O'Neill generates buzz, but how much impact?

It is a Washington ritual as tried and true as the filibuster and the leaked memo: a highly placed official, current or former, tells all in a book-length indictment of administration policy and operations.

The latest has just hit the bookstores, a kiss-and-tell volume called "The Price of Loyalty," by reporter Ron Suskind, featuring the incendiary observations of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who was fired in December 2002. Even the rollout has followed the usual pattern: advance word of Mr. O'Neill's choicest allegations, a national television interview probing same, and the book's actual release Tuesday, along with simultaneous rebuttals by the White House - and the threat of a Treasury Department investigation into whether O'Neill was allowed to give Mr. Suskind the documents he did.

That riffling sound emanating from Washington reflects the scores of inside-the-beltway types flipping to the index, checking either for their own names or for others of special interest. Bush political guru Karl Rove, an endless source of fascination for students of this White House, scores 32 references.

But the main show is O'Neill's observations about President Bush and Vice President Cheney, by now well-reported: that Bush seemed detached from policymaking; that he was intent on removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power, long before the 9/11 attacks; Cheney's unprecedented clout as vice president; and this White House's intensely political approach to policy.

O'Neill and the administration formally parted company after the former Alcoa CEO disagreed with plans for another major tax cut after the 2002 midterms, a GOP victory that triggered what he calls "a smugness." O'Neill recounts a meeting in which he raised concerns about "what rising deficits would mean to our economic soundness," and was cut off by Cheney, who said, "[former President] Reagan proved deficits don't matter."

O'Neill has opened himself up to charges that he is trying to avenge his ignominious firing. Foreseeing such allegations, he insists his goal is to make people stop and think about the state of the nation's political process. Although O'Neill had already served 16 years in government, including a tour as deputy director of the White House budget office under President Ford, he emerges from his time near the top of the policy food chain appearing to some as naive, and to others as indifferent to how his remarks will be used or interpreted.

He is, O'Neill himself has pointed out, a wealthy man near the end of his career, and so has nothing to fear. Still, the whirlwind that has emanated from the Suskind book serves as a reminder of how the capital works.

"Washington is a rough town," says Robert Reich, Labor secretary during President Clinton's first term and author of his own reminiscences about life in an administration, "Locked in the Cabinet." "Someone told me when I got there, if you prick your finger, the sharks will bite off your arm. If you make a misstep, it can be very rough, pretty dangerous."

Still, Professor Reich, now back in academia, says it was all worth it. "The satisfaction of being in the Cabinet outweighs all of the pettiness in Washington, particularly if you have an opportunity to do something that helps a lot of people."

David Stockman, President Reagan's budget director, may be the best recent analogy to O'Neill. Mr. Stockman took his post as a true believer in supply-side economics, but grew disillusioned at his inability to cut the budget and prevent growing deficits. He departed the administration soon after he granted a tell-all interview to journalist William Greider in The Atlantic Monthly. Five years later, he put out his memoirs, expressing (like O'Neill) disgust for the political process.

But judging by Reagan's ultimate political success - reelection to a second term and a growing legacy as a hero to conservatives - Stockman appears to have gotten the lesser end of the deal. Today, political observers predict the same for O'Neill, particularly if Bush wins reelection.

"It's a two-day story," says Jim Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo. "For Bush supporters, it will be dismissed as sour grapes by someone who was fired from the administration, because he wasn't doing a very effective job in the Cabinet. For people who are Bush detractors, this won't be any news."

Some observers believe O'Neill should at least have waited until Bush had left office, to allow the former Treasury secretary to gain some historical perspective - even if the sense of loyalty the Bush White House prizes highly didn't tug strongly. But for historians, timing doesn't matter: Insider information, issued on the record, is a valuable resource. And when put in print sooner rather than later, it can be even more useful; memories are fresher, principal players are still alive.

Kiss-and-tell books attacking American presidents while they're still in office go back to some of the earliest administrations. The seventh president, Andrew Jackson, faced one from his own Treasury secretary, William Duane, whom Jackson had fired.

One of the architects of the New Deal, Raymond Moley, attacked his former boss, President Franklin Roosevelt, while he was still in office. "It was used by his political opponents against him, but, you know, that's the way life is," said historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in a 1999 TV interview.

Historians also know that these early takes don't represent the definitive story of a presidency, but rather fall among the hundreds of sources that will be mined for decades to come.

"These memoirs are very useful for creating a record - not because they're strictly accurate or because they contain recriminations or subjective hostility," says historian Robert Dallek, who recently unearthed new information about President Kennedy. "But for all their defects, they're enormously useful to historians. They point you in a useful direction."

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