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The Price of Loyalty

January 15, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The book is called “The Price of Loyalty,” and focuses on Paul O’Neill’s rocky two-year tenure as secretary of the U.S. Treasury. Written by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Ron Suskind, the book is based on a series of interviews with O’Neill, former Bush administration officials, and over 19,000 official documents.

We take a two-part look at the book, first with the author Ron Suskind, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Ron, you’ve called this book a story. What is the story it’s trying to tell?

RON SUSKIND: The story is of a revelation, a rolling revelation of one man, Paul O’Neill, but it’s really a journey that Paul O’Neill takes the readers on into the center of this White House, into the epicenter of this administration, the Oval Office, you meet the president, you meet Dick Cheney, you meet really everyone.

It’s really not about Paul O’Neill. That’s the amazing thing, as you hear the furor everywhere. It’s about the administration. O’Neill is essentially your guide, and the fact is in many cases, his comments are ones of surprise or befuddlement, but not really hard conclusions or judgments. They’re of a person learning as they walk, head on in first person and saying, goodness, isn’t that different than it’s supposed to be.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s the portrait of the White House that emerges in this book?

RON SUSKIND: The portrait of the White House is one in which, and it’s not just O’Neill, this is not one man’s testimony — there are many folks, many voices of people who cooperated with the book, encouraged by O’Neill’s, you know, first-in-line example — it’s one in which policy, as it had traditionally been done in many other White Houses, was at least in large measure, absent.

Not that this White House is divorced from the desire to create good policy and make right decisions, but what’s clear is that the way in which policy was done in the first Bush presidency, or the Clinton administration, or certainly the ones that O’Neill was a key member of, was not occurring here. In the vacuum, without the policy apparatus, there was a spread of the political arm and the political mandate. I think that was a key issue that certainly O’Neill struggled with, but others as well.

RAY SUAREZ: And when you say politics comes in to that vacuum, what form does that take? What exactly do you mean? Is everything put through a political filter?

RON SUSKIND: Well, you know, O’Neill calls it vote-getting. And you know, he is extremely judicious in sticking to the facts in his comments. I think what it means is that, in many areas in — well, in virtually every issue, you feel the force of this sort of “let’s win first and the rest is for later or maybe for never” kind of philosophy. And it frustrates many right-minded people in this administration who said, “I thought we were here in large measure to ask hard questions. Do we have facts here? Is there a discussion of why we should do this, rather than the discussions of how?” This rages throughout the book. And it’s really a battle of sorts between many people as to how the content and character of this presidency will be defined.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Paul O’Neill is clearly at the core of this story-telling, telling us his view of events as he lived through them. But who else talked to you? I mean you didn’t just … he’s not a sole source, is he?

RON SUSKIND: No, certainly not. Certainly not. I mean, I have a mandate to protect a lot of sources here. Many people in Treasury are quoted, and former officials of the Treasury Department, and some current officials at the time of the writing of the book are quoted as well.

There are in the book, there’s an extraordinary kind of reportorial gift. This is nothing special that I did. But contained in the files are transcripts of meetings. They are not illegal tapes of proceedings. But what they are is a level of let’s just say stenographic level of note-taking by, you know, a particular person or persons in the room that allows the reader to essentially feel as though they’re sitting in the room. And I think that’s an enormous gift to our national discussion.

I mean, these are facts. This book is based on facts. And what that does, in a partisan debate often defined by illusion, is it causes sort of an explosive effect. Eventually though, things settle, and these facts become shared facts indisputable, that help guide more productive discussion. That’s certainly what I’m hoping and it’s what O’Neill hoped at the start of this project. This is what will happen: We can do better in this political system.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’ve got a series of meetings with really dense dialogue of, as you say, a stenographic nature. What’s the portrait of George W. Bush that emerges from these meetings?

RON SUSKIND: Well, you know, I don’t think the book ever makes a swift or decisive judgments about who the president is and, you know, what specifically are his deficits or strengths.

What you see, though, is a president who clearly does not show his mind the way other presidents did. I think that is indisputable. Meaning that generally presidents, to their senior most advisors, certainly folks at O’Neill’s level as secretary of the Treasury, at some point take over debate, they command a room and even with strong-willed and maybe fractious advisors, they say, “Here’s what I think and why I think it. Here’s how I get to my conclusions.” And men, often powerful men and women leave the room, no matter where they stood going in, saying, “I like the way he thinks.” That’s crucial. And that’s what other presidents that O’Neill served have done, and something that this president almost never does, certainly never does in this book and never does by the estimations of many people that I interviewed.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul O’Neill himself comes off as somebody who could be politically accident-prone, is that fair to say?

RON SUSKIND: Right. Well, I think that’s–

RAY SUAREZ: I mean it isn’t self-serving, is it?

RON SUSKIND: No. No. And in the book, I mean look, Paul trips and bumps his head and asks questions that, you know, are befuddled and he says, “Now, why is this the way it is?”

