No one listened to Paul O'Neill. Here's why.

Policy made plain.
Jan. 15 2004 4:17 PM

Blind, Deaf, and Lame

No one listened to Paul O'Neill. Here's why.

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"Paul, I'll be blunt," said Alan Greenspan to Paul O'Neill in January 2001, according to Paul O'Neill. "Your zipper's undone, and you have something hanging from your nose." No, actually, says O'Neill, the Fed chairman told him, "Paul, I'll be blunt. We really need you down here."

That's blunt? Yes, because O'Neill, you see, did not want to be secretary of the treasury. According to The Price of Loyalty (written by journalist Ron Suskind, but entirely from O'Neill's point of view), he preferred life at his "tasteful, sprawling colonial" in Pittsburgh, and he felt that Washington had become infested with politics and corruption since he first worked there in the prelapsarian innocence of the Nixon administration. "As one of the country's most Washington-savvy CEO's he was bored by the process of influence-peddling that keeps the lights on in this town." That's why he needed to be romanced. "Paul," Greenspan pressed on—batting his eyelashes seductively (or so one imagines the scene) and perhaps bringing out his saxophone for a few bars of "Stardust"—"Paul, your presence will be an enormous asset in the creation of sensible policy."

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O'Neill, according to O'Neill, is a man on whom praise and compliments fall thick as a winter snowstorm. "Paul, you have the balls of a daylight burglar," he quotes a subordinate as telling him years ago. He also quotes himself telling the story to another subordinate. Elsewhere he recounts, with prim disapproval, watching George W. Bush call on White House Chief of Staff Andy Card to rustle up some cheeseburgers. O'Neill believes, he says, that a CEO should be judged by how he treats "whoever is at the very bottom," a remark Card may find somewhat more insulting than the cheeseburgers that inspired it. Later, with characteristic subtlety, O'Neill quotes himself offering to get his secretary a cup of coffee. Very nice. But she might be thinking that getting her own coffee—or even getting his—would be a small price to pay if it meant not having to hear and praise the boss' self-congratulatory anecdotes again and again.

Asked to be treasury secretary, O'Neill is filled with foreboding. He alerts the president-elect about his legendary reputation for straight talk. "In 1986, I gave a speech that was reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. …" he begins. Thus forewarned, in more ways than one, Bush offers him the job anyway, and O'Neill decides his country needs him. "I think I'm going to have to do this," he tells his wife. Among other reasons, O'Neill feels called upon to play ambassador between the new president and his father, the former president. "He was uniquely qualified to finesse this delicate and defining relationship." His unique qualifications included having never even met George W. except for once, briefly, at President Clinton's education summit in 1996.

Describing his time as treasury secretary, O'Neill sounds, of course, like Capt. Renault. But the character in Casablanca was a cynic who knew perfectly well that there was gambling going on in Rick's cafe. O'Neill seems genuinely surprised to discover that Bush actually does intend to cut taxes (as he promised repeatedly in his campaign); that the administration wants "regime change" in Iraq (as did the previous administration and almost everyone else in the world—the question was what to do about it); that the president would, on balance, prefer to be re-elected; and so on. Not a single weapon of mass destruction was wheeled into his office during his entire two-year tenure.

It's true that George W. Bush has turned out to be a more radical president than everyone predicted. But O'Neill has no insights about why it turned out this way or why we should have seen it coming. His theme, in fact, is that he was blindsided more than anyone. O'Neill deserves the credit for the Bush presidency's most pleasant surprise—serious financial and diplomatic engagement in the battle against AIDS in Africa—and he takes it. No doubt O'Neill would be responsible for Bush's new initiative to promote marriage on Mars, or whatever, if he were still there (in the administration, not on Mars).

Speaking of blindsided, howzabout that killer quote describing Bush in Cabinet meetings as being "like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people"? O'Neill says this is "the only way I can describe it," and I fear that may be the case. It's vivid, and it certainly sounds insulting enough. But what on Earth does it mean? According to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, it means Bush is "disengaged." The Washington Post story began, "President Bush showed little interest in policy discussions in his first two years in the White House, leading Cabinet meetings 'like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people.' …"

I'm sorry, but how is being uninterested in policy like being a blind man in a roomful of deaf people? Are blind people uninterested in policy? Or, more accurately, do blind people become less interested in policy when they find themselves in a room with deaf people? Does a blind man surrounded by deaf people talking policy issues think: "Oh, hell. These folks are going to go on and on and on about the problems of deaf people. Who needs that? I've got problems of my own." Is that O'Neill's point? And even if there is something about a room full of deaf people that makes a blind man disengage from policy issues, what does this have to do with President Bush and his Cabinet?

As described by Paul O'Neill, life inside the Bush administration is like life itself (according to Macbeth): "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." The only solid punch he lands on President Bush is unintentional: What kind of idiot would hire this idiot as secretary of the treasury?

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.

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