O’Neill’s Talking, but Nobody’s Listening

A quick and dirty Hot Type survey has turned up results breathtaking in their predictability–newspapers that endorsed Al Gore four years ago are a lot more pumped by the new book about Paul O’Neill than the ones that went for George W. Bush.

The former treasury secretary whom Bush fired in 2002 “is neither disloyal nor misguided,” said Louisville’s Courier-Journal. “He is typical of American businessmen who see little logic in starving government of the revenue it needs to do its job…and who question the wisdom of unilateral pre-emptive war….His insights deserve to be taken seriously–by history’s accounting, certainly, but also by the voters.”

The Philadelphia Daily News added the book, Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, to “mounting” evidence that Bush’s justification for invading Iraq “was intelligence that was hyped and even willfully misstated….Before the apologists jump in and trash the Carnegie Endowment or Paul O’Neill (we suspect that even they will leave the War College alone)–and before they say the world is better off without Saddam Hussein no matter if we went to war under false pretenses–let us quote yesterday’s Toronto Star: ‘This White House has forfeited any right to have its utterances taken on faith.'”

“Thank you, Paul O’Neill,” wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Philadelphia Inquirer asserted, “Sadly, too much rings true in O’Neill’s shocking account of cabinet meetings that were ‘like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people.'” The San Francisco Chronicle cited The Price of Loyalty for seconding “the Carnegie report’s call for an independent commission to investigate the administration’s alleged misuse of intelligence evidence.”

Editorial pages that endorsed Bush four years ago were definitely less excited by Suskind’s book, but for the most part they took O’Neill seriously:

“Mr. O’Neill has been a very able executive, with wide knowledge of business and economics. His view of the Bush White House is valuable, if exceedingly incomplete” –Providence Journal.

“Call the new book on the Bush administration, with Mr. O’Neill as the main source, an ignominious kiss-and-tell tale or noble whistle-blowing. Whatever his motives, the former Cabinet member does help the public gain some insight into the mind-set of those who wield power and command its trust” –Dallas Morning News.

“In interviews and a new book, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill has called into question both the integrity and capabilities of President George W. Bush. But the Bush administration’s response–launching an investigation into whether Mr. O’Neill illegally took classified documents–comes off as petty and vindictive. The probe is not worth pursuing” –Orlando Sentinel.

Another pro-Bush paper, the Hartford Courant, focused on what O’Neill had to say about Iraq: that the Bush administration had regime change as a goal from the day it took office, and that in his two years in that administration O’Neill saw no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. A “useful revelation,” said the Courant.

But the Chicago dailies rolled their eyes. Neither paper’s editorial writer had read Suskind’s book. They were responding to news reports and to 60 Minutes, which had all focused on Iraq. The Tribune editorial, headlined “When secrets are old news,” dismissed O’Neill as a “one-time insider who has an ax to grind” and advised its readers that “no one should confuse O’Neill’s war stories with some shocking disclosure of heretofore unknown scheming against Hussein.” The Sun-Times editorial, headlined “O’Neill’s irrelevance,” sniped that O’Neill was “never in the White House’s inner circle on defense” and is now “giving vent to his sour grapes over being fired.” Even if O’Neill never thought Saddam had those WMD, reasoned the Sun-Times, “everyone in a responsible position back to President Clinton” thought Saddam did.

The Sun-Times’s point seemed to be that if O’Neill wasn’t deluded, it was only because he wasn’t important enough to see the data that would have deluded him. Yet O’Neill had sat on the National Security Council and read the same CIA analyses the president read.

The Price of Loyalty has faults that any reviewer should complain about. It essentially has a single source, it’s more than a little hagiographic, and it suffers from a pseudointimate narrative style in which the secretary of defense shows up as Rumsfeld and then Don and then Rummy. But editorial pages that want to insist O’Neill’s discussion of Iraq is a flaw need to admit it’s a small part of the book. Much more important is Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan telling O’Neill in the spring of 2001 that Bush’s tax cut was “irresponsible fiscal policy” (though Greenspan, an O’Neill confidant who backs up most of the book, claims he didn’t say that), Vice President Cheney telling O’Neill, when O’Neill was resisting a tax cut on stock dividends, that “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter. We won the midterms. This is our due,” and O’Neill concluding that he served in an administration driven by politics and ideology.

The chapter I’d recommend to an editorial writer too busy to read them all has nothing to do with Iraq. It’s about O’Neill’s opposition to steel tariffs and about how, in the wake of the Enron collapse, he and Greenspan championed reforms that would have made CEOs legally responsible for the misconduct of their corporations. “Simply knowing what’s going on in your company–and being responsible for it–is a standard no one in this room would have any trouble meeting. It would not even be an issue for most CEOs,” O’Neill told a forum of business leaders in February of 2002. But when O’Neill talked this way he roiled Bush’s “base.” Bush OK’d the tariffs (which the Tribune editorial page condemned as a “huge mistake”) and announced corporate reforms that were a shadow of the ones O’Neill had wanted. He later told Suskind: “A single issue for the corporate crowd–fear of lawsuits–carried the day. If people do the right thing, there’s no basis for any lawsuit….All you’ve got to do is do the right thing….The answer, at its core, is very straightforward. It’s about building a constituency for doing the right thing. The problem is that it takes real leadership.”

