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To Tell The Truth

An Interview wit Ron Suskind, author of The Price of Loyalty

By JANE AMMESON

"I knew it was going to be noisy, but it went beyond anything I could even have expected," says Ron Suskind about the reaction to his new book, the number one New York Times best seller, The Price of Loyalty (Simon & Schuster 2004, $26). "The book has become such an event."

Based upon a series of interviews with former Secretary of Treasury Paul O'Neill, The Price of Loyalty recounts O'Neill's two years in the George W. Bush White House. O'Neill's assertions are backed by interviews with other senior Bush administration officials and more than 19,000 government documents that were given to O'Neill when he left office.

The hoopla surrounding the book began when O'Neill and Suskind first decided to collaborate. Initially, there were calls to O'Neill suggesting he might not want to participate, but the situation became worse as the publication date neared. The book had garnered an immense amount of publicity due to what O'Neill, the former CEO of Alcoa, asserted about the administration. He had accepted the job as Secretary of the Treasury over protests from his wife, and had prepared for it by writing volume of his ideas, hoping to engage the new president and cabinet in a vigorous intellectual discussion about policy. But he quickly found out that was not to be.

"It's frustrating to be here in Washington and realize that almost all of our public discussions are really arguments over what we're not permitted to know. I think we can do better than that."

"The only way I can describe it," O'Neill has said, " is that, well, the president is like a blind man in a room full of deaf people. I wondered from the first if the President didn't know the questions to ask or did he know and just not want to know the answers? Or, did his strategy somehow involve never showing he thought? But you can ask questions, gather information and not necessarily show your hand. It was strange."

O'Neill, who is the type of man to speak his mind, was soon determined-by those running the administration-to be a detriment to a White House that critics argue is known for staying on message and not allowing dissent. Voicing his frustration with the administration, O'Neill chose to tell his story to Ron Suskind.

And it is quite a story. In Suskind's book, O'Neill talks about the undermining of Christine Todd Whitman, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the president's reversal on global warming and about how Cheney said that "deficits don't matter," after the mid term elections put Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate. Ultimately, after speaking his mind, O'Neill was fired.

When Cheney told him, "The President thinks you should say you decided to return to private life, and you can decide whatever timing is good for you," O'Neill demurred.

"There are moments when everything becomes very clear to you and this was one of them," O'Neill says in the book. And so he told Cheney, "I'm not willing to say I want to return to private life because I'm too old to begin telling lies now."

Despite assertions made in the book, including that the invasion of Iraq was at the top of the administration's agenda from the beginning-something O'Neill learned about at the very first meeting of Bush's National Security Council on January 30, 2001-Suskind says the goal of his book was to conduct an "experiment in transparency" that allows the readers to make their own conclusions. Both the publisher and Suskind describe the book as non-partisan and take pains to point out that almost everyone quoted is a Republican.

"These are facts that are in the book," says Suskind, who as a senior national affairs reporter for the Wall Street Journal won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. "The 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 that help guide a more productive discussion. That is what both O'Neill and I hoped at the start would happen. O'Neill is a zealous adherent of sunlight. He's such a believer in transparency that he thinks there's nothing that really ought to be hidden except in very few instances, like national security or people being injured by a revelation. But 99 percent of what we stamp a secret is just plain old-fashioned butt-covering, and it's not good for any party to not let that disinfect in the sunshine, whether you are a CEO of a company of the treasury secretary or, for that matter, the president. It makes everything more meaningful and relevant and creates a rigorous discussion if you just put everything out on the table. That was O'Neill's philosophy."

Suskind describes the book as a journey.

"All great stories are about journeys," he says, "going all the way back to Odysseus and the Bible stories. O'Neill said that he experienced what he called a growing revelation. O'Neill is our guide on this journey. It's one that helps us understand the way government is run and what is different with this one. I'm not anti-Bush-I'm pro-fact. It's frustrating to be here in Washington and realize that almost all of our public discussions are really arguments over what we're not permitted to know. I think we can do better than that."

Adhering to a pro-facts and transparency mentality, Suskind has begun to post the more than 19,000 documents on his website, www.ronsuskind.com. These are the source documents sited in the book, and Suskind has categorized them in the following way: Economy, Environment, Foreign Policy, National Security, Policy Shop and Spin. He also has a section titled Source Documents Cited in The Price of Loyalty, which contains links to the government papers given to O'Neill, which Suskind catalogues under titles such as How to Beat the Press, Attack Plan of Tax Cuts and Early Notions of Pre-Exemption.

"O'Neill is a zealous adherent of sunlight. He's such a believer in transparency that he thinks there's nothing that really ought to be hidden except in very few instances, like national security or people being injured by a revelation. But 99 percent of what we stamp a secret is just plain old-fashioned butt-covering, and it's not good for any party to not let that disinfect in the sunshine."

Suskind sees a correlation between the release of the book and the beginnings of what is now termed Bush's credibility issue.

"Bush was knocked off his stride starting on January 11, 2003, which is when O'Neill and I went and did 60 Minutes," says Suskind. "The polling date indicates that the erosion in the president's popularity ratings essentially started that next morning. Data supports it, too."

If the erosion started, so too did the spinning.

"The only thing O'Neill said he regretted was that the blind man quote was so vivid that it eclipsed other things," says Suskind. "He regretted saying that, not because he didn't believe it, but because it eclipsed so much else that is so worthwhile in the book. That was his only regret, but in a super-charged environment that's so fiercely partisan, accuracy was suspended so that the dependent clause of O'Neill saying he regretted anything was enough for folks at the White House, who were doing everything to try to blunt the potency of these words of truth. A few hours later it's on the crawl in Times Square and on CNN that O'Neill regrets comments. That was victory one for the White House. The next day corrections were made, but the White House had gotten an inaccuracy out there, and that is strategic in terms of affecting a particular agenda. And it's hard to catch. It's like chasing cats or like catching spores on a windy day."

O'Neill had watched others take hits for speaking the truth, but he wasn't worried. A seemingly crusty older man who believed in the principals of truth, he was determined to speak his mind no matter what the repercussions on his life might be.

"'I'm an old guy,'" Suskind says O'Neill told him. '"And I'm really rich so there's nothing they can do to hurt me.' At that moment, I said it's like that line from Casablanca: Louie, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

And it is a friendship that has endured even after their collaboration on the book and their visits to talk shows have ended. Suskind says that he and O'Neill chat every few days. And they both are happy that the sun is shining in on the workings of government.

"The New York Times says it reads like a spy thriller, but at the end, it doesn't necessarily have a happy ending," says Suskind. "But it does in a way because O'Neill preserves himself. It's a happy ending in a way because he stays true to himself and the principles that he and others have embraced."

Published: April 01, 2004