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A look inside a political firestorm

In the mid 1980s, Ron Suskind was covering the night police beat for the St. Petersburg Times. In 1995, he won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting. Now he's making news himself as the author of The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill.

The book is a controversial inside look at the Bush administration written in cooperation with O'Neill, former secretary of the treasury.

"It's a strange feeling," Suskind says. "You spend your life reporting the news, and then to be caught up in this _ it's amazing."

Speaking by phone from his home in Washington, Suskind says the experience has sharpened his sympathy for public figures, particularly his collaborator. "I have great sympathy for O'Neill. He's going through the tearing-at-the-red-meat process: One quote and it's the headline."

Suskind says the book is selling at "breakneck speed," but the first wave of response to it came in large part from people who had not read it.

"There's been so much partisan noise that it's hard for people to see it as a book. People have a kind of Rorschach test reaction to it, at least before they buy it. Then when they read it, they see something different."

One thing they see is a minutely detailed look at the White House's inner workings. "Some people have said it's like a movie camera planted on O'Neill's glasses," Suskind says.

O'Neill became secretary of the treasury in 2000. He had retired after 13 years as chief executive of Alcoa; before that, he had worked in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and served as an adviser on education and other issues to George Bush Sr. He was a close friend of Alan Greenspan and a longtime colleague of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

He did not, however, know George W. Bush, and he took the Treasury job somewhat reluctantly. He was soon seen as a maverick by the White House and was fired in December 2002. The reasons for that parting were complex, but O'Neill's opposition to a new round of tax cuts was what pulled the trigger.

The first wave of media reaction to the book fastened on a few incidents and quotes: O'Neill's comparison of Bush in Cabinet meetings to "a blind man in a roomful of deaf people" and his description of the first National Security Council meeting of the Bush administration in January 2001, which focused on Iraq and ended with Bush assigning Rumsfeld to "examine our military options."

The book has been hailed as an expose of a radical and secretive administration and reviled as a sour grapes attack by a former insider. Suskind says, "People call it partisan, but virtually everyone quoted in the book is a Republican."

The larger issue the book addresses, Suskind says, and the one that moved O'Neill to participate, is the insular nature of the Bush administration. "Their approach is like the character Jack Nicholson plays in A Few Good Men. The administration's view of the people is "You can't handle the truth.'

"Well, we're not children. We're grownups, and you're our servants. We're the public, and you're public servants. We certainly can handle the truth."

Unfinished experiment

Suskind worked as a city and state reporter at the St. Petersburg Times in the mid 1980s.

"I covered night cops. When you drive around in that little Ford Escort with that Motorola radio on your belt, you learn a lot about life, and you learn it quick, the best and the worst in people.

"I was very young, and I was something of a high-maintenance character," he says. "Let's call it obstreperous youth." He left the Times in 1987.

After leaving Florida, Suskind became editor of Boston Business magazine. "It was the era when business was like sex." In 1990, he was hired by the Wall Street Journal.

He helped start the newspaper's Smart Money section, wrote features and went to Washington as a national affairs reporter.

In 1995, he won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for a series of stories about minority students in public high schools.

The stories also became the spark for his first book, Hope in the Unseen. The book follows a talented black teenager from one of the worst public schools in Washington through his experiences at the Ivy League's Brown University.

Suskind says Hope in the Unseen examines the "American conversation on race." He hopes that The Price of Loyalty "will help us understand in new ways the great American experiment in self-governance. And it's an unfinished experiment, make no mistake.

"It's a messy process, democracy. You can't control it, and that's why it works. Although this White House has certainly tried to control it."

Pulling back the curtain

Suskind was writing about the Bush White House before he met O'Neill. In two articles published in Esquire, he profiled Bush's former communications director Karen Hughes and top political adviser Karl Rove.

The administration's insistence on tight control of information was clear, he says. "What I discovered was that in the past there was simply much greater access, and it allowed people to understand the process of creating policy. You had much more of that access under the 41st president, even under Reagan, than you do now.

"Now there is this discipline, this command control. Nothing goes out of the White House until it has been approved, vetted and, in most cases, gutted by the proper authorities."

But Suskind found sources. One of them was John DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania professor, political scientist and domestic affairs expert handpicked by Bush to head the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. DiIulio left that position by choice in February 2002.

In October 2002, while Suskind was writing his profile of Rove, DiIulio sent him a seven-page letter about his experiences inside the administration, expressing his concerns that its policies were often driven by ideology rather than analysis.

The story, published in January 2003, quotes DiIulio as saying, "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you've got is everything _ and I mean everything _ being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."

"DiIulio's statement came out, and it created great havoc," Suskind says. "This was the first time anyone had even pulled the curtain back a little bit on what it was like inside the White House."

He says he was shocked by what happened to DiIulio. "He got this wave of calls from the White House, and that day he was just pleading for mercy."

DiIulio at first stood by his statements. Then he expressed regret, Suskind says. "He said, "Everything I said was groundless and baseless.' It was exactly the same words Ari Fleischer had used" to describe DiIulio's criticisms earlier that day.

19,000 documents

On Jan. 7, 2003, Suskind attended a club meeting where O'Neill was a speaker. O'Neill had left the Cabinet a month before. The two talked about Suskind's Rove profile and the fallout for DiIulio.

In The Price of Loyalty, Suskind recounts O'Neill's opinion that DiIulio probably recanted because he was a relatively young man in mid career, choosing his battles. "These people are nasty, and they have a very long memory," O'Neill says.

Then he tells Suskind, "But here's the difference. I'm an old guy, and I'm rich. And there's nothing they can do to hurt me."

Soon the two men were collaborating on what was first intended to be a magazine article. O'Neill gave Suskind access to his schedules while he was treasury secretary: 7,630 detailed entries cataloging every meeting and phone call he participated in.

In March 2003, he asked the Treasury Department for copies of all documents that had crossed his desk during his two years there. He was sent several CDs containing image files of more than 19,000 documents.

Those documents stirred up one of the controversies associated with the book when O'Neill and Suskind appeared on 60 Minutes on Jan. 11 and a cover sheet marked "Secret" was shown.

The next day, the Treasury Department launched an inquiry into how the documents came to be released.

Suskind says, "It was interesting the amount of time it took the White House to initiate an investigation into who named (CIA agent) Valerie Plame _ I think it was 79 days _ and how long it took them to start an investigation into Ron Suskind and Paul O'Neill, which I think was about 12 hours."

O'Neill has said the documents were cleared by Treasury Department legal counsel, but Suskind says the investigation remains open.

He says he has received no direct response to the book from the administration. "They're figuring other news will push it out of the way. They just hope it goes away. But I don't think it will. Once they read the book, people have a lot of questions."

Suskind says he admires O'Neill. "It's rare to find someone with such fervor for the truth in an era defined by illusion.

"He's an old-fashioned truth man. He wants to work through all the evidence."

Both of them, he says, were stunned at first by the intensity of reaction to the book. "But now I think we both feel a kind of groundedness taking hold as people actually read the book.

"Once they see the details, the data, the analysis in the book, it's a much more productive conversation than all the screaming that's going on."

He says he is weathering the negative reactions, such as an editorial in the pages of his former employer, the Wall Street Journal, that called him a "well-known Bush antagonist."

Suskind says, "If they consider asking the most basic questions antagonism, then I guess that's so.

"Anyone who tries to paint me as anti-Bush is really missing the point. If there was a Democratic administration constructed this way and someone emerged with this kind of story, the book would be very, very similar."

Contact Colette Bancroft at (727) 893-8435 or by e-mail to bancroftsptimes.com.

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