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BOOK REVIEW

A Treasury trove of recollections about Bush

The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill, By Ron Suskind, Simon & Schuster, 348 pp., $26

Thanks to the media's echo chamber and a conspicuous perch atop the bestseller list, "The Price of Loyalty" is closing in on the Bible as a font of familiar sayings.

"Reagan proved deficits don't matter." (Vice President Dick Cheney, alleging that fiscal irresponsibility is a virtue.)

"Didn't we already give them a break at the top?" (President Bush, fretting over his own second round of tax cuts.)

Paul O'Neill, the fired Treasury secretary whose documentation and recollections are the backbone of the book, may be remembered less for what he did in office than for his observation that the incurious Bush at Cabinet meetings was "like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people."

Unlike the Bible's, these proverbs will fade from memory, but they have made "The Price of Loyalty" a part of scripture for administration critics. A little exegesis is in order: What does the book really mean? In a nutshell, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind has written an invaluable history, both for what he says about our current leaders but also, unwittingly, for what he says about O'Neill, with whom he sides.

News followers know that the book's most serious indictments are, one, that the fix was in on the Iraq war from the very first days of the administration, and two, the president's anti-intellectual bent and the ideological rigidity of his advisers produced an administration pursuing ruinous goals poorly grounded in reasoned analysis. (The war, deficit spending, and anti-environment policies are among the proffered examples.) Given the show of diplomacy Bush made before invading Iraq, the obviously inadequate planning for the occupation, and the hundreds of Americans and Iraqis who have died, the first charge could have been damning. But the case Suskind and O'Neill present won't change any minds.

They show that the administration took the Clinton recipe of regime change through peaceful pressure and sprinkled in a willingness to use bombs. Yet as late as the weekend after Sept. 11, 2001 (and page 189), when Bush and his team began mapping the war on terror, it remained the case, as Suskind writes, that "no one was willing to commit, at this point, to an Iraq invasion." The following year, Bush began making his case publicly, and we got months of public debate. Nothing in this book retroactively tips the balance in that debate.

The charge of blind ideological fervor is more worrisome. It's scary, for example, that the nation's vice president believes that Reagan proved deficits don't matter, considering Reagan (and two successors) raised taxes to stanch the deficit. Yet the book inevitably makes one wonder whether O'Neill might have avoided his fate by laying out his nonnegotiable priorities to the president and Cheney at his job interview. Instead, it seems he was seduced by the prestige and potential for service of sitting in Alexander Hamilton's chair. For all O'Neill's criticisms, he has said he will vote for Bush in November. Perhaps that's because some of his own thinking (he would like corporate taxes ultimately abolished, Suskind says) is closer to the Bushies' than he'd admit.

There is much to admire about O'Neill. A New York Times Magazine profile reported that as CEO of Alcoa, his mania for employee safety resulted in a lower absentee rate from injury than at the Treasury, a decidedly less risky work environment than working with searing-hot metal. He was right more often than his antagonists inside the administration, and his blunt talk was often refreshing. But it also could be dumb, sending the dollar into free fall or insulting Argentina as a catastrophic depression convulsed that country, as Suskind dutifully notes.

O'Neill would have been better suited as a mid-echelon analyst. His wife, we read, never wanted him to take the Treasury job. She comes off as the smartest person in the book.

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