The rate of descent of this faith-based administration has accelerated to breath-taking g forces over the past few weeks. Just a month ago, the book (Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty) and interviews (60 minutes, Time, etc.) expressing former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s disillusionment could be plausibly waved aside by a top White House aide with a couple of words, “We didn’t listen to him when he was there, why should we now?” (Time, January 19, 2004).
The “wave aside” isn’t working any more. If anything, the combined scandals of all post-FDR administrations may prove as nothing compared to this administration’s sins against the American people and the world. The Republican party had better be afraid, very afraid.
The son of a former president campaigned on the theme that he would “make us proud” of the oval occupant. He would restore dignity and integrity to the office. That resonated with a public disgusted with Clintonian behavior, although Mr. Bush barely squeaked into office because (putting aside the Florida food fight) his maladroit opponent couldn’t put his own state of Tennessee in the “W” column.
But Bush’s first Treasury Secretary, known for his blunt comments and flurries of controversy that could only ensue in a town shocked by honest answers, gives us an insider’s view of the president and administration that differs radically from campaign promises and White House imagery. “From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country,” O’Neill recalled. “And, if we did that, it would solve everything. It was about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The President saying, ‘Fine. Go find me a way to do this.’”
Find me a way? Any old way? Such talk might work in a James Bond movie, where the license-to-kill good guys follow the script and all ends happily and Bond gets the girl again. But such a message is incredibly dangerous in a real government. What those eager-to-please-the-POTUS heard was, “The ends justify the means.” Such a presidential directive nicely explains the administration’s playing fast and loose with so-called evidence about weapons of mass destruction, including a document that couldn’t pass an intel laugh test asserting that Saddam sought uranium in Niger, of all places. [I tried and couldn’t find the State of the Union address, 2003, on the White House website!]. If we ask, “cui bono?,” we must regretfully brace ourselves for a future revelation: operatives in the Pentagon or Office of the Vice President (Likudists or neocons, however labeled) or their hired agents may prove to have ginned up the Niger document. If proven, of course, that would seal this government’s fate. In context, the forgery may not have seemed like a big deal. All on behalf of a noble cause, right?
Former White House speechwriter David Frum confirms O’Neill’s rendition about Bush’s early determination on Saddam. In Frum’s first meeting with Bush, soon after the inauguration and six months before 9/11, the president had only one firm policy backed by real conviction: “his determination to dig Saddam Hussein out of power in Iraq.” When I was chief economist at the U.S. Labor Department, I saw O’Neill in a few large meetings at the Treasury regarding Social Security and Medicare and he is the same guy you see in public. His honesty cannot be seriously contested. And do his insights ever ring true as we learn more about the dismal adventure in Iraq!
Even Bush’s media apologists have been jumping ship after Bush’s my-lips-are-moving-I’m-dissembling interview with Tim Russert. Drawing a bead on the heart of the political problem, pollster John Zogby observes, “The president is on the ropes now…. Bush’s greatest asset was his unimpeachable integrity in the eyes of most Americans. But with no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that integrity has been chipped away and right now some large lumps are falling off it.”
Was O’Neill prescient or what? His fleeting appearance in January was much ado about much, not little. “In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction,” he told Time magazine. “To me there is a difference between real evidence and everything else.” On the eve of the Iraq invasion, O’Neill marveled at this President’s certitude based on paltry evidence: “With his level of experience, I would not be able to support his level of conviction.”
An irony is that Bush appointed O’Neill on Dick Cheney’s recommendation. Upon firing O’Neill, Cheney (aka Mr. Integrity) even asked O’Neill to lie about his departure from Washington but he replied, “I’m too old to begin telling lies now.” As federal prosecutors’ close in on the Veep’s office, maybe the Veep wishes he could take back a few of his knee-slappers.