Having characterized George W. Bush, in a book published yesterday, as intellectually incurious, politically driven, and lacking leadership abilities, former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, presumably feeling the heat from the White House, said he would still vote for Bush, regardless. "I don't see anybody that strikes me as better prepared and more capable," he said. "But I really do think we have a bipartisan problem of a broken political process, and I think the American people need to demand more of people who would be their leaders." Which is a tepid endorsement if ever there was one, and rings a little false given the bizarre picture O'Neill paints of the Bush White House.
The book, "The Price of Loyalty", written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, is an alarming insider account of the way the Bush White House is run, based on a series of interviews with former administration officials, most notably O'Neill, who got the axe a little over a year ago because of his opposition to Bush's policy on tax-cuts. In the book, O'Neill raises some harsh criticisms of the Bush administration. Among his most powerful charges is a claim that the Bush administration was planning to invade Iraq within days of taking office.
Appearing in an interview on CBS's "60 Minutes" on Sunday night to promote Suskind's book, O'Neill sharply criticized the Bush administration:
"ONeill says that the president did not make decisions in a methodical way: there was no free-flow of ideas or open debate.
At cabinet meetings, he says the president was 'like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people. There is no discernible connection,' forcing top officials to act 'on little more than hunches about what the president might think.'
And what happened at President Bush's very first National Security Council meeting is one of O'Neill's most startling revelations.
'From the very beginning, there was a conviction, that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go,' says ONeill, who adds that going after Saddam was topic 'A' 10 days after the inauguration - eight months before Sept. 11.
'It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The president saying Go find me a way to do this,' says ONeill. 'For me, the notion of pre-emption, that the U.S. has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do, is a really huge leap.'"
Less than 24 hours after O'Neill made his critical remarks on CBS, the Treasury Department said it is looking into how a Treasury document marked "secret" came to appear on the show. Although Treasury officials have been very careful not to use the word "investigation", the quick move looks like retaliation. Treasury spokesman Rob Nichols said the department's request for a probe should not be viewed as a way to strike back at O'Neill. "This is standard operating procedure," he said. Still, the fact that the administration was so quick in calling for a probe into the matter is in odd contrast with the slow pace another investigation -- the one into who outed former ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife Valerie Plame as a CIA operative.
O'Neill did not appear too worried by the probe, since he does not believe any of the documents in question were actually classified. He stated that Treasury Department files were given to him by the department's own general counsel. "Under the law," he said, the general counsel is "not supposed to send me anything that isn't unclassified. And so if there's anything in that file that's unclassified, the general counsel failed to be sure that everything was clear."
Appearing on NBC television's "Today" show on Tuesday, O'Neill tried to strike a less confrontational note. He said he didn't think the investigation amounted to a "payback" for his comments on the administration. He also tried to take the heat out of some of his earlier remarks, saying that while he was surprised that Iraq was given such a high priority at the very first National Security Council meeting of the Bush administration, on Jan. 30, 2001, Bush was merely continuing planning that began under Clinton. "People are trying to make a case that I said the president was planning war in Iraq early in the administration. Actually, there was a continuation of work that had been going on in the Clinton administration with the notion that there needed to be regime change in Iraq," O'Neill said. Bush meanwhile tried to disputed O'Neill's claim that the war on Iraq was an early goal, while simultaneously admitting that he was pursuing 'regime change' in Iraq as a continuation of Clinton-era policies. He also tried to appear upbeat about the whole affair, saying from a press conference in Mexico: "I appreciate former secretary O'Neill's service to our country. We worked together during some difficult times."
Other Republicans were less forgiving (some even calling his acts 'betrayal') and tried their best to correct O'Neill's portrayal of Bush. Donald Rumsfeld said he and O'Neill see a picture of Bush that is as different as "night and day", adding that he really feels "fortunate to be working with a man of his character and ability." Commerce Secretary Don Evans, who was chairman of Bush's 2000 presidential campaign told CNN's "Late Edition" on Sunday that Bush "drives meetings," "asks tough questions," and "likes dissent." (And if you believe that, you'll believe Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction.)
"'He likes to see debate. He thinks it's very healthy, very constructive for the process. Oftentimes, he has to make the deciding decision when he has his advisers on both sides of the same subject.'
'We didn't listen to [O'Neill's] wacky ideas when he was in the White House, why should we start listening to him now,' said a senior official.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan brushed off O'Neill's criticism Saturday. 'We appreciate his service, but we are not in the business of doing book reviews,' he told reporters. 'It appears that the world according to Mr. O'Neill is more about trying to justify his own opinion than looking at the reality of the results we are achieving on behalf of the American people.'"
Democratic presidential candidates also tried to seize on this public criticism of a former Bush staffer. Howard Dean said at a news conference in Iowa on Monday that O'Neill's account amounted to a "very serious allegation" against Mr. Bush.
Reason magazine agrees that the whole issue raises serious questions about Bush's leadership qualities:
"Let's just assume that former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill really does have it all wrong. That he misremembers plans to hit Iraq from the earliest days of the Bush administration and that George W. Bush really does, contra O'Neill, take command of every meeting and leave his direct reports with clear, inspiring marching orders.
Although Democrats are distracted by ripping each other to shreds right know, they will eventually return to O'Neill's theme of a Dubya distracted and distant, 'a blind man.' Accurate or not this characterization gives Democrats a chance to counter Bush's claim to strong leadership in the face of great national peril. There is also an odd slap-back effect to Bush partisans savaging O'Neill as a nincompoop. Who put the guy in charge of the United States Treasury, then? The question of Bush's leadership and judgment stays in play."