Monday, January 19, 2004

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Suskind, O'Neill, and The Price of Loyalty

On my long weekly drive I picked up a copy of Suskind's book on O'Neill on CD. I'm only listening and not reading, I haven't quite finished it, and I don't have time to discuss it at length now, but here's what I DO have to say about it:

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!READ IT, READ IT, READ IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(or listen to it). It's always tough to tell what's really going on and who's telling the truth in a case like this, of course. But, though I started the book a little skeptical about O'Neill's story, now, one disk from the end, I'm captivated by it and rather inclined to believe it. It's amazing...terrifying...devastating...yet frequently inspiring. If this book is even halfway accurate, it confirms much of what many of us fear about the Bush administration. If you read the book and you've read much of this blog, you'll quickly see why this book strikes a chord with me. O'Neill comes across as a man of great intellectual integrity, a man who genuinely wants to know the truth and who genuinely wants to do what's right--and who wants America to do what's right. I'm pretty sure O'Neill and I would disagree about many things, but those things pale in comparison to what we agree on. Over and over again he emphasizes the importance of seeking the facts first and making political decisions on the basis of those facts. He is passionate about including "honest brokers" in the decision-making process and keeping politicos like Rove out of that process. He thinks that policy should be made by bringing in smart people from all sides and letting the best ideas win, and he makes it very clear that if you are sure you are right then you should have no fear of bringing those who disagree with you into the policy-making process--if you ARE right, then you've lost nothing, and, of course, you might not be right after all. He is first and foremost passionately committed to a fair and rational PROCESS. Good policy, he thinks, emerges from good process. Another way to put this: you start with the premisses you can be relatively certain about, and you see what political conclusions follow from them--you do not start with your conclusions and mangle the evidence in order to give those conclusions the appearance of rationality. Unfortunately, he reports, this administration works in approximately the opposite way. Policies are determined by political ideologues, facts and reason be damned.

The Right will say that it's all self-aggrandizing hogwash, and of course it might be. Needless to say, I've never met O'Neill, and I'm in a bad position to judge because I've already concluded many of these things about the Administration myself. Consequently I'm probably being insufficiently critical. But O'Neill genuinely comes across as someone who has lived up to many of the intellectual aspirations I have, and I have to say, if he's bullshitting us about all this, then he's one of the best bullshitters there ever was. If so, he's also a complete lunatic. But I have a pretty good nose for this sort of thing, and my tentative conclusion is that O'Neill really IS a very admirable guy. He's no doubt mistaken about some things, but does in fact seem to be an honest, intelligent, and highly principled man. THAT'S the inspiring part--that guys like O'Neill actually do exist in government. Several times I found myself hoping that, if a Democrat wins in November, he'll ask O'Neill to be Treasury Secretary again. I don't care what what CONCLUSIONS O'Neill accepts about the economy, I believe that this is a guy we want in on the process. I think--and I think O'Neill would agree--we need to stop forming political alliances on the basis of the conclusions we happen to share. It's far more important to ally ourselves with honest, intelligent people with a strong belief in and commitment to the process, and a strong desire to learn the truth and do what's right.

And finally: if O'Neill's portrait of the Administration is accurate, then hiving and incestuous amplification have run amok therein. If O'Neill is right, then we really do have a President who knows very little and who gets all his information and advice from the same sources. Our policy is emerging from an echo chamber full of dogmatic ideologues. If this does not lead us into disaster, it will be the merest luck.


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