Novak on Greenspan and O'Neill

In his book Alan Greenspan recalls that he welcomed the arrival of the George W. Bush presidency because it meant the return to Washington of his friends from the Ford administration — “as talented a group of people to run government as I have ever witnessed.”

At the top of that list was the new treasury secretary, “my friend Paul O’Neill. Paul had impressed everybody as Gerald Ford’s deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. His had been a midlevel job, yet we’d pulled Paul in for all the important meetings because he was one of the few with full command of details of the budget.”

For a more complete understanding of Paul O’Neill and what’s behind Greenspan’s devotion to the former treasury secretary we need to turn to Robert Novak‘s also recently published autobiography.

The year was 1969, and Novak went to the old Executive Office Building next to the White House to meet with the new head of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the youthful former Congressman Don Rumsfeld. Writes Novak:

“He greeted me in the outer office and introduced me to his new assistant, a pleasant-faced young man of twenty-seven. It was Dick Cheney. I recall few of the hundreds of assistants I have met through their bosses, but I remembered this one — and also what Rumsfeld told me that day.

“He would, in effect, follow the Moynihan Doctrine, not only retaining the Great Society’s antipoverty program but keeping it largely as the Democrats had conceived it. He would shock former colleagues on the hill, fighting a veto for governors on poverty proposals. He was influenced by Paul O’Neill, a brainy civil servant inherited from the Kennedy-Johnson administration (and denounced by the conservative weekly HUMAN EVENTS as a liberal intruder in the Republican administration.)”

Conservatives would regard this decision to, in effect, fund the Great Society, one of the true mistakes of the Nixon presidency.

The date was September 29, 1976 and Novak traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan for Gerald Ford’s kick-off of the Presidential election campaign, but in the column he would file that day he would focus on what he found to be the emptiness of the Ford presidency: Writes Novak:

“‘The presence of a Washington super-bureaucrat aboard Air Force One when it arrived in Michigan for the Ford campaign kickoff suggested the clinical nature, and hence the limitations, of the President’s ‘vision of America’s future.’

“The ‘super-bureaucrat’ was Paul O’Neill, the career civil servant who was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, as President Ford’s successive chiefs of staff, worked closely with him at OMB. O’Neill was in Ann Arbor to explain to reporters accompanying the President the details of Ford’s proposals on housing, employment and education. I wrote that the ‘new vision for America’ that White House press agents had predicted would emerge from Ann Arbor is essentially the vision of a Washington bureaucrat.”

Few events so succinctly demonstrate the futility of the Ford presidency as Paul O’Neill’s briefing (and the President’s O’Neill-inspired speech) that day.

But super-bureaucrat Paul O’Neill (thanks to his old pals from the Nixon-Ford days) would later emerge in 2001 as President George W. Bush’s secretary of the treasury. Novak picks up the story as he relates a breakfast with the newly-installed O’Neill:

“The next hour bolstered my belief that Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill was the biggest personnel mistake of George W. Bush’s young presidency. That he was the wrong man in the wrong job was apparent at his confirmation hearing when he said he supported Bush’s tax reduction plan ‘not because it is a major component to drive the economy, but because it won’t hurt.’

“How could somebody so far removed from Bush’s economic strategy end up as his nominal chief economic spokesman?”

Novak had given us that answer earlier. But O’Neill’s ill-fated tenure in the Bush administration, and the embarrassment of the silly book he wrote about his service — a book whose themes parallel Alan Greenspan’s economic assault against the Bush presidency — explains just where Greenspan is coming from. And it also helps us understand why the only Washington figure to get higher marks from Alan Greenspan in his biography than Paul O’Neill is Bill Clinton.


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