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Global Swarming: President George W. Bush stands by his man, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill--until he dumps him.

Politics of Make-Believe

In 'The Price of Loyalty,' ex-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill exposes Bush's alternative universe

By Peter Bellone

A PRESIDENTIAL administration that only pretends to be one is a hard concept to grasp, but one that Paul O'Neill, George W. Bush's ex-treasury secretary, claims that he witnessed firsthand. "The only way I can describe it is that, well, the president is like a blind man in a room full of deaf people. There is no discernible connection," is how O'Neill tells it in The Price of Loyalty (Simon & Schuster), by Ron Suskind. That's one of the most-touted quotes from the book, but it's as misleading as a five-minute clip from a three-hour movie. That's especially true because just two pages before--two scenes if you will--the book reveals that most cabinet meetings were as scripted as a movie. In other words, each morning before the shoot (the meeting), the actors (the highest nonelected officials in government) were handed their lines (notes instructing them "when to speak, about what and how long") from the director's assistant (Vice President Dick Cheney's staff). I apologize for revealing the plot.

Other officials were treated like actors as well. When EPA director Christine Todd Whitman sat down with Bush and expressed her views on the environment, such as the importance of international cooperation and the regulation of carbon dioxide, Bush read from a prepared text, contradicting all her views: the United States is backing out of the Kyoto Protocols; regulating CO2--forget about it. In essence: Here are your lines; the script isn't your concern; and don't question the director again.

According to O'Neill, every White House event went down this way--pure cinema. And as in Hollywood, some actors were more equal than others. It is O'Neill's contention that he, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Whitman, all considered political moderates, were "there, in large part, as cover."

"But if you can't do the right thing when you're at an 85 percent approval [the president's post-Afghanistan approval rating], then when can you do the right thing? I think it's time to say no," Mitch Daniels, the director of the Office of Management and Budget asked. Blurted out in a meeting concerning steel tariffs, that quote exposed the need for cover--exposed the charade itself.

Every ranking administration member was present: Powell, Rice, Attorney General John Ashcroft, O'Neill. Basically, the issue came down to pro or con, and as the argument progressed, it became clear that everyone in the room was for free trade except for the one man who really mattered, Cheney. Soon afterward, Bush publicly endorsed the tariffs. Doing the right thing no longer counted; it never did. Steel-producing states were involved, and that's what mattered: getting re-elected and nothing else.

So, according to O'Neill, one faked it--hence the theater. And as they say, "The show must go on." Opposing opinions weren't asked for, and when offered, were ignored.

"Reagan proved deficits don't matter," Cheney declared. And that was all it took to end O'Neill's two-year quest for a responsible tax cut, one that had "triggers" to ensure fiscal responsibility and avoid deficits, a plan even Alan Greenspan endorsed. Regardless of those two men's experience in economic matters, until they read from the script, they weren't part of the show. A couple of months later, in December 2002, O'Neill was fired.

And what about the star of the show? O'Neill's account certainly reinforces the perception of Bush's lack of intelligence. During their first meeting, Bush asked his chief economic adviser for "a plan on global warming." But more importantly, Bush comes across as an actor who just reads his lines. The political wing had the re-election drive covered, so why bother with the other stuff, i.e., the day-to-day job?

Within three months at his post, O'Neill was informed by his colleagues that "the president shouldn't be expected to read reports." And that tactic showed. Consider Bush's take on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. "'We [Bush and Ariel Sharon] flew over the Palestinian camps. ... Looked really bad down there. ... I think it's time to pull out of the situation.' ... 'The consequences of that could be dire,' [Powell] said, "especially for the Palestinians.' "Bush shrugged. 'Maybe that's the best way to get things back in the balance.' "Powell seemed startled. 'Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things,' Bush said. He turned to Rice. 'So Condi, what are we going to talk about today?" The remark is so flip, he just as easily have asked, "So Condi, how about some Mozart?"

One account of an economic meeting gives the best glimpse of Bush in action. And here we learn why the president never said much in the meetings O'Neill attended. Not once, but twice, Bush forgot his lines and perhaps his marbles as well. "Didn't we already give them a break at the top?" he asks about the proposed tax cut. This is an amazing statement; it's as if after two years of speeches about tax cuts, tax cuts and more tax cuts it had finally dawned on him what that really meant. The question touched off a nuanced discussion on economic policy, meaning "the president was now thoroughly lost."

Rove calmed him down with a "stick to principle" speech, but the meeting devolved even further. When the discussion turned to whether or not the package would boost Christmas spending, the president blurted out, "What are we doing on compassion?" When no one answered, Bush launched into a tirade about the low unemployment rate and how the economy wasn't doing so bad, so the administration should follow through with the tax cuts.

This outburst was bizarre on many counts. First, why mention compassion and then follow up with the assertion that things were going OK? Second, the statement undercut the reason for tax cuts in the first place: the economy was slowing down and needed a stimulus. None of that mattered to Rove and Cheney, however, as long the president got back on-script.

And things grew even more bizarre. Karen Hughes, a presidential political adviser, mentioned an uncertainty in the economy that tax cuts wouldn't fix. She was referring to the looming war with Iraq, and Bush responded from left field: "Economic uncertainty is because of SEC overreach."

In an age of high-profile corporate scandals, that was as mystifying as the logic of the next statement: "Until we get rid of Saddam Hussein, we won't get rid of uncertainty." That's why the blind and deaf quote doesn't really apply. Bush is just smart enough to know he can't wear a Walkman to the "set," no matter how much he wants to.

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From the February 25-March 3, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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