Topic: Government & Politics

Paul O’Neill’s Sell-Out

When General George Marshall, World War Two military leader, former Secretary of State, and architect of the Marshall plan, was offered a million dollars to write his memoirs in the 1950s, he demurred, saying that there was no way he could write a truthful memoir without undermining people still at work in the government and military.

And then there was David StockmanÂ…and George StephanopoulousÂ…and Paul O’Neill.

Bottom line: these people betray their colleagues for money, and occasionally, as is O’Neill’s case, out of spite. O’Neill, like the others, was given an opportunity to serve his country in a high executive branch position. He was privy to policy discussions and the inner workings of the administration. He was trusted. To reveal details of his tenure while the administration he worked for is still in office, done in a way designed to provoke criticism and embarrass his former associates and boss, is the height of disloyalty, and a breach of implicit confidentiality.

The only way someone like O’Neill is going to get a book contract, even with the assistance of a journalist as respected as Ron Susskind, is to promise “sensational” revelations: comments that will be raw meat for Bush critics, just as George Stephanopoulous turned on his long-time patron, President Clinton, while the jackals were howling. As a result, the entire orientation of the resulting book is suspect. O’Neill had to promise controversy to get his contract, and then had to deliver on his promise. Is it accurate? There is no way to tell.

And in an ethical context, it hardly matters. The honorable and ethical way to write such a book would be to wait until it could not actively interfere with the work of the Executive Branch. The people may have a right to know, but they do not have a right to know everything immediately. People in high policy-making positions must be able to be themselves, express opinions, and have productive meetings with the confidence that those they work with are not collecting notes for a future Book-of-the-Month sellout. Books like O’Neill’s undermine that trust, make it more difficult to get candid and controversial opinions and ideas into the decision-making process, and ultimately hurt all of us. The former Treasury Secretary and those who appreciate the additional ammunition for administration-bashing can assemble a lot of rationalizations for providing material for Susskind’s book, but they all boil down to “Everybody Does It,” the most threadbare and cowardly rationalization of all.

The ethical thing would have been for O’Neill to write the book in a few years, or not to write it at all. The ethical conduct for the reading public is to discourage betrayals, no matter who the betrayee, by sending such books to the remainders bin.

[Footnote: By all accounts, O’Neill also turned over piles of government documents to Susskind, including some that may have been classified, proprietary, or otherwise not his to distribute. He has admitted that he hadn’t read many of the documents himself. We need not dwell on the obvious problems with this behavior, except that it reveals someone remarkably unfamiliar with basic ethical principles. As others, notably Michael Kinsley, have noted, the real scandal raised by the former Secretary’s revelations is that such a person was appointed to such a high office in the first place.]

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