Paul O'Neill, treasury secretary and critic of George W. Bush administration, dies at 84

Paul O'Neill is pictured in 2001. He was a top budget official in two Republican administrations.
Paul O'Neill is pictured in 2001. He was a top budget official in two Republican administrations.Washington Post photo by Andrea Bruce Woodall

Paul O'Neill, a corporate executive who was President George W. Bush's first treasury secretary, only to become a leading critic of the administration after he was fired from his Cabinet post in 2002, died April 18 at his home in Pittsburgh. He was 84.

The cause was lung cancer, said his son, Paul H. O'Neill Jr.

O'Neill had been a top budget official in two Republican administrations before becoming a corporate titan, first at International Paper and later as chief executive of Alcoa, the country's largest aluminum company.

In the 12 years he led Alcoa, O'Neill turned the business around, increasing sales, improving the safety record of its factories and making the company a Wall Street darling. With the backing of then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney, his former colleague in the administrations of Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, O'Neill was named treasury secretary after Bush's election in 2000.

In his first year on the job, he helped promote the administration's 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut, then led efforts to revive the economy after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But O'Neill also became known for his outspoken manner and his sometimes sharp dealings with members of Congress and colleagues within the White House. At his first Cabinet meeting in 2001, he reportedly distributed a speech he had delivered two years before about the dangers of global warming, saying it could be as devastating as a nuclear holocaust. It met with a frosty reception from the administration of a president who hailed from the Texas oil fields.

O'Neill once called the U.S. tax code "9,500 pages of gibberish" and sometimes made other tone-deaf comments.

"One of the great things about where I am now: If people don't like what I'm doing, I don't give a damn," he said in 2002 while touring Africa with rock star Bono. "I could be off sailing around on a yacht or driving around the country. I'm here because I think I can make a difference."

O'Neill once had a testy exchange with powerful Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who questioned whether a multimillionaire business executive could understand the needs of working people.

"I started my life in a house without water or electricity," retorted O'Neill, who was born in St. Louis and grew up on a series of military bases. "So, I don't cede to you the high moral ground of not knowing what life is like in a ditch."

When he worked in the Nixon and Ford administrations, O'Neill later told journalist Ron Suskind for the 2004 book "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill," he believed that most government officials, regardless of political party, "really think deeply about the ideal of good government and how to get there."

He was a traditional Republican who held the No. 2 position at the Office of Management and Budget under Ford, who once told Business Week, "I can say without reservations that he is the most knowledgeable, objective adviser on the budget I ever had."

By the time he was in the Bush Cabinet, O'Neill found that the climate in the White House had changed. The objectivity he valued seemed secondary to the exercise of power and political will. When he objected to two additional rounds of tax cuts, which would create huge budget deficits and forestall the reform of the Social Security system, he found himself increasingly marginalized.

Soon after the 2002 midterm elections, which gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress, O'Neill was summoned to a meeting with Cheney.

He could scarcely believe his ears, he told Suskind, when Cheney said, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter. We won the midterms. This is our due."

Cheney asked O'Neill to resign.

"I'm too old to begin telling lies now," O'Neill said he told the vice president.

He wrote a terse letter to Bush, then announced his departure to his staff at 8:38 a.m. on Dec. 6, 2002. By 9 a.m., he was in his car, driving back to his home in Pittsburgh.

In January 2004, O'Neill made more headlines when "The Price of Loyalty" was published. He told Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter, that members of the Bush administration were plotting to drive Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power months before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,

"From the very beginning," he told the CBS News program "60 Minutes" in 2004, "there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go."

As a member of the National Security Council, O'Neill told Time magazine, "I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction" - which became the Bush administration's justification for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Moreover, he described Bush as disengaged and incurious - "like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people." White House policy, he said, was driven largely by Cheney's office.

In the end, O'Neill was happy to walk away from government, saying, "I'm an old guy and I'm rich and there's nothing they can do to hurt me."

Paul Henry O'Neill was born Dec. 4, 1935, in St. Louis. His father was an Army sergeant who later held civilian jobs on military bases.

O'Neill completed high school in Anchorage, where he worked for an engineering company before graduating in 1960 from what is now California State University at Fresno.

He came to Washington in the early 1960s to work as a systems analyst with the Veterans Administration, then in 1966 received a master's of public administration from Indiana University.

Back in Washington, he moved through the ranks of OMB, where he met Cheney and Alan Greenspan, later the chairman of the Federal Reserve. In 1977, he joined International Paper, eventually becoming chief executive. He moved to Alcoa in 1987, ultimately selling shares of company stock worth an estimated $100 million.

After leaving the Treasury Department, O'Neill returned to Pittsburgh, where he helped lead initiatives to improve education and health care, and gave $30 million to Indiana University, which named its school of public and environmental affairs after him.

Survivors include his wife since 1955, the former Nancy Jo Wolfe of Pittsburgh; four children, Patricia Wilcox of Fairfax, Virginia, Margaret Tatro of Alton Bay, New Hampshire, Julie O'Neill Kloo and Paul H. O'Neill Jr., both of Sewickley, Pennsylvania; a sister; a brother; 12 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.

When "The Price of Loyalty" was published in January 2004, O'Neill appeared on various television programs. On "60 Minutes," correspondent Lesley Stahl asked if he was prepared for the inevitable backlash that would come from the White House.

"You're giving me the impression that you're just going to be stunned if they attack you for this book," she said.

"I can't imagine that I'm going to be attacked for telling the truth," O'Neill said. "Why would I be attacked for telling the truth?"