Known for outspokenness that sometimes got him into political trouble — and perhaps best known to those outside political circles for his fact-finding tour of Africa with the rock singer Bono — Paul O'Neill tendered his resignation today as President Bush's Treasury secretary.
O'Neill was sworn in as Treasury secretary on Jan. 20, 2001, the same day as Bush. The economy was seen as sluggish during most of O'Neill's tenure, though presidential insiders were said not to blame him for the problems.
Still, O'Neill's blunt style occasionally rattled opponents and allies alike.
Early on, O'Neill, 67, aroused accusations of potential conflicts of interest when he said he would not sell nearly $100 million in Alcoa stock he aquired during his time as CEO of the company, but he later agreed to sell the stock.
He once described stock traders as "people who sit in front of a flickering green screen" and "not the sort of people you would want to help you think about complex questions," and the U.S. income tax code as "9,500 pages of gibberish." He even angered fellow Republicans when he called a House Republican economic stimulus package "show business."
O'Neill also gained some publicity outside Washington circles in May 2002 during a 10-day tour of Africa with the singer Bono of the rock band U2 to consider the economic plight of Africans.
He continued to make occasionally controversial statements until he tendered his resignation in December 2002 as the U.S. economy continued to struggle.
When hired as treasury secretary, O'Neill was thought to bring a mixture of public- and private-sector experience to Washington as a veteran of the Nixon and Ford administrations, and a successful corporate leader who stepped down as chairman of the Alcoa corporation just before joining the Bush administration.
Like many of Bush’s Cabinet and staff selections, he was a man with long-standing ties to the Bush family. O’Neill is a good friend of Bush’s father, former President George Bush.
He also was a former colleague of Vice President Dick Cheney. O’Neill served as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Gerald Ford from 1974 until 1977. Cheney worked as Ford’s de facto chief of staff during that time.
In the business world, O’Neill expounded a belief that timely technological investments can produce high long-term growth rates.
Maverick in the Business World
During his time as in the corporate world, O’Neill developed a reputation as an independent-minded business leader who, in addition to bringing about good bottom-line results, put an emphasis on worker safety and employee health plans. At Alcoa, he also put an end to a company policy that reimbursed employees for their membership in a golf club that apparently discriminated against African-Americans and women.
Before becoming treasury secretary, O’Neill’s sometimes unconventional outlook led him to promote views not in accordance with Bush’s own preferred policies.
“We know pretty well that we really should have a 50-cent, or maybe even a dollar, gasoline tax,” O’Neill said in an interview with CNN in 1992 after attending an economic conference held by then-President-elect Clinton in 1992. O’Neill suggested such a measure would help develop more fuel-efficient economic growth.
“It certainly has been clear to me, and has been for a long time, that we need a gasoline tax,” O’Neill said.
O”Neill also eliminated Alcoa’s political action committee and spoke out against corporate campaign contributions.
‘What’s going on with campaign financing has reached well beyond a reasonable limit,” he told Fortune in 1999. O’Neill had made a few individual campaign donations, however.
Bush did not favor campaign-finance reform legislation proposed in Congress or any broad changes to the current fund-raising system.
From Public Policy to the Private Sector
Paul Henry O’ Neill was born in St. Louis on Dec. 4, 1935, and married Nancy Jo Wolfe when he was 19, in 1954. After initially dropping out of college, O’Neill received his undergraduate degree in economics from Fresno State University in 1960.
He took a job as a computer analyst for the Veterans Administration before returning to school for a master’s degree in public administration from Indiana University, in 1966.
Moving into the public sector, O’Neill took a job in the Office of Management and Budget, where he remained for 10 years, rising to the post of deputy director during the Ford administration.
After Ford lost the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter, O’Neill moved into the private sector, first in a stint at International Paper, where he served as a vice president and was named president in 1985, and then as chairman of Alcoa, the large aluminum production company, from 1987 until he stepped down in 2000 and joined the Bush cabinet.
O’Neill had been active in the world of think tanks and public policy discussion. He was on the board of directors of the Rand Corporation, and has been a trustee — along with Cheney — at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.