Ron Suskind's Price of Loyalty Confirms Suspicions

by J. Russell Tyldesley

coverFew Bush defenders have contradicted the specifics of the conversations and observations that Paul O'Neill so scrupulously documented during his nearly two years as Bush's Secretary of the Treasury and member of the National Security Council.
Ron Suskind's new book, The Price of Loyalty, will confirm the suspicions of Bush detractors, but will probably not change the opinions of many Bush fans. First of all, Bush fans are unlikely to read it given the "sour grapes" treatment that Republicans quickly pinned on it, whether or not they actually read it.

This book will provide a rare, if limited, glimpse into the inner workings of the Bush administration in disarray, with no one in charge, and with no discernable plan. It is primarily the saga of one man, Paul O'Neill--for nearly two years Bush's Secretary of the Treasury and member of the President's National Security Council--as he tried to get through to the President with his best assessment of what Bush should know. It is also a chronicle of the discrepancies between what the President knew or should have known, and how he acted.

It is noteworthy that few Bush defenders have contradicted the specifics of the conversations and observations that Paul O'Neill so scrupulously documented during his White House tenure.

O'Neill has a well-known reputation for telling the truth, and, as a conservative Republican former CEO of Alcoa, he should have been one the Party could easily count on for "loyalty."

Here's what O'Neill says about loyalty: "Real loyalty is based on inquiry, and telling someone what you really think and feel--your best estimation of the truth instead of what they want to hear. How do you follow the lead of a President if you're sure he is on the wrong path and there's no process to hash out differences? Why should you follow?"

So far, most of the public coverage of O'Neill's revelations have focused on Bush's unseemly concentration on Iraq within hours of taking office, and Dick Cheney's response to O'Neill when O'Neill cautioned against running up huge deficits and pushing through Congress an ill-timed and excessive tax cut.

Cheney said," Reagan proved deficits don't matter." When O'Neill's jaw dropped, Cheney's voice filled the embarrassing void with, "We won the midterms. This is our due." O'Neill felt this was brazen ideology; of course, Reagan proved exactly the opposite--that deficits do matter.

Aside from these headline-grabbing excerpts, there is much in the book that will reward the reader. One will come away with a greater insight into Bush's style (if not character) as well as an understanding of how Bush's White House functions (or dis-functions, as the case may be ) on policy matters.

I gained more respect for Christie Todd Whitman than I ever could have had watching her agency demolish environmental regulations. There's also a closer look at Alan Greenspan, whose highly developed image of oracular ambiguity is well known in his public pronouncements. I read Woodward's book on Greenspan, The Maestro, when it came out a few years ago, and I believe O'Neill's personal relationship with Greenspan on a policy level is more revealing.

Bush will remain somewhat opaque even after this 328-page read, but one will be inclined to wonder if there is any more there, there. Perhaps a defection by Colin Powell or George Tenet someday will add more clarity to the inner workings of Bush's mind and the deliberations of what is arguably the most secretive regime in the history of the republic.

This book reveals O'Neill's epic struggle. He should have been one of Bush's closest advisors (at least by law and natural authority), and here he was trying to get some signal from Bush as to how Bush analyzed issues--important matters of state that should not be delegated or ignored. Many meetings (they met one-on-one at least once a week) were more like O'Neill monologues than dialogues. At times, O'Neill felt like Bush had already left the premises; and when their hour was nearly up, Bush would stand up at 59 minutes, 59 seconds. This was part of the "body language" O'Neill tried to read. It became clear to him early on that a political agenda underlaid every policy consideration. This explained, perhaps, why the President rarely asked questions or indicated any response other than an occasional nod or "gotcha." O'Neill became increasingly sensitized to the hidden agenda as friends tried to protect him from himself.

With Iraq, it was not the why that mattered, just the how. Policy had already been decided in concert with a few close advisors who were mostly unelected political operatives. For the most part this policy-making group consisted of Rumsfeld, Rice, Cheney, Rove, and Karen Hughes. All decisions had to be vetted with this political team and pass the litmus test of being consistent with the "base." O'Neill came to know this base as primarily corporate CEOs and conservative ideologues such as the evangelical wing of the Christian conservatives.

