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A nice man among mean people

Gary Caruso | Thursday, January 15, 2004

God bless the Republican American patriot, former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, whose naivete generated the book “The Price of Loyalty.” His insights have confirmed what Washington insiders know yet those outside the beltway cannot fathom about White House operations. Those around the president are more ideological and mean-spirited than any staff preceding them. They are nothing like the mix of their caring, conscious-driven predecessors, former Republican and Democratic White House writers, now collaborating on the television series “The West Wing.”

The current crowd is faithful first to loyalty and then to ideology. The chief of staff, interviewed by a reporter featured in this week’s New Yorker, equates interviews with reporters as opportunities to confirm leaks. His policy is to avoid speaking to the press. This White House views the press, not as a vehicle to report the news or serve as a watchdog and arbiter for the people, but as a special interest. To date, the current President Bush has hosted only 11 press conferences, nearly four times less than his father.

This White House staff are excessively nasty toward those whom they do not consider “one of them” in an “us versus them” outlook. In fact, they often systematically and subtly violate labor laws to discriminate against Democrats who legally qualify over all other applicants for career civil service jobs.

These staff members think nothing of punishing a Democratic diplomat by leaking the identity of his wife, an American intelligence agent whose work is most vital to American security, merely because the diplomat contradicted the White House. These same people scared the stuffings out of O’Neill a day after his book was released by threatening to investigate the legality of documents he used for his book. It is no wonder O’Neill has soft-pedaled a bit in response.

O’Neill and Secretary of State Colin Powell have both been used by the Bush crowd to further strict ideological agendas. Where O’Neill is not as politically savvy as Powell, O’Neill also lacks Powell’s military mentality of absolute discipline, even to the extent of diving over a cliff in the name of obeying orders. However, expect Powell to resign should Bush be reelected.

O’Neill’s book is a must-read for both supporters of the president and those who oppose Bush. While every administration has its “kiss and tell” books, this one cracks the strict discipline the Bush White House has so successfully executed until now. O’Neill’s 19,000 documents offered the author a wide view of Bush operations. The book’s content, focusing on many embarrassing revelations, has already been corroborated by other Bush insiders. Moreover, nobody at the White House has denied the content.

Bush staff selectively take aim at areas they can spin into a positive light. For example, most have focused on O’Neill’s description of a disengaged Bush at cabinet meetings as “a blind man in a room of deaf people.” O’Neill now regrets choosing such an analogy, but White House attacks merely camouflage genuine issues of importance.

The White House has shrewdly countered O’Neill’s assertion that at the first national security meeting Bush was determined to go to war with Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. The White House claims that Bush was following an existing policy begun by Bill Clinton, which is a true statement. However, O’Neill needs to remind the public that he was a member of the National Security Agency and thus privy to every aspect of the Iraqi issue for nearly two years.

The White House cannot answer why a March 2001 document lists American oil companies who qualify to drill in Iraq. Nor will they answer why the document shows a map describing how to divide Iraq into oil drilling regions. The Bush crowd cannot answer why transcripts of meetings never show the likes of Secretary of Defense Rumsfield describing a single threat from Iraq at any time prior to September 11, only discussions of how to rule Iraq. Throughout all of O’Neill’s NSA meeting transcripts dated prior to the September attack, none characterized Iraq as a threat. That alone calls into further question whether the president embellished reasons to invade Iraq.

Some Republicans may prefer to believe the spin rather than read the book to gain insight into their party’s current White House occupant. They run the risk of lacking the conviction of many Democrats who, in past generations voted for Ronald Reagan or marched against Lyndon Johnson. It behooves every American to seriously examine any president who places American soldiers in harm’s way, especially a president who drastically embraces an unprecedented preemptive strike policy that has now accounted for nearly 500 American deaths.

Paul O’Neill is truly a hero for his conviction to expose the White House workings from his insider’s view. None of us, Democrat or Republican, should be both blind and deaf in a room of politicians.

Gary Caruso served as a public and legislative affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.