman" appear nowhere in his Nixon reveries.)

More seriously, O'Neill never believed the supply-side creeds that tax cuts drove investment and that deficits didn't matter. He knew CEOs too well to trust them implicitly. He didn't see how overthrowing Hussein would solve the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. He failed to grasp the appeal of preemptive war. He was a conservative in a radical administration. No wonder he got the sack.

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