Published on Thursday, January 15, 2004 by the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
Surreal Moments Serving a Mythological President
by Marian Wilkinson, Herald Correspondent in Washington
The weekend after September 11, George Bush's former Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, sat in a leather armchair at Camp David, the presidential retreat, devouring a pile of intelligence documents on al-Qaeda handed out by the CIA boss, George Tenet.
A two-day crisis meeting of Mr Bush's senior advisers had finally wound up. The President had gone to bed.
Across the room, the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was singing hymns, accompanied on the piano by the Christian fundamentalist Attorney-General, John Ashcroft.
Leafing through the CIA documents, Mr O'Neill was astonished to read plans for covert assassinations around the globe designed to remove opponents of the US Government. The plans had virtually no civilian checks and balances.
"What I was thinking is, 'I hope the President really reads this carefully', Mr O'Neill said. "It's kind of his job. You can't forfeit this much responsibility to unelected individuals. But I knew he wouldn't."
Mr O'Neill's account of that famous cabinet meeting is just one of many surreal episodes he recalls from his two-year tenure as Mr Bush's top economic official in The Price of Loyalty, the controversial new book by a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Ron Suskind. But there are many similar moments in the 328-page book on Mr O'Neill published on Tuesday with the subtitle: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill.
Mr O'Neill's story, backed up by thousands of pages of documents, is the first inside account by a top Bush Administration official to strip away the carefully crafted mythology surrounding Mr Bush as a "can-do" president. It reveals what many long suspected, that Mr Bush is often disengaged from policy debates, lacks intellectual rigour, runs on gut instinct and is heavily influenced by conservative ideological advisers.
Describing the book as "sour grapes", the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has denied that he telephoned Mr O'Neill after hearing about plans for the book in an effort to persuade his former colleague and long-time friend not to do it.
While Mr O'Neill's revelations are dismissed by White House officials as the revenge of a sacked cabinet officer, at least some of his tales and anecdotes have a ring of truth to them. Like the President describing his love of "comfort food" - homemade chicken noodle soup and sandwiches on freshly baked bread. When Mrs O'Neill politely asked what comfort food his mother, Barbara Bush, cooked, George Bush replied bluntly: "You got to be kiddin'. My mother never cooked. The woman had frostbite on her fingers. Everything [was] right out of the freezer."
On the eve of the book's release, Mr O'Neill said he did not believe the White House would punish him "for telling the truth" and he was "too old and too rich" to be threatened. Sure. But after a barrage of attacks from the White House and having become the target of a Treasury investigation into whether he leaked classified documents to Suskind, Mr O'Neill has been backpedalling.
He told NBC's Today program he regretted having described the President as "a blind man in a room full of deaf people". He also agreed with Mr Rumsfeld that Mr Bush's policy from day one that Saddam Hussein should be removed had indeed also been Bill Clinton's policy.
But on whether that policy justified a war, Mr O'Neill insisted that he never saw "concrete evidence" that Saddam had any weapons of mass destruction before the war.
"That also doesn't make a point that we shouldn't have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein. I'm not making that case," Mr O'Neill said.
"I'm making a really clear case that I know the difference between evidence and what is illusion and assertion and the rest. That's my point."
© 2004. The Sydney Morning Herald.