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By Alan Elsner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's portrait of George W. Bush depicts a passive and superficial president surrounded by right-wing ideologues who lacks the intellectual rigor or even the curiosity to think through the effects of his policies.
O'Neill, who served from January 2001 until he was ousted in December 2002, made headlines over the weekend for his assertion that Bush began laying the groundwork for an invasion of Iraq (news - web sites) almost immediately after taking office.
That was nine months before the administration began saying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction presented an immediate threat to the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
In detailed recollections of cabinet infighting and his own one-on-one meetings with Bush, as recounted to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, O'Neill provides a rare insight into an unusually secretive administration and glimpses of a president with sometimes unusual priorities.
Suskind's book, "The Price of Loyalty," for which O'Neill was the principal source, went on sale on Tuesday.
In the book, O'Neill says the tone of his relationship with Bush was set at their very first meeting where he was offered the job of Treasury Secretary.
Instead of a detailed discussion, Bush was more interested in why the cheeseburgers he had ordered were slow to appear. He interrupted the talk to summon White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.
"You're the chief of staff. You think you're up to getting us some cheeseburgers?" O'Neill recalled Bush saying. "Card nodded. No one laughed. He all but raced out of the room."
In the first White House reaction to the interview and the book, spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday, O'Neill's criticism "appears to be more about trying to justify personal views and opinions than it does about the results we are achieving."
BUSH BESTOWED NICKNAMES
At their first meeting after Bush took office, the president gave O'Neill a nickname -- Pablo. Later he started calling the secretary "Big O." O'Neill viewed this as "a bully technique. 'I've given you a name. Now you wear it'."
At that first meeting and many others, Bush asked no questions. "He looked at O'Neill, not changing his expression, not letting on that he had any reactions -- either positive or negative," Suskind writes. O'Neill wondered if Bush did not know the questions to ask or did he know but not want to hear the answers?
In the first National Security Council meeting he presided over on Jan. 30, 2001, Bush quickly decided to put Arab-Israeli peacemaking on the back burner and concentrate on Iraq.
"Bush described meeting (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon...'We flew over the Palestinian camps. Looked real bad down there. I don't see much we can do over there at this point. I think it's time to pull out of that situation'," he said, according to O'Neill.
O'Neill, who had run Alcoa Corporation, interjected: "I've seen a lot of factories around the world that look a lot like this one. What makes us suspect that this one is producing chemical or biological agents for weapons?"
Tenet cited circumstantial evidence but said there was no "confirming intelligence." And, O'Neill added, there never was such evidence, right up to the decision to wage war on Iraq.
O'Neill asserts that with Bush unwilling or unable to read detailed briefing papers, policy was decided on and controlled by Vice President Dick Cheney (news - web sites), supported by political advisers Karl Rove and Karen Hughes and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (news - web sites) -- a "Praetorian Guard" that surrounded the president and kept alternative viewpoints out.
In O'Neill's eyes, Bush's "lack of inquisitiveness or pertinent experience" meant he did not really care about long-established positions of the U.S. government and was willing to abandon them without scruple or regret.
"The president started from scratch and relied on advice of ideologues without any honest brokers in sight," O'Neill said.
At Cabinet meetings, it was clear Bush had not read the memos O'Neill had sent him, which he kept intentionally brief. In a one-on-one discussion about Social Security (news - web sites), O'Neill said the President just "checked out."
Cabinet discussions were usually pre-scripted with the outcome determined in advance. On one occasion when there was real discussion on tax policy, Bush quickly became "befuddled," according to O'Neill.
"If the president didn't connect in the first minute or two, it was a lost cause," he said.
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