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Engaging Discussions

Former Secretary of the Treasury Paul H. O'Neill made headlines last week with his comments in a book that depicts President Bush as sometimes disengaged.

Mr. O'Neill was the main source for The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill, by the journalist Ron Suskind. Buried among the book's newsier passages are discussions of some of Mr. O'Neill's talks with his boss on education policy.

The author notes that Mr. O'Neill was actively involved in school improvement as the chief executive of Alcoa in the 1990s. Mr. O'Neill first met then-Gov. Bush of Texas at the 1996 national education summit in New York state. The book says Mr. O'Neill used the encounter as a "conversational opener" at his job interview with President-elect Bush during the transition following the 2000 election.

The meeting went all right, but what stuck in Mr. O'Neill's memory was a hungry Mr. Bush dispatching his chief-of-staff-designate, Andrew Card, out of a hotel suite to find out why some room-service cheeseburgers were taking so long.

During the first Cabinet meeting of the new administration, Mr. O'Neill told Secretary of Education Rod Paige he wanted to meet to discuss how to "energize the education debate," the book says. An apparently puzzled Mr. Paige asked what Mr. O'Neill wanted to talk about.

"Everything," the treasury secretary replied. The book doesn't say whether the two ever had that discussion, and a spokeswoman for Mr. Paige said last week he had no comment.

On Jan. 24, 2001, during his first Oval Office meeting with the president, Mr. O'Neill discussed a number of economic topics, but felt he was not engaging Mr. Bush. He switched to education, telling the president that he liked the ideas behind his No Child Left Behind plan, but that "the idea that really moves us forward—a real action plan—is One Child at a Time." That meant creating "a little strategic plan for each student," he told Mr. Bush.

"Right, that's the concept of disaggregation," the president replied, according to the book. "I have that covered."

Mr. Suskind writes: "O'Neill wondered if he should point out that the president might be misusing that term but thought again."

—Mark Walsh

Vol. 23, Issue 19, Page 26

Published in Print: January 21, 2004, as Federal File

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