Early this week, former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill sent tongues wagging and Republicans gasping when he claimed, in interviews and in a new book, that President George W. Bush intended to depose Saddam Hussein from the start - seven months before 9/11.
Hence, the whole thing was trumped up, an elaborate pretext. This is an extraordinary indictment.
If O'Neill is correct, America has lost many lives and paid a huge price to get rid of a terrible dictator who posed no direct danger to this nation. The world is better off without him, but at what price? We were directly and intentionally misled.
By coming forward, O'Neill shows once again that sometimes cabinet secretaries - especially former ones - have a higher patriotic duty to their country than blind allegiance to the president they serve.
In the book "The Price of Loyalty," by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ronald Suskind, O'Neill also revealed that Bush knew his tax cuts were mostly for the wealthy; that he and Vice President Dick Cheney were utterly indifferent to ballooning deficits; and that, in general, the president pays remarkably little attention to policy.
The immediate response from the White House has been to mount an investigation into whether O'Neill illegally used classified documents to prepare the book, and to suggest that O'Neill was motivated by sour grapes - since he'd been summarily fired from his cabinet job. By Tuesday, the Karl Rove character-assassination machine had moved into high gear and high dudgeon. On Wednesday, O'Neill was already backing away from some of the bombshells he delivered in interviews. But he obviously couldn't back away from his own words and documents in the book.
It's not unusual for former cabinet officers to write memoirs of their time in office, usually ghost-written or "as told to" or "with" a professional writer who can make them halfway interesting to lay readers. The typical motive is to spin history so the cabinet officer appears to be more important or wiser or more prescient than he was in fact. (Disclosure to the contrary: My book, "Locked in the Cabinet," was written entirely by me, and it was about my - and, by implication, most other cabinet members' - foibles and tribulations at the highest reaches of our government.) What sets O'Neill's book apart is that he reveals such damaging information about President Bush and the coterie around him - and so soon before a re-election contest.
During the time they serve, cabinet officers and key White House aides surely owe the president their undivided loyalty. They shouldn't (but routinely do) leak their policy differences to the press. They shouldn't (but often do) stab their colleagues in the back. They shouldn't (but have been known to) give controversial speeches or make policy decisions without first vetting them with the president or his chief of staff. If they strongly disagree with the president's policies, they should resign. Otherwise, they should shut up. When he was Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill didn't exactly play by these rules. He said what he thought. Presumably, that's one reason he was fired.
When they leave office, cabinet officers and White House aides are expected to remain loyal. But they have a higher loyalty to the public. If they know of troubling facts or circumstances of which the public should be aware - instances of gross irresponsibility or illegality at the top - they have a duty to reveal them.
There aren't many books that fit into this particular genre other than O'Neill's, Reagan administration budget director David Stockman's and Richard Nixon adviser John Dean's (such bombshell exposés by former high government officials are more common in Europe), but they are important. Especially now - when one party dominates all branches of government, when the White House imposes an unusual degree of discipline and its official line is so widely parroted by radio and TV talk-show hosts - the public needs to know what's really going on. To this extent, O'Neill deserves our thanks.
What was O'Neill's motive? Surely not money; he's a very wealthy man. Not publicity or status; at his age and after his career, he doesn't need either. Perhaps sour grapes, as the White House insinuates. After all, O'Neill had been CEO of Alcoa before coming to the Treasury - a no-nonsense, damn-the-torpedoes brand of executive who might have been frustrated by the political constraints a cabinet officer has to endure. But it seems more likely that O'Neill was simply appalled by what he found at the highest levels of the Bush administration.
That's certainly the tone that comes through the book and in the interviews he gave earlier in the week. There's a sense of amazement bordering on disgust at a White House that's captive to a small group of radical conservatives bent on imposing their views, regardless of consequences. O'Neill is no naif. He knew full well that Washington can be a rough city and a cabinet position isn't for the faint of heart. But he must have believed that facts, reason and common sense would ultimately trump ideology. That's where he made his biggest mistake.
The central question his book raises isn't really the loyalty a cabinet officer owes a president. It's the loyalty a president and his inner circle owe to the country and to its democracy. If O'Neill is telling the truth - and we have no reason to doubt his veracity - there's serious doubt about the loyalty of this administration to America.
Robert B. Reich, former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, is a professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University.
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