Paul H. O’Neill had simply presided over a celebrated revival of the aluminum big Alcoa and was about to start his retirement in late 2000 with a protracted drive throughout the again roads of America in a brand new Bentley Flying Spur.
Then got here calls from Vice President-elect Dick Cheney asking him to turn out to be secretary of the Treasury. Regardless of having an inventory of causes for being not proper for the job — a key one was that he had grown used to being the boss — Mr. O’Neill agreed.
It turned out to be an agonizing tenure.
Mr. O’Neill lasted lower than two years within the job; his outspoken independence was seen as political disloyalty, and President George W. Bush fired him in December 2002.
On Saturday, Mr. O’Neill died at his dwelling in Pittsburgh at 84. His son, Paul Jr., stated the trigger was lung most cancers.
Having been handed his strolling papers by the White Home, Mr. O’Neill rejected the suggestion that he ought to say publicly that he wished to return to non-public life.
“I’m too previous to start telling lies now,” he stated with typical candor. “If I took that course, individuals who know me nicely would say that it wasn’t true. And individuals who don’t know me nicely would say, ‘O’Neill was a coward — issues aren’t going so nicely, and he bailed out on the president.’”
He promptly turned the topic and chief supply for a uncommon e-book in regards to the inside workings of an administration nonetheless in energy, “The Worth of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White Home, and the Schooling of Paul O’Neill,” by Ron Suskind, printed in 2004. Its contents had been thought-about so politically unstable at a time when Mr. Bush was in search of re-election that the title was withheld till simply earlier than publication.
Mr. Suskind known as the e-book “an experiment in transparency,” counting on 1000’s of paperwork provided by Mr. O’Neill, who fact-checked the manuscript. Michael Tomasky, writing in The New York Instances Ebook Evaluation, stated it confirmed how “deeply corrupted” traditions of public service had turn out to be. The e-book reached No. 1 on The Instances’s best-seller checklist.
Amongst its allegations was not solely that Mr. Bush was usually unengaged in coverage discussions, but additionally that many choices, together with the invasion of Iraq, had appeared to have been politically ordained.
As Mr. Bush’s first time period proceeded early on, the impression grew amongst outsiders that Mr. O’Neill’s lengthy company profession had rendered him insensitive to Washington realities and undermined his affect.
“Individuals assume he was politically tone-deaf,’’ David Aufhauser, the final counsel of the Treasury Division from 2001 to 2004, was quoted as saying within the e-book. “He wasn’t.”
“He knew full nicely the political penalties,” Mr. Aufhauser stated, and he was “fearless” in urgent concepts based mostly on details and proof. He cautioned, for instance, that Mr. Bush’s tax cuts had been ill-advised. In earlier authorities stints, Mr. O’Neill had been concerned in issues starting from tax coverage, well being care and welfare reform to meals stamps, busing and housing.
In actual fact, Mr. O’Neill famous in an interview for this obituary in 2017, his Washington expertise had been “greater than that of anyone on the desk.” That have included intimate involvement in a lot of the main home controversies of the Nixon years as a high-ranking official on the Price range Bureau. (It was renamed the Workplace of Administration and Price range throughout his tenure, which included appointment as deputy director.)
He and three others on the funds workplace — Roy L. Ash, Frederic V. Malek and Frank G. Zarb — had been reported to have largely run the federal government in 1974 at a time when President Richard M. Nixon was weakened by the Watergate scandal.
“That’s principally appropriate,” Mr. Zarb, a longtime pal of Mr. O’Neill’s, recalled a few years later. Mr. O’Neill, he stated, “knew extra about authorities life than most individuals in authorities.”
Mr. O’Neill acknowledged that he had misjudged the affect he might have within the Bush administration. “I believed I knew the gamers nicely sufficient, and that we had been like-minded about fact-based policymaking,” he stated. “It turned out that was all incorrect.”
Paul Henry O’Neill was born on Dec. 4, 1935, in St. Louis right into a army household and grew up on bases within the Midwest and West along with his two brothers and a sister. His father, John Paul O’Neill, was a grasp sergeant within the Military Air Forces. His mom was Gaynold (Irving) O’Neill.
He attended Anchorage Excessive College in Alaska, the place he met Nancy Wolfe. They married in 1955. She survives him, as do his son; three daughters, Patricia Wilcox, Margaret Tatro and Julie Kloo; 12 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.
Mr. O’Neill enrolled at California State College, Fresno, with ambitions to be an engineer however left for a time to take highway survey and website engineering jobs in Alaska. When he returned to Cal State, he graduated in three years. It was there, he stated, that he “determined that economics was much more attention-grabbing than engineering.”
Altering course, he started a five-year doctoral program in economics at Claremont Graduate College in Pomona. Whereas there, on a lark, he took an examination for midlevel authorities jobs, handed it, and wound up on the Veterans Administration (now the Division of Veterans Affairs), the place he spent 5 years as a pc techniques analyst.
He was later dispatched to Indiana College, the place he earned a grasp’s diploma in public administration. He joined the funds workplace in 1967. There he built-in greater than two dozen health-related authorities applications in rising to deputy director.
With a daughter in school, a financially pinched Mr. O’Neill was recruited by the Worldwide Paper Firm in 1977 to be vice chairman of strategic planning. To his amazement, he discovered the corporate had no systematic information of its strengths and weaknesses; the framework Mr. O’Neill created set him on the trail to turn out to be president of the corporate.
Most likely his largest profession success was at Alcoa, which had suffered after making a sequence of poor acquisitions earlier than he joined as chief government in 1987. When he retired in 2000, the corporate’s revenues had practically tripled, and its inventory that yr was the most effective performer on the New York Inventory Trade.
His tenure started with what Mr. Suskind known as “administration havoc” — discharging many high executives and revamping operations. On the identical time, he received reward for bettering employee security and labor relations, growing productiveness and fostering an egalitarian open-door coverage along with his staff.
Mr. O’Neill had been pleasant with President George H.W. Bush and, simply after becoming a member of Alcoa, turned down a proposal to turn out to be his secretary of protection. Mr. O’Neill later inspired Mr. Bush to interrupt his pledge to not increase taxes. When Mr. Bush did increase taxes, which proved politically damaging to him, and was rebuked by the USA Chamber of Commerce for the transfer, Mr. O’Neill pulled Alcoa out of the group.
After he left George W. Bush’s cupboard, Mr. O’Neill served on many boards and returned to the Pittsburgh Regional Healthcare Initiative, a consortium of hospitals, associations and enterprise that he had helped present in 1997.
Probably the most unlikely episodes of Mr. O’Neill’s Treasury tenure was his four-nation journey to sub-Saharan Africa within the firm of Bono, the lead singer of U2 and anti-poverty activist.
“I don’t have time to be a ballerina barre for a rock star,” Mr. O’Neill complained to an aide when Bono first requested for his assist. “I’ll give him a half an hour.”
However he quickly determined that he wanted to see what applications labored if he had been to help sending more cash to Africa, and the pair set off, accompanied by a large worldwide media contingent.
“Come on, let’s step up for an image,” he stated to Bono at one level in Ghana after that they had donned Ghanaian robes and hats. “So what if we by no means dwell this down.”
Peter Keepnews contributed reporting.