O’Neill Tells All, And It’s Not Pretty

The White House believes that massive deficits don’t matter.

The White House serves the narrow interests of the wealthiest few. The White House diligently heeds oil men and coal operators. The White House willfully ignores scientists and environmentalists. The President and his advisers care about politics rather than policy. The President and his advisers prefer scripted consensus to candid debate. The President and his advisers jump at the command of corporate donors. The President won’t read any document longer than three pages. The President can’t discuss substantive policy issues. The Vice President is in charge.

Few of those statements are likely to surprise Americans who have been paying attention to their government for the past three years. Most fall neatly within the category of what everyone has heard or read. But this week, a high-ranking insider with a reputation for honesty validated all those unflattering assessments. In The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O’Neill , the former Treasury Secretary presents a candid portrait of the Bush administration to author Ron Suskind.

Although he writes for a monthly magazine, Mr. Suskind continues to unearth stories that elude the very important daily and weekly journalists in the White House press corps. A year ago, his searing Esquire profile of John DiIulio, the former director of the President’s “faith-based initiative,” exposed how cynical political calculations and right-wing ideology had ruined “compassionate conservatism”-and how little serious thought supports the weak policy process in this administration. Somehow, Mr. DiIulio was induced to recant what he had told Mr. Suskind after conversations with some White House officials.

By contrast, Mr. O’Neill is unlikely to succumb to the intimidation that apparently overwhelmed Mr. DiIulio. As he told Mr. Suskind during their initial conversation, he could understand why anyone might shy away from “a 50-year battle with this gang,” because “these people are nasty, and they have a very long memory.” But, he added, “I’m an old guy, and I’m rich. And there’s nothing they can do to hurt me.”

Unfortunately for the White House, the path of least resistance is also closed. It isn’t possible to simply ignore the Suskind book’s revelations. Topping the list of embarrassments are Mr. O’Neill’s recollections about “regime change” in Iraq-which he said had obsessed the administration from its earliest days, without real justification based on intelligence or policy. Privy to classified briefings and data as a national security official, he told Mr. Suskind that there had been only one real reason for attacking Iraq after Sept. 11, 2001. Unlike extirpating Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, a difficult task that might “develop into a mess,” deposing Saddam Hussein and the corrupt Baathist regime would most assuredly be “doable.”

Long before the book appeared, administration officials attempted to dissuade Mr. O’Neill from cooperating in its preparation. Old friends implored him, and officials whispered offers of sinecures and ambassadorial posts. He didn’t want anything, and when the book’s details began to leak out, White House operatives decided to get tough.

They called him an embittered loser. They accused him of belatedly attempting to justify rejected ideas. And suddenly from his old headquarters emanated the charge that he had disclosed “classified” information.

His successor at the Treasury Department-a team player of no great distinction-announced instantaneously and eagerly that the inspector general would “investigate” whether Mr. O’Neill had purloined a paper marked “Secret” that showed up during a televised interview.

It isn’t difficult to imagine the conversation between a Treasury aide and a White House political operative that preceded the announcement of the O’Neill probe. As Mr. O’Neill placidly pointed out, however, his pursuers would have served themselves better by inquiring about the circumstances that attended his departure.

When he and Mr. Suskind began their literary collaboration last year, he provided an enormous volume of materials collected during his Treasury tenure. This was, as Mr. Suskind explains, perfectly legal: “O’Neill approached his former colleagues at the Treasury Department for what he insisted was his due: copies of every document that had crossed his desk. One day, as he was leaving Washington for Pittsburgh, he passed me a few unopened CD-ROMs. ‘This is what they gave me,’ he said. When I started to open the disks, I wondered if there was an error on my hard drive: nineteen thousand documents were listed.” In the hands of the Pulitzer-winning reporter, those documents will probably discourage any charges of fabrication.

Indeed, nobody at the White House has accused Mr. O’Neill of lying, so far. That would be hard to say about a man who was fired for his excessive bluntness.

O’Neill Tells All, And It’s Not Pretty