O'Neill compares Bush very unfavorably against the two earlier Presidents he served under-- Nixon and Ford. In these two Presidents he found the admirable ability to analyze facts and sort through complex data toward intelligent and considered judgments. Bush, on the other hand, rarely read reports sent to him by O'Neill, and O'Neill was warned by close advisors not to send anything, on any topic, to the President if it had more than three pages.

Ralph Nader has called Bush simply a "tool of the corporations." This book does not capture much evidence to support that contention, but does seem to suggest that Bush has no real mind of his own. It is an empty vessel to be filled by ideologues. These ideologues tend to be market fundamentalists, supply siders, military hawks, and anti-regulation true believers.

O'Neill began to sense that he was a marked man. One of the dramatic moments in the book comes when Bush confronts O'Neill upon the latter's return from a mission to tour Africa at the invitation of the rock star Bono. For O'Neill the tour was a life-changing experience in many respects. He had internally decided to make something of this experience. He had thought at some moments during the trip that the President needed these types of experiences, that he should get out of his cocoon, escape from his Praetorian Guard, and sample the real world.

Bush's first encounter with O'Neill after the trip was while all of the cabinet members were entering their chamber and finding their seats. Here is how O'Neill remembers it: "Hey there, big 'O.' You know something? You're getting quite a reputation as a truth-teller. You've got yourself a real cult following, don't ya?" Bush wasn't smiling and nobody in the room laughed--it was deadly quiet. Later that evening at home, O'Neill told his wife Nancy about the incident and said, "It's a bad sign."

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Clinton, wrote an article recently in Newsday commenting on this book. (It can be viewed on the website of Reich praises O'Neill for doing a service to the country. He agrees that a cabinet secretary owes great loyalty to his President, but he says a greater loyalty is owed to the American people.

Too bad the mainstream press doesn't share this enlightened ideal and apply it to journalistic loyalty. Otherwise, they might be more inclined to ask this President the tough questions that he can't or won't answer, and convey this lack of candor to the public with the appropriate outrage consistent with a press that serves the people's need to know, and in the broader context of what Americans should be able to expect of their President in a constitutional republic.

O'Neill ultimately suffered the fate of someone who couldn't be "handled." He stopped being useful to this President.

According to O'Neill, CIA chief George Tenet told the Security Council, including Bush, that it was still only speculation whether Hussein had WMD or was starting any programs. And O'Neill says, "Everything Tenet sent to Bush was very judicious and precisely qualified."

O'Neill was not alone. I was particularly interested in the demise of Christie Todd Whitman, Secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency. I always felt that she was "on board" with the deregulation hawks, and the ideology of "voluntary compliance for corporate polluters. Apparently this was not so, although I am unaware of any "confessions" she may have made since leaving office for "personal" reasons. One dramatic incident described in the book is when she confronts Larry Lindsey, Chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, and one of O'Neill's chief annoyances. During that cabinet meeting, shortly after Whitman had been undermined by Bush on efforts she had taken to engage the US in the global warming solution. This had already undoubtedly put her in a sour mood. In a discussion about energy production, Lindsey made the charge (no doubt pandering to Bush) that "there have been thousands of power plants, literally, that have not been constructed because of jumbled regulations, and immeasurable amounts of energy that the country has been denied because of it--energy we've needed."

Here's how Ms. Whitman responded: "With all due respect, Larry, do you have any facts to back up these assertions? I'm driven by facts, and I'd like to see any facts that show any power plants were not built because of these regulations."

Cheney had to intervene. O'Neill and Whitman shared their anxieties at times, and after Bush rebuffed her efforts to secure a global climate treaty, she said to O'Neill, "This is a slaughter by the anti-regulation contingent. We just gave away the environment for no good reason. Energy production is all that matters. He couldn't have been clearer."

There are many quotable passages in this book, and for those who may not have the time to read the entire text, I will offer what I feel are some of the more important discoveries.

