Paul O'Neill was billed as one of the adults, a man whose corporate and government experience would bring a measure of grown-up sobriety to the Bush Cabinet. At his introductory news conference, the president hailed his new treasury secretary as "a steady voice" who would soothe the jitters of people and markets. He was supposed to be like any good treasury secretary: Which is to say, boring. Drop-dead dreary, CPA dull.
O'Neill failed terribly at this. God bless him.
As a rule, the Style section does not grieve the resignations of treasury secretaries. But O'Neill was deliciously embarrassing to an administration proud of its on-message discipline.
"The president enjoys his blunt, plain-spoken approach," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said in a vote of confidence for the embattled treasury secretary last year. We did too. To wit:
* O'Neill on nuclear power: "If you set aside Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the safety record of nuclear is really very good."
* On currency traders: People who "sit in front of a flickering green screen" all day, are "not the sort of people you would want to help you think about complex questions."
* On currency trading: Something he "probably could learn about in a couple of weeks."
* On the attention he's received: "I'm constantly amazed that anyone cares what I do."
* On the criticism he's received: "If people don't like what I'm doing, I don't give a damn. I could be sailing around on a yacht or driving around the country."
* On the House Republican economic stimulus package: "Show business."
* On the Enron mess: "Companies come and go. It's . . . part of the genius of capitalism."
* On the federal bureaucracy: A place where the world is run "in stupid ways defined by stupid rules."
Perhaps O'Neill's finest hour occurred in a Senate Budget Committee hearing during a 15-minute exchange with Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) over who had endured the poorer childhood. Byrd suggested that O'Neill's status as a Cabinet secretary and former corporate chief put him out of touch with the struggles of average Americans. An abridged version:
"Senator, I started my life in a house without water or electricity," said O'Neill. "So, I don't cede to you the high moral ground of not knowing what life is like in a ditch."
"Well, Mr. Secretary," Byrd responded, "I lived in a house without electricity too. No running water, no telephone, a little wooden outhouse."
"I had the same," said O'Neill.
"I started out in life without any rungs in the bottom ladder," Byrd said. "I grew up in a coal miner's home. I married a coal miner's daughter. So I hope you don't want to start down this road on talking about our backgrounds and how -- how far back we came from."
At one point, it appeared that O'Neill had tears in his eyes.
"No," he said, when asked about it, "that was fire."
-- Mark Leibovich