| Paul O’Neill with Bush
Washington, Jan. 11: President George W. Bush was “like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people” at cabinet meetings, says the man who was America’s finance minister in the first two years of the Bush presidency.
“There is no discernible connection” between Bush and his aides, forcing the latter to act “on little more than hunches about what the President might think,” says Paul O’Neill, the former treasury secretary, in a book about to be published on O’Neill’s tenure in the current administration.
In a more stunning revelation, O’Neill says that at the very first meeting of the National Security Council just 10 days after Bush was sworn in, topic “A” was going after Saddam Hussein. That was eight months before the events of September 11.
Former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, who wrote the book, The Price of Loyalty, tells CBS News in an interview to be aired tonight that “from the very first instance, it was about Iraq. It was about what we can do to change this regime.… Day one, these things were laid and sealed.”
The conclusions by Suskind are based on interviews with O’Neill and other officials who have quit the administration.
O’Neill gave Suskind 19,000 internal documents of the Bush administration, several of them “Secret”.
The reporter even had access to transcripts of National Security Council meetings. As treasury secretary, O’Neill was a permanent member of the council. “You don’t get higher than that,” says Suskind.
One of the documents obtained by Suskind is from the Pentagon and it is dated as early as March 5, 2001.
It is titled “Foreign suitors for Iraqi oilfield contracts” and includes a map of potential areas for exploration.
“It talks about contractors around the world from, you know, 30-40 countries. And which ones have what intentions on oil in Iraq,” says Suskind.
Another former administration official told the author that “there is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus.… What you have got is everything — and I mean everything — being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry (a fictional place in a 1960s TV serial where life was simple)Machiavellis”.
This quote is attributed to John J. Dilulio Jr., who headed the White House Faith-based Policy Initiative Office.
In the CBS interview, O’Neill describes his first meeting with the President as a member of his cabinet. “I went in with a long list of things to talk about and, I thought, to engage (him) on.…I was surprised that it turned out to be me talking and the President just listening…. As I recall it was mostly a monologue.”
Towards the end of 2002, O’Neill, who was worried that the US budget deficit was growing, opposed a second round of tax cuts, which Bush wanted. So he went to see his old friend, Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, who had originally proposed O’Neill’s name as treasury secretary to the newly-elected President.
According to Suskind, “Cheney, at this moment, shows his hand. He says, ‘You know, Paul, Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter. We won the mid-term elections, this is our due.’…O’Neill is speechless.”
O’Neill visited India in the second half of November, and among other things, went on a highly publicised shopping expedition in New Delhi’s middle-class Sarojini Market, buying tomatoes and bananas from roadside vendors.
Shortly after he was back from India, Bush asked him to resign. The two men had grown far apart.
O’Neill was especially not amused when Bush began calling him “The Big ”. He thought the President’s habit of giving people nicknames was a form of bullying.
To be fair to the White House, O’Neill's gaffes and plain speech had also become an embarrassment to Bush. When Enron collapsed, he said: “Companies come and go. It is part of the genius of capitalism.”
He described the US income tax code as “9,500 pages of gibberish” and said of nuclear power that “if you set aside Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the safety record of nuclear is really very good”.