On the Economy:
O'Neill and Alan Greenspan had a "secret pact" to protect the public from a President with virtually no experience in national economic policy. They wanted the tax cut to contain "triggers," mechanisms designed so that parts of the tax could be delayed or reversed if deficits got out of hand. Greenspan said at one meeting with O'Neill, "Without triggers, that tax cut is irresponsible fiscal policy." O'Neill added that, privately, "Greenspan was anything but a team member. Hard-eyed analysis was painted as disloyalty." Ultimately, they did not succeed in installing triggers--they were foiled by the "purist" ideologues.

After the scandals of corporate malfeasance broke, headlined by Enron and WorldCom, much discussion ensued over how to reform corporate governance. The President's economic team, according to O'Neill, was framing the issue as one of how we can give the impression of meaningful change without putting too much of a burden on the CEOs or holding them to a standard of care that would have the effect of spawning a rash of lawsuits.

During a technical discussion of the standard of care, Greenspan, who argued for a negligence standard (he did not get it), exploded, "Capitalism is not working. There has been a corrupting of the system of capitalism." I thought this was a surprising observation from this ultimate establishment financial gatekeeper.

Coincidentally, I had just read Gore Vidal's Inventing a Nation, and Vidal attributes the same notion of system corruption--the difference being that Dr. Franklin was referring to the nascent document--the US Constitution. To carry this a bit further, Franklin predicted eventual despotism in the US due to this deeply flawed document. It may, indeed, be a chilling prognostication--according to Vidal, it is curiously unmentioned in the several recent biographies of Franklin. Vidal considered Franklin to be the only "wise" man among our nation's "founders."

Getting back to corporate governance: O'Neill was afraid the President would not stand up to the corporate CEO's, all major fundraisers. He opined, "If you can't do the right thing when you have an 85% approval rating, then when can you do the right thing?"

Of course, as we now know, probably never. O'Neill and Greenspan tried to focus on saving the social security system. The numbers predicted a $44 trillion shortfall under current law. However, recommendations of the Social Security Commission were all but tabled by Bush. "It was a bomb locked in a drawer," says O'Neill.

O'Neill and Greenspan agreed that the economy did not need the dramatic stimulus of the Bush Tax Cut, The dividend plan (to eliminate the so-called "double taxation" on dividends) would provide very little stimulus. The economy was already improving in O'Neill's view. Both men agreed utterly about the perils of deficits. As Suskind put it, "They had 20 years of good data." In a broader context O'Neill concluded, "Our political system is what needs fixing. It needs to be based on reality, not games." Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey was a good example of someone using selective economic data to construct a case to support a political goal of a tax cut. O'Neill's based his case on data that supported a different solution. Corporate taxes as a percentage of GDP: 1967--4.2%; 2000--2.1%. Social security taxes: 1962 --3% rate; 2000--6.7% rate. It has since gone up from there. It was obvious where the burden was falling to feed a "growing" economy.

On Powell:
Powell argued at one Security Council meeting that a pullback by the US on active engagement in the Israel/Palestinian dispute would unleash Sharon and the Israel Army. Bush shrugged and said, "Maybe that's the best way to get things back in balance. Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things." Powell looked startled.
On Cheney:
Cheney was usually the silent one at meetings, almost as taciturn as Bush. Cabinet meetings tended to be very scripted, which seemed designed to kill off the whole purpose of bringing people together. Most meetings focused on getting more energy. Cheney would not let people stray too far off message. O'Neill was told not to expect the President to read his no-more-than-three-page reports. O'Neill felt that even his short memos were ignored. As he put it, " There is no discernable connection. The President is like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people."

The Vice President's task force was an example of only hearing from one side. In that case, says O'Neill, "Let's just say that the recommendations did not meet the high standards of the broad public interest." It will be interesting to follow the Sierra Club's litigation going to the Supreme Court in April to compel the executive to release the names of the energy task force members. Suskind concludes, "O'Neill had stopped trying to discern where Cheney ended and the President began. Not only was it not clear, it might not be pertinent."

