Features

A businessman's government

National

Issue: "Abolition of C.S. Lewis?," June 16, 2001

Voters have often professed to pollsters their admiration for tough-minded corporate CEOs: blunt, unvarnished, truth-tellers, bottom-line oriented, apolitical. These dreams have spawned presidential boomlets for Chrysler mogul Lee Iacocca, and more recently, the Reform Party rumblings of H. Ross Perot.

Paul O'Neill brought these CEO qualities to the Treasury Department after 13 years at the helm of Alcoa, an aluminum manufacturer. Mr. O'Neill's Alcoa storyline-banishing the company political action committee, turning down perks, and wowing financial analysts with bottom-line performance-was tailor-made for political prime time. But politics has its own demands. Mr. O'Neill's plain talk on policy-salted with "damns" and "sure as hells"-has caused financial spasms on Wall Street, much to Mr. O'Neill's exasperation. "When a reporter thinks they've got a really hot story about a change in policy, they ought to call the official that they think has indicated a change in policy and ask them if they really intended to create news." But with his utterances being parsed quickly for Wall Street on CNBC, Mr. O'Neill's had to work on measuring his words for reporters.

In addition to heading Alcoa and International Paper, Mr. O'Neill also worked 10 years at the Office of Management and Budget, the last three as deputy director under President Ford. So as a man with experience at the highest levels of both business and government, an obvious question for Mr. O'Neill is whether government, with its political nature, can ever be run like a business. He not only says yes, but suggests taxpayers ought to expect that: "I think the idea that somehow government should be inherently inefficient seems to me just dead wrong. There are a lot of activities that go on in the government that are very, very much like the things that go on in the private sector, and there's no reason one should be better than the other in terms of creating value for the same level of assets. There's no excuse for there to be any difference."

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Mr. O'Neill in March did do one unbusinesslike thing: selling stock when he did not want to. After weeks of resisting media pressure and the Democratic National Committee's online "O'Neill-Alcoa Stock Tracker," Mr. O'Neill relented in late March and began divesting his millions of dollars of holdings in Alcoa. He's still irritated about that: "The idea that someone who swore to uphold the law would use their position to improve their own personal financial situation is really at war with the idea that we can entrust people with public responsibility. Do you really have to insist that they become financial monks in order to believe that they're not going to abuse the public for their own benefit?"

Mr. O'Neill notes that the American Founders favored the election of citizen legislators who ran businesses most of the year-but now, "the idea that somehow you can't even be an investor, it's so ridiculous."

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