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Former US treasury secretary Paul O’Neill dies aged 84

Mr O’Neill served under former US president George W Bush from 2001 to late 2002.

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Paul O’Neill pictured in 2002 (AP)

Paul O’Neill pictured in 2002 (AP)

Paul O’Neill pictured in 2002 (AP)

Paul O’Neill, a former US treasury secretary who broke with then-president George W Bush over tax policy and then produced a book critical of his administration, has died aged 84.

Mr O’Neill’s son, Paul O’Neill Jr, confirmed that his father died at his home in Pittsburgh after battling lung cancer for the last couple of years.

After a few operations and chemotherapy, he decided against any further intervention four or five months ago.

A former head of aluminium giant Alcoa, Mr O’Neill served as US treasury secretary from 2001 to late 2002.

He was forced to resign after he objected to a second round of tax cuts because of their impact on deficits.

Mr O’Neill’s blunt speaking style more than once got him in trouble as treasury secretary.

He sent the dollar into a tailspin briefly in his early days at the treasury when his comments about foreign exchange rates surprised markets.

In the spring of 2001, Mr O’Neill jolted markets again when, during Wall Street’s worst week in 11 years, he blandly declared “markets go up and markets go down”.

He was more focused on the traditional treasury secretary’s job of instilling confidence during times of turbulence later that year when he helped get Wall Street re-opened after the September 11 terror attacks.

Mr O’Neill was also instrumental following the attacks in beefing up the American government’s programmes to disrupt financing for terrorist groups.

Current US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin wrote on Twitter: “Saddened to hear of the passing of the former 72nd Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill. He served @USTreasury and America with distinction during challenging times. My condolences to his family.”

Tony Fratto, who served as Mr O’Neill’s Treasury spokesman, described him as a “working class guy” who “cared about how things impacted real people”.

Mr Fratto said that one of O’Neill’s passions was workplace safety, and that he would tour the treasury building looking for safety issues that needed to be fixed.

After leaving the administration, Mr O’Neill worked with author Ron Suskind on an explosive book covering his two years in the administration.

He contended that the administration began planning the overthrow of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein right after Mr Bush took office, eight months before the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr O’Neill depicted Bush as a disengaged president who did not encourage debate either at cabinet meetings or in one-on-one discussions with cabinet members.

He said the lack of discussion in cabinet meetings gave him the feeling that Mr Bush “was like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people”.

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Paul O’Neill produced a book critical of the Bush administration (AP)

Paul O’Neill produced a book critical of the Bush administration (AP)

AP/PA Images

Paul O’Neill produced a book critical of the Bush administration (AP)

Mr O’Neill said major decisions were often made by Mr Bush’s political team and vice president Dick Cheney.

He had been recruited to join the Cabinet by Mr Cheney, his old friend from the Gerald Ford administration. But it was Mr Cheney who told Mr O’Neill that the president wanted his resignation.

It was part of a move by Mr Bush to shake up his economic team and find a better salesman for a new round of tax cuts the president hoped would stimulate a sluggish economy.

When the book, The Price Of Loyalty: George W Bush, The White House And The Education Of Paul O’Neill came out in early 2004, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan discounted Mr O’Neill’s descriptions of White House decision-making and said the president was “someone that leads and acts decisively on our biggest priorities”.

In June 2019, Mr O’Neill received the Gerald R Ford Medal for Distinguished Public Service, according to a piece in his hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

He is survived by his wife, four children, 12 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren.

PA