Fired Treasury Secretary O'Neill speaks out on the Bush adminis

Sunday, January 11, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill left town without saying a word when he was pushed out of the Cabinet. But now, he's ready to tell his side of the story and perhaps settle a few scores.

In O'Neill's version of events, related in a new book, "The Price of Loyalty," President Bush was so disengaged during Cabinet meetings that he was like a "blind man in a roomful of deaf people."

O'Neill is also quoted in the book as saying that the administration's decision-making process was so flawed that often top officials had no real sense of what the president wanted them to do, forcing them to act on "little more than hunches about what the president might think."

The fired Cabinet secretary, who was promoting the new book in an interview to be televised today on the CBS program "60 Minutes," said he wasn't worried that people might think his comments were just sour grapes for how he was removed from the administration.

"I have come to believe that people will say damn near anything. So I am sure somebody will say all of that and more," said O'Neill, who gained a reputation during his two years in Washington for his blunt speaking style, which often landed him in hot water with the White House and members of Congress.

In his interview with CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl, O'Neill said Bush's disengagement was apparent not only at Cabinet meetings but also in one-on-one sessions he held with the president.

Speaking of his first meeting with the president, O'Neill said: "I went in with a long list of things to talk about," thinking to engage Bush in discussion. "... I was surprised it turned out me talking and the president just listening. It was mostly a monologue."

O'Neill is described as the principal source for the new book being published by Simon and Schuster and written by Ron Suskind, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

In addition to interviews with O'Neill, Suskind drew on 19,000 documents O'Neill provided, according to CBS, which said Suskind also interviewed dozens of Bush insiders to flesh out his account of the administration's first two years.

Stahl said O'Neill turned over his personal notes and even transcripts of meetings so that the book provides actual quotes from White House officials as they were debating policy during the early days of the administration.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan refused to comment on the new book when asked about it Friday, telling reporters, "I don't do book reviews."

Asked specifically about O'Neill's criticism of a disengaged president, McClellan said: "It's well known the way the president approaches governing and setting priorities. The president is someone that leads and acts decisively on our biggest priorities and that is exactly what he'll continue to do."

O'Neill, the former head of aluminum giant Alcoa, did not respond to phone messages the AP left at his office in Pittsburgh. But in an interview with The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he said he hoped his inflammatory comments did not overshadow the substantive issues he discusses in the book.

"If the 'red meat,' taken out of context, is all that people get out of this book, it will be a huge disappointment to me," he said. "Ideally, this book will cause people to stop and think about the current state of our political process and raise our expectations for what is possible."

O'Neill gained a reputation during his two years in the Bush Cabinet for frequently shooting from the lip with incendiary comments that shook up financial markets and antagonized Wall Street. O'Neill said he was just trying to discuss complicated public policy issues in greater depth than the television sound bites so often used by the typical Washington politicians.

O'Neill was fired in December 2002 when Bush decided he needed a more forceful spokesman to push a new round of tax cuts through Congress. O'Neill had publicly questioned the need for new tax cuts given signs that the economy was starting to rebound.

He was replaced by John Snow, former head of CSX Corp., who became a staunch advocate for new tax cuts that were passed by Congress and took effect last summer.

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