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Published: Thursday, 12/12/2002

O'Neill just wasn't the right salesman

BY EILEEN FOLEY

It's amusing to hear the stories about Paul O'Neill's ejection from his Treasury post.

They talk about how the former Alcoa chief's plain-spokenness made him a target, how using President Bush's policies, he didn't turn the economy around, and how, in the Bushies' world, being a yes-man trumps insightful free speech.

At the same time they illustrate the weeny quality of the man who bullies Saddam Hussein in plays to the homies (Marcy Kaptur is right, there are quieter ways to win), yet turns mouse when it's time to fire staff. He showed the same gutlessness President Bill Clinton did in cutting off Lani Guinier, under pressure, after nominating her to the civil rights chief's post in Justice. Mr. Bush had the vice president evict his fellow D.C. outsider, Mr. O'Neill.

Now, as the economy limps along and as the deficit grows, thanks to a looming war that a good many Americans and the rest of the world don't think is needed, Mr. Bush is looking for someone who can convince the public that more tax cuts are in order and that the ones he began phasing in should be made permanent.

If that doesn't offend the average person's economic sense, it should. What person stops working for money while planning fresh spending?

When you get right down to it, what additional spending will this administration cut? Money to pay more Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors? Money to pay more Security and Exchange Commission lawyers and investigators? Medicaid?

Bet on it. Mr. Bush will, with a straight face, try to persuade us to follow his cockamamie logic, and like all the sycophants who wouldn't tell the king he had no clothes, at least half of us Americans will take the bait and then go feisty with naysayers.

You have to take a look at Mr. O'Neill's alleged gaffes to understand the bill of goods this administration wants to sell us.

First, he said former SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt wasn't serious about cleaning up corporate America in the wake of Enron's bankruptcy.

Who doesn't think that? Mr. Pitt vetoed a whiz accountant to oversee corporate fiscal records in favor of William Webster, an old loyalist who wanted to cook the books at a penny-stock operation he ran. Will the new guy get the money cut from the SEC's budget to do better?

Conservatives, with their elephant memories, were down on Mr. O'Neill because in 1992 he favored a higher gas tax, one which recognizes that fossil fuel is finite, one that encourages conservation - no longer what many conservatives are about.

One of Mr. O'Neill's bigger sins was supporting efforts to curb global warming, something the Oil President and his entourage deny exists - despite last summer - so they don't have to do anything about it.

My favorite of the criticisms of Mr. O'Neill was his labeling as “show business” a House Republican economic plan. That is something our former GOP governor, Sen. George Voinovich, has more than hinted at as well. Mr. V. plays politics with the best of them, but he knows from balanced budgets and living beyond one's means and the dangers inherent when a local, state, or federal government spends mindlessly. Mr. Bush doesn't.

It is said that the President prizes loyalty. Who wouldn't? The question is, how is that loyalty defined? Must loyalists toe the line, or are some of them around to speak the truth, state the obvious, and shoot down bad political dogmatism?

Does an honest adviser pull back when his leader does wrong, as Mr. O'Neill didn't do when, he said, rightly, that Mr. Bush had been somewhat tardy telling the world of his sale of Harken Energy Corp. stock, when he served on its board. The stock tanked shortly after.

Will a President who tries to avoid personal comeuppance be able to keep his corporate buddies on the straight and narrow? Is he even interested?

My guess is that all presidents lie. My late mother, a lifelong Republican, nearly tossed her cookies when the Great Communicator captured the airways, so little did she believe him. In the 1970s I interviewed a Canadian doctor turned stock guru who said he made money trusting that all Richard Nixon said was a lie.



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