WASHINGTON – Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill (search) says he stands behind his criticism of the inner workings of the Bush administration, but regrets that some of his "vivid language" is detracting from serious issues he wants to discuss.
O'Neill said in an interview with The Associated Press that despite the criticism leveled out him by the administration and its supporters, he has gotten a lot of support from ordinary people since the book, "The Price of Loyalty," was published two weeks ago.
"One person walked up to me on Lexington Avenue in New York and said, 'This is a real profile in courage,'" O'Neill said.
The book, written by Ron Suskind, paints an unflattering portrait of President Bush (search) as a disengaged chief executive in a White House where Vice President Dick Cheney (search) and the political team wielded the real power.
In his sharpest comment in the book, O'Neill said Bush was so disengaged during Cabinet meetings that the president reminded him of a "blind man in a room full of deaf people."
O'Neill says he regrets that "the vivid language has gotten a lot of attention." He said his goal in cooperating with Suskind on the book project was to paint a picture for young people of how government really operates.
"I hope this book will cause young people to aspire to improve our political process," he said. "For me, the reason for doing this book in the first place was to provide an opportunity for young people to have a deeper understanding of what goes on inside of government and to ask more of their political leaders."
In addition to lengthy interviews with Suskind, O'Neill turned over 19,000 documents, including transcripts of key meetings, that crossed his desk while Treasury secretary.
The Treasury's inspector general has launched an investigation into whether any classified government documents were improperly turned over to O'Neill after he was fired as Treasury secretary in December 2002. Suskind said in a separate interview that the investigators will find that Treasury's general counsel did not violate any laws governing classified material and that all the documents O'Neill received were unclassified materials.
"As best I could, I tried to relive the moments of the 23 months I was there," O'Neill said in the AP interview Tuesday night.
The book reveals that the administration from the very beginning was looking for ways to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power, long before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. O'Neill, who served on the National Security Council, also said that he never saw any convincing evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
O'Neill spoke to the AP after a daylong conference in Washington examining ways to control the exploding costs of health care and deal with the crisis of 44 million Americans who do not have health coverage, one of a number of such conferences he has attended in the past year.
O'Neill has been involved in the debate over health issues since his first stint in the government back in the 1960s and 1970s as an analyst at the Office of Management and Budget and during his time as chief executive of aluminum giant Alcoa.
He now heads the Pittsburgh Regional Health Care Initiative, a consortium of hospitals, medical societies and businesses studying ways to improve health care delivery in Western Pennsylvania.
O'Neill said he is spending "10 days a week" working on health care issues because he believes there is an opportunity to adopt policies that could reduce national expenditures by 50 percent while at the same time improving the quality of care.
During his time in the administration, O'Neill also focused a lot of attention of dealing with poverty and diseases such as AIDS in Africa, touring the continent with Irish rock star Bono.
O'Neill said he was currently working on a project to bring drinking water to the thousands of villages in Africa that do not have access to clean water and that he believes Bono will join him in the effort.