Struggling to reconcile the ever-widening gulf between what the Bush administration claims to be true and what is actually true is getting harder by the day. Scientists at M.I.T. have apparently been having some success using string theory and particle accelerators, but where does that leave the rest of us? Fortunately, Paul O'Neill has a timely, if disturbing, diagnosis, backed up by some 19,000 pages of lab results: The White House is being run by a band of out-and-out fanatics.
On the administration's two defining issues, Iraq and taxes, the former treasury secretary paints a scathing portrait of a cabal of closed-minded zealots steadfastly refusing to allow anything as piddling as fact, evidence or truth to get in the way of its unshakable beliefs and forgone conclusions.
According to O'Neill, invading Iraq was a Bush goal before he had even learned where the office supply closet was. Day 9, to be precise. "It was all about finding a way to do it," he says. "That was the tone of it. The president saying 'Go find me a way to do this.'"
Of course, All the President's Men (and Condi, too!) did just that, gathering a collection of dubious facts, half-truths, quarter-truths, and -- what's become the house specialty -- no-truths, to match the desired outcome. Nigerian yellowcake, anyone?
But hey, why let a little thing like reality get in the way of a perfectly good war?
The picture of a White House teeming with fanatics gets even clearer with O'Neill's depiction of Bush's brain trust's dogged devotion to cutting taxes for the wealthy.
And, before I go any further, one word of advice to the White House attack dogs now unleashed on O'Neill: If you want to belittle his bona fides, you've got to come up with something better than saying, "We didn't listen to him when he was there, why should we now?" Let's get real. Is there anyone more central to developing economic policy than the treasury secretary? One that was picked by, yes, George Bush? To be any more inside, O'Neill would have to have been George Bush's proctologist.
Now, of course, they're painting him out to be a cross between Jerry Garcia and Karl Marx. Yeah, what an antiestablishment wackjob: Former CEO of Alcoa and a friend of Don Rumsfeld's since the '60s.
Anyway, whether or not they listened to him, O'Neill certainly listened to them, and now he's doing what this administration makes a fetish of not doing: telling the American people what their government has been doing. To hear O'Neill tell it, the true believers surrounding the president, headed by Karl Rove and O'Neill's onetime patron Dick Cheney, are all devout disciples of the first commandment of Bush Republicans: Thou shalt cut taxes for the wealthy, no matter the cost to the greater good. They have all drunk the supply-side Kool-Aid -- and simply don't care to hear any debate on this subject. Or on any other for that matter. According to O'Neill, "That store is closed." To disagree with the Bush clan is to hate America.
What's more, in classic fanatical fashion, there is an utter intolerance of dissent.
When O'Neill, who had the gall to be concerned about the looming fiscal crisis triggered by the growing budget deficit, argued against a second round of tax cuts for the wealthy, he was quickly put in his place by Cheney. "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter," growled the vice president, blithely ignoring the nearly 20 years it took to undo the fiscal damage Reagan's budget-busting had wrought. Besides, added Cheney, sounding less like the most powerful No. 2 in history than a kid cajoling his parents into giving him ice cream because he has cleaned his plate, "We won the midterm elections; this is our due." This is our due? Is it actually possible to so badly misread what this country -- or, indeed, democracy -- is about?
It's a measure of how effectively the GOP radicals have framed the political debate, with taxes as the root of all evil, that even a bedrock-ribbed establishment Republican like O'Neill comes across like a tax-happy liberal by comparison.
Hell, it turns out even President Bush had his doubts about the virtue of following his first round of serve-the-rich tax cuts with a heaping second helping. "Haven't we already given money to rich people?" Bush asks at a 2002 meeting of his economic team. "Shouldn't we be giving money to the middle?"
This momentary bout of presidential scruples was quickly cured by Karl Rove. "Stick to principle. Stick to principle. Don't waver," he urged Bush repeatedly. The principle, I suppose, being: "If we wanna win in 2004 we gotta keep our Pioneers and Rangers happy!" Boy Genius, indeed.
The most alarming thing that emerges from O'Neill's revelations is the total lack of leadership on the president's part. At the very moment that Rove and the Bush reelection team are gearing up to sell us on the image of the president as the macho, heroic cowboy from Crawford who is going to keep us all safe from terrorists, despots and Mad Cow meat, here comes O'Neill with his devastating assessment of Bush as "a blind man in a roomful of deaf people."
Will this be the wakeup call that finally opens the American public's eyes to the deadly consequences of being governed by a disengaged dolt in the hands of a gang of brazen fanatics?