At one National Security Council meeting, George Tenet, CIA director, spread on the table aerial photographs of a factory in Iraq. This was a factory suspected of producing chemical and/or biological weapons. O'Neill leaned over the map and was the first to speak, saying, "I have seen a lot of factories around the world that look a lot like this one." Tenet then cautioned that there was "no confirming intelligence" as to the materials being produced. Rice was in charge of this little performance and it seemed scripted. Powell seemed surprised that there was no discussion of Israel/Palestine, and that Iraq was the focal point. This was long before 9/11/01.

Within a month of Bush's swearing-in as the 41st President, documents had been prepared by Rumsfeld's group in the Defense Intelligence Agency that mapped Iraq's oil fields and exploration areas and listed companies that might be interested in Iraqi assets. One document, headed "Foreign suitors for Iraqi oilfield contracts," listed companies from 30 countries including France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom. It was very detailed on who would get what, O'Neill recalled.

The combination of oil and terrorism provided an "irresistible combination," as Bush put it, for an invasion that would "dissuade countries from engaging in asymmetrical challenges" to US interests. Already, in February 2001. it was all about logistics. Not the why, but the how, and how quickly. They were already looking for an incident, according to O'Neill. There were also pitched battles between State and the Pentagon, which O'Neill thought was rare in the first month of a new administration.

O'Neill points out that knowledgeable people in the government knew Bush's first State of the Union speech was filled with errors. "The White House political staff did not even consult with people in the government who knew what was true and what was not. Who the hell is in charge here?"

At one meeting of the Security Council, Tenet gave his report and told the Council, including Bush, that it was still only speculation whether Hussein had WMD or was starting any programs. O'Neill described Tenet's intelligence as follows: "Everything Tenet sent to Bush was very judicious and precisely qualified, and I read these reports for two years. Bush was obviously frustrated by the weak intelligence." O'Neill felt that "Iraq was changing the subject. I was mystified."

After 9/11, "Bush's neat division of 'with us or against us' ran into the complexity of our extortive symbiosis with the Saudi rulers." O'Neill could not get the cooperation of the Saudis in tracing the money trail of the suicidal hijackers. After a while, the trail went cold. He stated flatly, "The Saudis want to rip off the general population of the United States." He observed the lavish parties for US officials and assorted luminaries from the corporate and entertainment worlds that were hosted by Prince Bandar. O'Neill complained, "I'm conducting an experiment in trusting the American people with the truth, and I'm the Guinea pig."

Some Final Quotes from O'Neill:
  • "There were two prominent ideologies at work. One was the sweeping idea of preemptions?..and the other was the idea that tax cuts were always good, the deeper the better. I focused on the one I could do something about."

  • "Ideology is a lot easier, because you don't have to know anything or search for anything. It's not penetrable by facts. It's absolutism."

  • "The President is trapped in an echo chamber of his own making."
In light of the recent testimony of David Kay, the retiring chief arms inspector in Iraq, who has blamed faulty intelligence for the failure to find any WMD in Iraq, it seems that there will probably be some sort of independent investigation into how the administration got it so wrong on Iraq. O'Neill's detailed notes on meetings where intelligence data was discussed could be very pertinent to any such inquiry. He may also embolden others to speak out as to what they know about the possible corruption of "process," which was O'Neill's single most salient criticism.

There may not be another set of "Pentagon Papers" to be unearthed by a whistleblower, but we can hope for that kind of patriotism, can't we? Daniel Ellsberg's only regret is that he did not jump ship earlier at the cost of many more deaths in Vietnam before the extent of the scam became apparent to the American people. Soldiers and civilians are still dying in Iraq, and the violence does not appear to be lessening, as was the administration's expectation after the capture of Saddam. The Bush hawks haven't gotten anything right yet in Iraq, except for setting up a very unpleasant occupation trap. Relief may not be on the way until November.

J. Russell Tyldesley, an insurance executive, resides in Catonsville, Md.

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This story was published on February 3, 2004.