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Don't get too happy about Paul O'Neill's anti-Bush remarks

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An out-of-town friend e-mails: "Why don't the Democrats just nominate Paul O'Neill for president?"

 

Having seen O'Neill's performance on 60 Minutes Sunday night, I know where my friend is coming from. The former head of Pittsburgh-based Alcoa said just about everything angry Democrats have longed to believe about President Bush, whom O'Neill served as Treasury Secretary for a little less than two years. So it's hardly surprising that he sounded so good. To us, at least. 

 

Have you long suspected that Bush was a mere puppet, a marionette whose strings are being pulled by smarter, more nefarious, men? Then you'll want to read The Price of Loyality, a book by Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind that relies heavily on O'Neill's eyewitness account of life inside the White House. As O'Neill puts it in Suskind's book, during Cabinet meetings, Bush is "a blind man in a room full of deaf people," uninterested in genuine debates. His vice president, Dick Cheney, has created "a Praetorian guard that encircled the president" and prevents Bush from hearing dissenting views. And his policies, accordingly, may yet prove ruinous: The president's tax cuts, O'Neill told 60 Minutes, ran up massive deficits and prevented the government from "working on Social Security and fundamental tax reform."

 

Despite all that, don't look for O'Neill to change his party registration any time soon. He once accused Dems of being "socialists" for questioning the wisdom of tax cuts he did support. He once told Fox News that the lesson of Enron was that "companies come and go," and that the "genius of capitalism" was that "people get to make good decisions or bad decisions." (Today, O'Neill faults Bush for caving in to his business pals and scrapping tougher corporate auditing procedures.) When O'Neill talks about "fundamental tax reform," he means ending the practice whereby corporations pay taxes. Don't even ask about his plans to save -- read "privatize" -- Social Security.

 

To his credit, however, O'Neill is speaking his mind. That's a rarity in an administration that prizes loyalty, or at least "closed lips," above all else. And O'Neill has given new weight to suspicions that the war in Iraq was built on false, or at least dubious, pretexts.

 

O'Neill says that Bush and his advisers were planning an invasion of Iraq from his first days in office. "It was all about finding a way to do it," O'Neill told 60 Minutes. From the outset, he claimed, "The president [was] saying, ‘Go find me a way to do this.'" O'Neill also told Time magazine that during his two years in office, "I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction." Now it seems there's a reason for that: At this point, it's impossible to argue that Saddam Hussein posed the kind of imminent danger Bush claimed in 2002 and 2003. We're not sure whether a "smoking gun" will ever be found, but we do know it would not have been a mushroom cloud. 

 

But perhaps the most intriguing of O'Neill's utterances came after interviewer Lesley Stahl told O'Neill she thought the book portrayed President Bush badly. "Hmmm, you really think so?" O'Neill asked. "Well, I'll be darned."

 

O'Neill wasn't joking, Stahl told viewers, and his inflection was as flat as the Midwestern tableland he grew up in. But it's hard to be sure whether he was kidding or not. O'Neill clearly doesn't mind tossing around a bombshell, or a monkey wrench, once in awhile.

 

In a New York Times Magazine article written back when O'Neill was at his most embattled, for instance, Michael Lewis described the Treasury Secretary gleefully logging into his computer, trying to see if his latest off-the-cuff remarks to reporters had upset financial markets. "I think I just made news," O'Neill told Lewis, who wrote that the Treasury Secretary checked business wires like "a boy who had just hurled a stone into a pond and was trying to count the ripples."

 

 

We'll see whether O'Neill makes waves this time. It's one thing to inspire people like my friend, who already dislikes Bush and was happy to have O'Neill give him another reason to do so. But it's doubtful that O'Neill's characterizations will give pause to many Bush supporters.

 

This is the country that re-elected Ronald Reagan: Clearly we're comfortable being led by presidents for whom intellectual curiosity is not a strong suit. O'Neill griped about Bush's constant use of nicknames -- a form of bullying, O'Neill suspects -- but Reagan had a hard time remembering what his cabinet members' names actually were. Despite that, however, Reagan remains a patron saint amongst conservatives. (O'Neill claims that when he fretted that tax cuts were worsening the federal budget deficit, Cheney told him, "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter.")

 

And perhaps the bigger scandal would be if Bush did decide to invade Iraq because of the 9/11 attacks. After all, even Bush has admitted that there's no connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11.

 

Still, a backlash is coming. One anonymous Bush administration official sneered that no one listened to O'Neill when he was in office; why start now? Another told Time that WMD intelligence "was on a need-to-know basis. [O'Neill] wouldn't have been in a position to see it." (Apparently, the weapons teams who have looking for chemical weapons in Iraq haven't been in a position to see the evidence either. You'd think the Bush administration would recognize their need to know, at least.) Florida Republican Mark Foley has accused O'Neill of a "Shakespearean approach to advance his career and his book sales" in a Reuters wire-service story. "Not since Julius Caesar have I seen such a blatant stab in the back."

 

It's not O'Neil's book, of course: It's Suskind's, and O'Neill says he isn't getting a dime from it. Anyway, the man's a retired CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation: How much career does he have left to "advance"?

 

I wasn't a fan of O'Neill when he was in Washington, but I'll give him this much: He may stand for the wrong principles, but too many of his former White House colleagues appear not to stand for any principles at all.

 

So what I'm telling my friend is that the Democratic Party already has an independent-minded Republican running for the presidential nomination. His name is Joe Lieberman. But what should be apparent to anyone watching the Bush White House these days is that the Republican Party could use a more independent-minded Republican. And perhaps we in O'Neill's hometown could help him find a place in political life after all.

 

Anyone like his chances against Rick Santorum?

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