Samuel Hayim Brody
Bush the Exception, p.3

Paul O'Neill is not exactly a leftist firebrand. He is worth more than $200 million, served as CEO of Alcoa for many years, and served in the Nixon and Bush I administrations. I say this not to give him extra credibility in his attack on Bush II (he is a fired hand, after all), but to point out that at first glance he comes from the same socioeconomic background. Alcoa, also, is hardly Ben & Jerry's; before O'Neill was nominated, many on the Left decried its environmental and social records. Yet a difference appears when we learn that O'Neill "started [his] life in a home without water or electricity," and became one of those few who manage to claw their way from the very bottom to the very top. Bush, as seems more and more clear, was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.

Suskind reports interview after interview between Bush and O'Neill in which Bush is described as sedate, silent, and uninquisitive. At one point, O'Neill tries to get Bush to consider moderating his radical tax cut policy by agreeing to "triggers," by which the tax cuts would be stretched out over a few years and conditional upon the actual appearance of budget surpluses. Bush repeats a mantra of his: "I'm not going to negotiate with myself." To O'Neill this is anathema, since negotiation with and reassessment of one's views is the very essence of good government. To Bush, however, dissent is destabilizing, including the internalized dissent of self-doubt.

In a revealing passage towards the end of The Price of Loyalty, an economic policy meeting is in the process of disintegrating over an argument about how spending on Iraq would conflict with further tax cuts, especially as deficits were being projected well into Bush's second term. Bush, upset that two of his most cherished policies seemed to be coming into conflict, interrupts by declaring that "The economic uncertainty is because of SEC overreach." O'Neill is stunned by this comment-its anti-regulatory bias simply passing over the reams of data O'Neill had brought to the table suggesting that the SEC was in fact not doing enough to rein in corrupt corporate executives. When the data suggests that Bush's economic policies just won't work, he falls back on ideological prejudice, which just so happens to often align with Karl Rove's political advice. The way Suskind frames it, Bush and O'Neill are completely opposite poles: one self-interested, prejudiced, uncurious, and stubbornly ideological; the other disinterested, intellectually ravenous, and practical. The administration's failure to include multiple perspectives is emphasized again and again: the Vice President's Energy Task Force is only made up of government officials and industry representatives, with no outside experts. O'Neill and Whitman are the only ones who seem to even believe in global warming, or in environmental regulations of any type. The President's Social Security Commission, intended to investigate policy options on Social Security, and advertised as such to the media, consisted entirely of figures preapproved as supporters of private accounts. O'Neill is a supporter of private accounts himself, but is dismayed at the brazen refusal to include opposing views in supposedly exploratory committees. He puts it this way: "If you're certain you're right . . . you shouldn't be afraid to include the opposing voices at your table."

Suskind also describes the underlying logic of the Bush administration in the following passage: "[Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's] actions, moreover, were born of loyalty to a core principle: to know all that can be known and then try, every day, to do what is in the best long-term interest of the U.S. economy. The Bushes, of course, have relied on a different oath: loyalty to a person, whether '41' or '43'," and to the family. There might be disagreements on what position the best available facts or political calculations recommend. But you stick together, no matter what." This is a loyalty emptied of substantive content, as well as a loyalty born of luck without reflection. The problem, for O'Neill, is not merely that Bush is uninformed and privileged. It is that he fails to make up for his lack of knowledge by soliciting and weighing alternative opinions.

The Price of Loyalty has gotten a lot of press coverage for its supposedly shocking assertions that Bush's National Security Council discussed an attack on Iraq ten days into the administration. Leaving aside the fact that this should surprise no one, focusing on this issue does a disservice to the book's real message, the one conveyed in its title. That message is that this administration is like a cult, bound together in worship of-itself. And the price of loyalty is the wellbeing of our country, its national security, and the very livelihood of people around the world who are hurt by its policies.

Going Deeper: Perfectly Legal and the Necessity (and Shortcomings) of Systemic Critique

If The Price of Loyalty focuses on individuals, David Cay Johnston's Perfectly Legal is a more typical left-wing political book, dealing with the construction in the last twenty years of a tax code so labyrinthine and complex that most Americans are unaware of how it affects them. As a result, they are vulnerable to rhetoric that the Bush administration regularly propagates, rhetoric which has little relation to the actual effects of the tax code on people's lives. Johnston's book is not a narrative but a compilation of offenses, with each chapter revealing simple but unknown facts about taxes and how they actively work to hurt the middle class and enrich the wealthiest.

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Image: Paul O'Neill and Bono on the treasury secretary's much-publicized trip to Africa.

March 2004

Passion and Violence
Jay Michaelson

A Song of Ascents:
The News from San Francisco
Sarah Lefton

Bush the Exception
Samuel Hayim Brody

The Wrong Half
Margaret Mackenzie Schwartz

God Had a Controlling Interest
Hal Sirowitz

Eliezer Sobel

Josh hosts a party
Josh Ring

Our 450 Back Pages

David Stromberg

Zeek in Print
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From previous issues:

If Only It Were All Just Art
Michael Shurkin

Jay Michaelson

What's your point?
Samuel Hayim Brody