The O’Neill Death Watch, Part 7

An ongoing series on the occupational travails of the treasury secretary.

Paul O’Neill is very possibly the first Cabinet secretary in history with no taint of criminality or ethical impropriety to see both the National Review and the NewRepublic call for his resignation. The New Republic editorial, in the Jan. 21 issue, accuses O’Neill of practicing “a kind of economic isolationism.” His reluctance to extend much help to Argentina during its financial crisis, the editorial argues, demonstrates a “blithe and unwarranted confidence that the globalization-related turmoil in poorer precincts of the globe cannot damage the American economy and does not deserve sustained attention from top U.S. officials.” (National Review wants him out because he’s soft on tax cuts.) The Wall Street Journal now seems to have a quota in its Page One “Washington Wire” column requiring at least one item mocking O’Neill every week. (They don’t even have to be especially good—this week the Journal raps O’Neill for the gaffe of saying that Tom Daschle never called for repeal of the Bush tax cut, which is true, because it conflicted with Bush’s claim that Daschle did call for repeal, which is false.) And this Sunday the New York Times Magazine will carry an O’Neill profile by Michael Lewis that, although full of praise for O’Neill’s stewardship of Alcoa and his refusal to run with the herd, portrays him as constitutionally incapable of pleasing Washington (where, bafflingly, he previously spent two decades as an extremely able bureaucrat) or Wall Street (which he doesn’t much like—Lewis reports that he cares a lot more about the commodities market).

Dumping Paul O’Neill is obviously harder than it looks. The Christmas-to-New-Year black hole of news, which Chatterbox previously identified as a favorable period during which to eject O’Neill, has come and gone. Yet O’Neill’s still there. Will no one rid Dubya of this troublesome hire?

The collapse of Enron, whose chairman, Kenneth Lay, had close ties to the administration, may furnish an opportunity. If it could be shown that O’Neill did anything improper on behalf of Enron, that would kill two birds with one stone: The Bushies would have a fall guy for whatever political scandal might emerge about Enron’s demise and a pesky treasury secretary would be history. It’s a tricky play, though, because so far there’s no evidence that either O’Neill or anyone else in the Bush administration did anything wrong to help Enron. If misdeeds do come to light, it seems unlikely they will be O’Neill’s. That’s one clear upside to being a do-nothing treasury secretary—if you don’t do anything, you can’t do anything unethical! Today, for example, we learned that Lay last fall issued she’s-gonna-blow warnings to both O’Neill and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, and encouraged O’Neill to think of the situation as being analogous to the collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management in 1998. Lay reminded O’Neill that the government organized a private bailout for LTCM, and O’Neill had a treasury undersecretary, Peter Fisher, who had been involved in the LTCM bailout, compare the two situations. But Fisher concluded that they weren’t comparable, and O’Neill forgot about it.

Still, Chatterbox wouldn’t put it past the Bush administration to frame O’Neill. By “frame,” Chatterbox doesn’t mean that the White House would concoct false evidence; he means merely that it would find a way to manufacture outrage at something O’Neill did concerning Enron that wasn’t really outrageous. One possibility would be to decide that it was unethical or hideously negligent for O’Neill not to notify the president that Enron was going bust. (In reality, it would be easier to argue that O’Neill were behaving unethically if he had notified Bush that Enron was going bust.) Another possibility would be to put a sinister read on what were apparently multiple contacts between Enron and Fisher over a possible bailout. (There’s no evidence as yet that Fisher did anything wrong.) The days ahead will present various opportunities for O’Neill to “misspeak” to reporters about the Enron debacle, which could provide Bush a reason to dump O’Neill on the grounds that he’s not forthcoming. This would require the press to swallow the idea that anyone would ever really get fired from the Bush administration for stonewalling. But with a well-honed anecdote about the president’s “personal shock” leaked here or there, who knows? Oval Office color is always in short supply! Watch your back, Paul!

(To see previous installments of the O’Neill death watch, click here, here, here, here, here, and here.)