DO NOT USE Welcome Back, Mr. O'Neill

AWOL O’Neill Surrenders to Pundits

Last seen accompanying rock star Bono on an African tour, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill resurfaced on three Sunday talk shows.

There was something surreal about O’Neill’s appearances (Meet the Press, Fox News Sunday, and Face the Nation). Written off long ago by the pundits as an administration non-entity, he was rounded up to respond to criticism that he has been, well, a non-entity during the recent corporate scandals and stock market collapse.

The Treasury Secretary defended himself from charges he had been AWOL, touring former Soviet Republics, when he should have been at the domestic economic helm. He was doing important "national security work" on those trips.

He was even less convincing in claiming he was still the administration’s top economic spokesperson.

Contrasting interviews of O’Neill on Meet the Press and Fox News Sunday validated everyone who sees bias, one way or another, on the part of networks.

On MTP, host Tim Russert showed examples of O’Neill stock market pronouncements that have proven terribly wrong. On Fox, guest host Brit Hume showed examples of O’Neill prescience on economic growth projections. Russert focused relentlessly on calls for O’Neill’s resignation and criticism of President Bush’s economic team. Hume pursued a series of questions on economic conditions.

Through it all, O’Neill stressed the "fundamentals" were sound and that he was going to keep working on those "fundamentals."

In a bit of a reach, he claimed that the spirit of the Pennsylvania coal miners and their rescuers was a metaphor for America’s "sound fundamentals."

White House Economic Advisor Lawrence Lindsey mopped up for the administration, appearing on This Week and CNN’s Late Edition, using the by now tired "sound fundamentals" talking point.

Other topics covered by the pundits included the congressional dust-up over work rules in the prospective new Department of Homeland Security and continued mixed signals about a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Most pundits saw arguments over work rules as a distraction from more important homeland security issues and leaks by military sources arguing against an invasion of Iraq were discounted.

The segment of the weekend was on Fox, with the Juan Williams-less panel discussing a Sunday New York Times editorial that called on Colin Powell to "throw a tantrum or two" to get his way on administration foreign policy. "The whole idea that Colin Powell would throw a tantrum, that is so ludicrous, so outrageous," scoffed Morton Kondracke of Roll Call. The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol called the whole editorial "ludicrous," but went even further:

"There is something offensive and condescending about it. Colin Powell knows what he’s doing. If he wants to resign, he can do it. Colin Powell needs advice from a bunch of people sitting on West 43rd Street? Colin Powell is not a New York Times liberal."

Kristol claimed that any Powell resignation would be a two-day story, with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice nominated to replace him and confirmed almost immediately. The rest of the Fox panel disputed the length of the "hubbub" that would ensue from a Powell departure.

Clintonian Phrasing

"I’ve been expecting the President to come out with a speech with the words "the era of big business is over.’" — E. J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post columnist, on NPR

Counting Sheep

Last week, syndicated columnist and News Hour/Capital Gang regular Mark Shields accused SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt of having the strength of a "sedated sheep." This week, he accused the Democrats of having the "combativeness of sedated sheep."

Dinner with Al

Bob Schieffer, host of Face the Nation, asked Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., about his recent dinner with Al Gore. Lieberman offered a cagey response on Gore’s intentions for 2002: "The former vice-president is undecided. The sooner he decides, the happier I’ll be."

Unasked Question of the Week

Although both mentioned Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin during their interviews of Paul O’Neill, neither Russert nor Hume asked him if Rubin should testify before the Senate about his and Citicorp’s ties to Enron. Chicago Sun-Times columnist and Capital Gang regular Bob Novak would have asked:

"Congress is rough on corporate executives these days, especially Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who chairs the Senate investigation. But one executive is exempt: Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton's revered Secretary of the Treasury, who now heads Citigroup's executive committee. Citigroup was Enron's largest creditor, and it's accused by Senator Levin's own investigators of helping to hide Enron debt.

Besides that, Mr. Rubin telephoned the Treasury seeking intervention to support Enron's credit rating. But Robert Rubin is a Democratic icon, and Senator Levin will not call him before his committee."

Quip of the Week

Russert asked William Safire, New York Times columnist and former Nixon speechwriter, if the Nixon White House ever feared that Watergate would affect the 1972 election: "No, that election was in the bag, to use the wrong phrase."

Will Vehrs is an economic developer in Richmond, Va. Unable to obsess on golf, fishing or a weed-free lawn, he chose to stalk the weekend talk show pundits and their syndicated print brethren. His "Punditwatch" column appears in Tony Adragna's Quasipundit.

Respond to the Writer