In O’Neill’s eyes, the president didn’t measure up as a thinker or a leader. O’Neill’s old friend Dick Cheney, as influential a figure as the president in Suskind’s account, was more complicated. Suskind writes that O’Neill confided in Cheney, believing him to be a pragmatist and honest broker even if weirdly inscrutable. But when Cheney told him, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter,” O’Neill rethought everything. “I thought that, clearly, there’s no coherent philosophy that could support such a claim,” he told Suskind. Only ideology could. “I think an ideology comes out of feelings and tends to be nonthinking….You don’t have to know anything or search for anything. You already know the answer to everything. It’s not penetrable by facts. It’s absolutism.”

In fairness to the Tribune, it later ran op-ed columns by Georgie Anne Geyer and David Broder, who’d read The Price of Loyalty and taken all of it seriously. The headline over the Broder column could be read as a self-rebuke: “Don’t be so quick to ignore Paul O’Neill.”

Here’s a guy who rose to the top in industry (O’Neill ran Alcoa), went into government, had troubling experiences, and wrote a book about them–and the reaction of two important papers was not to think about it. Dismissiveness is an odd tone for an editorial page to take.

Black Mood Lingers at Sun-Times

It’s exciting news that the Sun-Times is being sold, exciting in the sense of a doctor telling you that the thing you used to have has shown up again and you’re going to need another operation.

Deeply in debt and under siege from both the SEC and the board of directors of Hollinger International, which had forced Conrad Black to resign as CEO and last weekend ousted him as chairman while suing him for some $200 million it claimed he’d misappropriated, Black cooked up a deal. He’d get out from under by selling Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay his privately held company, Ravelston, which owns 78 percent of Hollinger Inc., which in turn controls Chicago-based Hollinger International, owner of the Sun-Times and dozens of other Chicago-area papers. The Barclay twins have made a billion dollars doing this and that in Britain–operating from their tax haven in the English Channel, a private island they built a castle on–and along the way they picked up a few newspapers. Now they’d have more.

The most prestigious Barclay paper is Edinburgh’s Scotsman, and on Monday I visited its Web site to see what it made of these developments. The headline shouted, “Owners of The Scotsman in £259 million deal to take control of Telegraph group.” The Barclays’ bid to take over Hollinger’s Daily and Sunday Telegraph in London preoccupied the Scotsman; the Sun-Times was barely noted. Its insignificance in the Scotsman’s eyes made me wonder how much it matters in the Barclays’. Even if they could overcome the Hollinger International directors trying to block the sale, would they hold on to Hollinger’s Chicago Group?

Things have been pretty good at the Sun-Times since Black and his sidekick David Radler resigned as Hollinger’s bosses last November and Radler was replaced as Sun-Times publisher and head of the Chicago Group by John Cruickshank. “I think it’s fair to say that around here we’re rooting for the outgoing ownership team to catch it with both barrels from federal regulators,” wrote columnist Mark Brown in Monday’s paper. He called Radler “an unpleasant fellow who most of us tried to avoid.”

The Sun-Times has changed hands many times over the years, and no doubt the staff could take one more sale in stride. But two in short order might be taxing. I asked editor in chief Michael Cooke if the low status of the Sun-Times in the Scotsman account presaged a quick resale. “That’s just the British tunnel vision,” he assured me. But he wouldn’t guess what lay ahead. “This will be played out over the next two or three weeks,” he said. Though he didn’t know much about the Barclays, he added, “I know that they’re pretty good publishers. They have journalists kissing their feet because they don’t interfere in the editorial line.”

Not that it took any time to locate a former Scotsman staffer who despised them. A writer who held a variety of positions there told me that the Barclays are “egregious moneygrubbing Thatcherites whose interest in newspapers is very straightforward–how much money can we make? They find a placeman, a viceroy, they can install, and leave the daily operation to him. He’s someone they can rely on to be more outrageously reactionary than they are. Scotland is overwhelmingly left-leaning and progressive. The Barclay brothers present an unapologetic, unreconstructed, Reaganite economic agenda. They fly in the face of everything their readers cherish.

“I think they want to put together a portfolio of prestigious titles, and they regard Chicago as a beachhead in North America. These guys represent a different kind of conservatism from that of Conrad Black. Conrad Black is a romantic, upper-class-fixated, Churchillian, Roosevelt-loving old-fashioned Tory. The Barclays have no interest in any of that. They are 80s unreconstructed heavy-duty greed-worshipping, more-is-more conservatives.”

Since this chap refused to be quoted by name, we’ll take what he says with a grain of salt. I also spoke with Brian Wilson, a member of the British Parliament representing the North Ayrshire district in western Scotland. Wilson is a founder of the West Highland Free Press, a radical weekly, and he still writes a media column for it.

“They haven’t been particularly interventionist as proprietors,” said Wilson when I asked about the Barclays. “Objectively, you cannot say they have put a political stamp on any of the papers that they own. But they’ve never owned anything as big or influential as the ones they own now.”

Wilson was speaking of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. “I doubt if they have any great ambitions to influence foreigners in the U.S.,” he said. “You can see their ambition to build a British business empire. I don’t suspect they have an agenda to build a Chicago business empire. Why should they?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP-Wide World Photos.