Ron Suskind's book about the short, unhappy tenure of Paul O'Neill as President Bush's first Treasury Secretary is subtitled "George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill." But Suskind, a veteran Wall Street Journal reporter, makes clear that O'Neill didn't have much to learn when he took office in 2001: He already knew just about everything.
The former head of Pittsburgh-based Alcoa knew Bush's tax cuts would worsen deficits. He knew Enron-style corruption must be punished more harshly. He's even an intelligence expert: As other officials huddled around satellite photos of a suspected Iraqi WMD plant, all but rubbing their hands in anticipation, O'Neill asked, "I've seen a lot of factories ... that look a lot like this one. What makes us suspect that this one is producing weapons?"
Curiously, while O'Neill could discern the truth about suspected WMD sites in Iraq, he had a harder time discerning the motives of people working next door. He takes the Treasury job assuming, like many Americans, that the barely elected Bush would govern from the center. It takes hundreds of pages for him to decide otherwise.
The sole lesson in his "political education" takes place when he warns old pal Dick Cheney that more Bush tax cuts will blow holes in the federal budget. "Reagan proved deficits don't matter," the vice president replies. As Suskind tells it, "O'Neill shook his head, hardly believing that Cheney -- whom he ... had known since Dick was a kid -- would say such a thing."
Heartbroken that Little Dickie no longer has time for his friends from the old neighborhood, O'Neill departs, stunned. Washington today is crass and cynical, O'Neill muses, so unlike the good old days ... when he worked for Richard Nixon.
I'm not sure I buy it, frankly. To feel disillusioned, O'Neill would have to be stunningly naïve about politics, and the rest of the book suggests O'Neill is smarter than anyone else ... except maybe another old pal, Alan Greenspan.
By comparison, Suskind writes in the book's most widely quoted passage, O'Neill comes to regard the President as "a blind man in a roomful of deaf people."
O'Neill has said he regrets that turn of phrase, but his disdain for Bush appears on almost every page. We're told that Bush "said little" at meetings but "just nodded" with a "flat, unquestioning demeanor." Meanwhile O'Neill's wife, Nancy, recalls, "Paul just seemed to leave meetings with the President and shake his head."
Bush emerges as a dupe, if not a dope, surrounded by a "praetorian guard" of ideologues like Cheney and political Svengali Karl Rove. When Bush does show intellectual initiative by asking whether he's cut taxes for the wealthy too much, Rove murmurs that Bush should "stick to principle." Bush rolls over and agrees to more cuts; Rove smiles like he just taught a puppy a difficult trick.
Much of this portrait rings disturbingly true, confirmed by evidence like Bush's admission that he doesn't bother to read newspapers. And O'Neill raises some particularly disturbing questions about how and why the administration decided to invade Iraq. (Invasion plans were being laid, he contends, days after Bush took office.)
But if Bush comes off as a frat-boy-in-chief, O'Neill appears to be an arrogant prig who can't see how he comes off at all. In one moment of characteristic modesty, he tells his wife, "I'm conducting an experiment in trusting the American people with the truth." Gee, thanks Paul.
Sadly, we have to take it on faith that we're getting the truth here. Suskind relied on 19,000 documents provided largely by O'Neill, but the book -- written in a novelistic style familiar to fans of Bob Woodward -- doesn't offer footnotes or reproductions of those documents.
And more often than not, O'Neill blames his screw-ups on the fact that people can't handle the truth, at least not when it's voiced in his shoot-from-the-hip style. "[W]hen you sign the dollar bill, you've got to watch everything you say," Suskind notes.
But Suskind obviously admires this tendency of O'Neill's. O'Neill's remarks on foreign aid are portrayed as a calculated good cop/bad cop strategy, "talking tougher ... but quietly keeping a teetering country from a full collapse." Suskind doesn't mention that such statements -- O'Neill said aid to Brazil would end up in Swiss bank accounts, for example -- further weakened economic confidence and increased the cost of bailouts. Economist Paul Krugman has estimated that O'Neill's remarks added $10 billion to the cost of helping Brazil alone. This is "talking tougher"?
O'Neill clearly hopes to be remembered as the Jimmy Carter of Treasury secretaries: better outside the job than in it, and too gosh-darn honest for politics. That's how Suskind sees him, obviously, and to O'Neill's credit, he does call 'em like he sees 'em. Such candor is an increasingly rare quality in the Bush White House. Sadly, one also wishes Suskind had more of it himself.