A truth-seeker encounters ideology and politics at the White House

Time Magazine offers a fawning account of Paul O’Neill’s book about his unhappy times as President Bush’s Secretary of Treasury. Time’s account suggests that O’Neill has two main grievances with the administration. First, he found that Bush’s decisions were invariably governed either by ideology or electoral politics. This strikes me as another way of saying that the decisions were based either on what the adminstration thought was right or what it thought was expedient (or perhaps some combination of the two, although this may not have occurred to O’Neill). I would have thought that this is how most presidents proceed, but O’Neill insists that, unlike the administration, he based his thinking on “evidence and analysis.” However, the core economic dispute that O’Neill had with the supply-siders was ideological, not empirical. It is infantile for O’Neill to characterize this dispute as one between those who cared about the facts (namely himself) and those who didn’t.
Second, O’Neill complains that he couldn’t read President Bush and that Dick Cheney, his old crony from the Ford adminstration, was no longer sympathetic to O’Neill’s views on taxes and deficits. But Bush was under no obligation to allow O’Neill to read him and, in fact, O’Neill admitted to Time that it may have just been Bush’s style to keep his advisers guessing. Moreover, it seems rather odd to expect Cheney not to have adjusted his economic views in light of developments since the heady days of Gerald Ford (for example the success of the economy under Ronald Reagan, about which Cheney tried to remind O’Neill). O’Neill’s underlying complaint seems to be that Bush and Cheney favored Reaganomics over the economic policies of Ford (remember “whip inflation now?”). Whether one adjudicates between these competing approaches through ideology, expediency, or “evidence and analysis”, it is difficult to dispute the administration’s preference.
In order to sell his book to Al Franken’s public, O’Neill also needed to venture into the field of foreign policy, and especially Iraq. Here, the former Treasury Secretary tells us, “I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction. There were allegations and assertions by people.” O’Neill cites the fact that he has “been around a hell of a long time” to demonstrate his ability to distinguish between “real evidence” and everything else. But he never tells us what he thinks constitutes “real evidence” of weapons of mass destruction. Does O’Neill mean tangible physical evidence? If so, what is his argument for discounting other traditional forms of intelligence? President Clinton thought the evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction was sufficient. So did Dick Gephardt. So did the government of France. But I guess they haven’t been around as long as Paul O’Neill.
Fortunately, O’Neill is no longer “around” in any sense that matters from a policy standpoint.


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