Paul O'Neill, Truth-Teller

By Greider, William | The Nation, February 9, 2004 | Go to article overview

Paul O'Neill, Truth-Teller


Greider, William, The Nation


For those with a taste for learning the inner truth about White House politics, reading Paul O'Neill's story is like eating a bowl of peanuts--difficult to stop. For those who have always seen a fraudulent character in George W. Bush, it is like cashews. The news coverage has mined The Price of Loyalty by Ron Suskind for many extraordinary "gotcha" nuggets, but the cruelest revelation is in the texture of this narrative--a devastating portrait of our imperial President. Up close, he is smaller than life, an oddly uninteresting person. Yet he possesses all of the presidency's dreadful powers and cheerfully authorizes their use. The publicity apparatus successfully created a guy who is Mr. Macho Fighter Pilot. Behind the closed door, he submits complacently to the close supervision of others--Cheney, Rice, Rove et al.

The book is deeply scary on that level. That's why the Bush henchmen have piled on O'Neill with such fierce denials and personal attacks. Even GWB felt the need to speak out against its message. They understand how damaging this book is to the concocted persona they sold the American people--and therefore how it threatens their agenda. O'Neill is one of them (or was until they booted him as Treasury Secretary). He's a meticulous man, strong-willed and experienced in government and corporate life, a conservative Republican with a talent for systems analysis. Yet he comes across as the innocent everyman, honest but slightly goofy in his naivete, repeatedly shocked by the cynicism and sloppiness, angered by the gross deceptions and flaky decisions. O'Neill is believable because his own story portrays him as goat, not hero.

"Condi, what are we going to talk about today? What's on the agenda?" the Commander in Chief asks, convening one of his earliest National Security Council meetings. Regime change in Iraq, Mr. President. CIA Director George Tenet rolls out a large, grainy aerial photograph of an Iraqi factory. What's that? "A plant that produces either chemical or biological materials for weapons manufacture," Tenet reports. Bush and Cabinet officers hover over the picture, nodding. O'Neill, an old factory man himself as former CEO of Alcoa, looks at the photo and remarks, "I've seen a lot of factories around the world that look a lot like this one."

Tenet mentions circumstantial evidence. The President hands out assignments--Rumsfeld and Shelton at the Pentagon "should examine our military options." O'Neill explained later and Suskind reported, "The meeting had seemed scripted. Rumsfeld had said little, Cheney nothing at all, though both men had long entertained the idea of overthrowing Saddam. Rice orchestrated, and Tenet had a presentation ready. [Secretary of State] Powell seemed surprised." O'Neill's insider history contains no "smoking gun" in the Watergate tradition but is somewhat more convincing than the heroic version told by Bob Woodward in Bush at War. …

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