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O'Neill Depicts a Disengaged President |
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2004; Page A01
President Bush showed little interest in policy discussions in his first two years in the White House, leading Cabinet meetings "like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people," former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill says in an upcoming book on the Bush White House.
O'Neill, who was forced out of his post in late 2002, spoke extensively to former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind and offered up 19,000 documents, including private White House transcripts and personal notes for the book "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill."
The book will be released next week and was not available yesterday. The only on-the-record details to be had were selected quotes released by CBS from the book and from an interview with O'Neill to be aired Sunday on "60 Minutes."
The book is meant to be a chronicle of the first two years of the Bush administration and the process that shaped the president's policymaking, mostly seen through O'Neill's eyes.
According to the CBS material, O'Neill told Suskind that Bush was so inscrutable that administration officials had to devise White House policy on "little more than hunches about what the president might think."
In the "60 Minutes" interview, O'Neill described his first Cabinet meeting with the president: "I went in with a long list of things to talk about and, I thought, to engage [him] on. And as the book said, I was surprised that it turned out to be me talking and the president just listening. . . . As I recall it was mostly a monologue."
This is not the first time Suskind has coaxed unflattering descriptions out of former White House officials. In the January 2003 issue of Esquire, John J. DiIulio Jr., the former head of Bush's faith-based policy office, told Suskind, "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. . . . What you've got is everything -- and I mean everything -- being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."
DiIulio quickly apologized and said he was "deeply remorseful." White House officials dismissed the significance of the University of Pennsylvania professor, a Democrat in a modest position who worked in the White House less than eight months.
O'Neill, in contrast, occupied the administration's most prominent and important economic post for two years, and helped usher through the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut in 2001 that remains one of Bush's most important legislative feats. He was named to the post at the insistence of Vice President Cheney, an old friend, and he had close ties to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
But O'Neill's tenure at Treasury was marked by verbal gaffes and impolitic comments, some of them in direct contradiction of White House policy. He publicly disparaged Bush's 2002 imposition of steep tariffs on steel, roiled currency markets with his blunt talk, enraged a Brazilian president, and ultimately split with Bush in late 2002 over the president's push to end taxation of corporate dividends.
That December, Bush forced an unsuspecting O'Neill out of office in a purge of his economic team that also sent packing his National Economic Council director, Lawrence B. Lindsey.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan would not comment on the substance of O'Neill's statements.
"The White House isn't in the business of doing book reviews," she said. "The president appreciated Mr. O'Neill's service, and he is now focused on the future and our nation's highest priorities."
O'Neill did not return phone calls yesterday, and Suskind declined to provide the book's contents in advance of its release.
O'Neill, a former chief executive of aluminum giant Alcoa Inc., frequently complained that the media oversimplified his comments and took them out of context. He told his hometown Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Thursday, "If the 'red meat,' taken out of context, is all that people get out of this [Suskind] book, it will be a huge disappointment to me. Ideally, this book will cause people to stop and think about the current state of our political process and raise our expectations of what is possible."