Man Without Qualities

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Deep Kvetch

Unlike the great majority of subordinates who complain that their boss does not listen to them enough, former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill is deeply upset that his boss - the President - listened to Mr. O'Neill too much:

"I went in with a long list of things to talk about and, I thought, to engage [him] on. I was surprised it turned out me talking and the president just listening . . . It was mostly a monologue."

Poor Mr. O'Neill. The paucity of Presidential responses will presumably deprive this former subordinate of a supply of confidential comments to disclose in this book (Mr. O'Neill holds forth even on matters far outside of Treasury Department competence, such as national security), which suggests that Mr. Bush's instincts in dealing with his Secretary were sound. I wonder if Mr. O'Neill has considered the possibility that the response (or lack thereof) that he elicited from the President may have been particular to Mr. O'Neill, and not to better advisors. And maybe that particularity, in turn, had something to do with the fact that during his tenure Mr. O'Neill rapidly developed a reputation for providing mediocre counsel to the President and for engaging in public disagreement with the Administration's decisions and programs - to the point of possibly petulant disloyalty - and for making public statements that were both incorrect and disruptive of public markets, as the Financial Times points out:

During his tenure as Treasury secretary, Mr O'Neill almost immediately became well-known for speaking out frequently and frankly on a range of subjects including the dollar, the limited value of International Monetary Fund crisis lending and the problems with development aid. His comments frequently had an impact on financial markets, with one remark about the low likelihood of an IMF rescue package for Brazil causing a rapid fall in the Brazilian currency. The IMF subsequently announced a $30bn bail-out that succeeded in stabilising the Brazilian economy.

The President's relationships with other - more capable - aides do not seem to have the structure of his relationship with Mr. O'Neill, as is evident in this passage from a recent New York Times article on Condoleezza Rice:

Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, stood in front of Mr. Bush's desk in the Oval Office last summer and tried to coax the president into something he did not want to face.

She suggested, carefully, that the White House begin repairing the rupture with the allies over Iraq by reaching out to Germany, whose chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, had infuriated the president by campaigning for re-election on an antiwar platform. Mr. Bush, simply put, did not trust him.

"I can't do it with Schroder," Mr. Bush told Ms. Rice, according to a senior administration official who witnessed the exchange. Ms. Rice, who had not directly suggested that Mr. Bush meet with Mr. Schr?der, rushed to reassure. "No, no, no, we won't make you do it with Schroder," she said. But Mr. Bush seemed to know what Ms. Rice had in mind. "Wait a minute, you'll get me back with Schroder, I know what you're trying to do," the president said, the official recounted.

Soon enough, a meeting to begin defrosting relations was set up between Mr. Bush and Mr. Schroder at the session last September of the United Nations General Assembly. " `I knew that was going to happen,' " Mr. Bush laughingly told Ms. Rice after the meeting was scheduled, the senior administration official said. Ms. Rice gently bantered back, the official said, but then concluded, " `Now, look, it's the right time to do it.' "

One will have to read the book to be sure, but from the articles on it appearing so far it seems that Mr. O'Neill believes that rather than being widely suspected of being a disloyal, petulant, mediocre and vain advisor, it is better to publish and remove all doubt.

Can the reader imagine what the reaction of a man such as Mr. O'Neill is proving himself to be would be if one of his subordinates were to do to him what he is trying to do to the President? I can. And it's not a pretty picture.

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