But I think it’s important that people understand that O’Neill is essentially searching for the essence of this president and this presidency all through the book, and he does find some things. He finds out that, in large measure, he’s dealing with at least in some realms a kind of absolutism. He talks to Dick Cheney at the end, after O’Neill says, “We really need an economic policy, we don’t really have one.” And he confronts the president and says, “We don’t need this second giant tax cut.” And Dick Cheney says to O’Neill, “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter. We won the midterm elections. Our due is another big tax cut.” And I paraphrased the end. This stuns O’Neill because all of the facts, as O’Neill has read them and many others, show that deficits have guided fiscal policy for 20 years. Those are the kind of dialogues that define this man’s journey and really the journey of many in the building.

RAY SUAREZ: Ron Suskind, thanks for joining us.

RON SUSKIND: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: For another view on the inner workings of the Bush White House, we turn to Mitch Daniels, former director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, where he oversaw the U.S. budget. He is now a Republican candidate for governor in Indiana.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Daniels. You’ve heard Ron Suskind’s view from his sources of the workings of the Bush White House. Does it sound like the place where you worked?

MITCH DANIELS: No, that’s not the president I know, it’s not the White House I worked in. And I believe history will ignore this book and should.

RAY SUAREZ: When you say not the place you worked, have you had a chance to read the book and see some of the descriptions of how business is conducted in this narrative?

MITCH DANIELS: I have. Most of the book, and I’ve seen most of the accounts. I think I have a fair take of what Mr. Suskind has written and claims to have discovered. And it couldn’t be further from the reality I know. I find it slanted and misleading — and I’m very sad that a man I admire in many ways, Secretary O’Neill, chose to participate in such a piece.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the Suskind book describes in his view, how this White House is removed from sort of traditional policy-making schemes for the American leadership, that it’s so politically wired, that it’s all about winning, to use a phrase from the book, and not always about the best public policy. Is this a politically wired White House?

MITCH DANIELS: No. In fact, I’ve told people for a long time that three rules for going to a meeting with George Bush are: Don’t be late, don’t take your cell phone and never bring up a public opinion poll.

You know, I don’t know that there is a traditional policy process. And maybe that’s part of the problem here, Ray. I’ve served in two White Houses, seen a third close up, and I don’t think any two are alike. I will say without hesitation that the policy process in this White House was far more intense, more vigorous in its debate, more substantive than the one I knew in a presidency I was proud to serve that got great results; that is, the Reagan presidency, where the process was much more formalized than the president — much less engaged in the substance or the details than this one is.

My impression is that each White House has its own style, and to be as charitable as I can be to Paul O’Neill, whom I repeat I admire on so many bases, I guess I just concluded that he was gone a long time. He may have … he’s four presidencies removed from anything involved in White House decision-making. And he may recall an idealized style of a different president and confuse it with something traditional and for all time.

RAY SUAREZ: So would you disagree with his description of a place where, for instance, rough-and-tumble debate over the issues is discouraged in favor of pat answers? You would dispute the narratives that have to do with how concerns over the deficit and other fiscal matters just got subsumed to the drive for a tax cut?

MITCH DANIELS: I absolutely do. You know, his own narrative, or Mr. Suskind’s, I think contradicts this point in many, many places; debates over steel tariffs and other subjects are described, I think, in as fairly direct and with many points of view expressed.

You know, this president, contrary to the I think cartoon in this book, is — I enjoyed very much, in policy meetings, for the questions he asked, the way he presses, the way he refuses to accept a pre-baked consensus; that’s something White Houses are far too prone to do. This president is very suspicious for consensus and goes looking for disagreement.

Again, trying to understand how my colleague, Paul O’Neill, came to these — some of these conclusions, I guess I also took note of the fact that he was only involved in a certain segment of debates, some of the most important ones, but there were vast areas of the policy spectrum that simply he wasn’t there to hear or see and maybe that explains how he came to conclusions that I just consider wildly at variance with the facts.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it’s not a small matter to take issue with that because the book says again and again, describes the president as cut off, insulated, living in an echo chamber. You want to say, for your part, that you didn’t know that George W. Bush I guess?

MITCH DANIELS: No. I think that’s a joke, frankly. I was astonished, again, comparing it only to the frame of reference I had, I was astonished how much time was allotted to policy, an hour or two a week, even with no agenda, augmented by many, many meetings on specific issues. Based on my assignment, I always had a standing hour with the president I frequently gave it back so as not to misuse his time. But his time was always available, and rigorously applied whenever the occasion called for it.

RAY SUAREZ: You are quoted at many junctures in the book. Did you at least find some familiar ground in reading about meetings that you had attended?

MITCH DANIELS: As best I can remember. You know, I’m always — I’m very impressed with people who can remember precisely what is said years later. I have trouble with last Wednesday. And I’m even more impressed with Mr. Suskind who can read the minds of people in meetings he did not attend.

So I — in the accounts that I saw in which I was described — my views were described, I don’t have anything to say about that. I have chosen never to divulge the contents of confidential presidential discussions. I don’t think it’s good practice or good form. And I don’t want to start tonight.

You know, Ray, let me point out what to me is an irony of this whole situation. Going public, breaching both confidence and I think faith in this way, I believe can only have the effect of chilling the very kind of debate that Paul O’Neill rightly wanted to see in this administration. People will be much less likely to be candid and forthright and argumentative if they think they’re going to read it in somebody’s book a few months hence. And that’s another reason I’m sorry that this whole thing happened.

RAY SUAREZ: Mitch Daniels, thanks for being with us tonight.

MITCH DANIELS: Thank you.