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Monday, April 20, 2020

In Memoriam: Paul O'Neill

William Arnone, CEO, National Academy of Social Insurance

Academy Founding Member Paul H. O’Neill passed away on April 18th. Paul O’Neill’s career was characterized by candor, foresight, and courage. His tenure at Alcoa was marked by his commitment to worker safety and better labor relations. As Treasury Secretary in 2001 and 2002, he opposed tax cuts and urged more aggressive measures to combat global warming. He prided himself on being a non-ideological pragmatist who valued facts and evidence.

Before serving as Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush, O’Neill was Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Alcoa and President of International Paper. He also served as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget (then called the Bureau of the Budget). His first job after graduating college was at the U.S. Veterans Administration.

In 2005, Secretary O’Neill wrote “A New Idea for Social Security,” in which he suggested putting “$2,000 a year into a savings account from the day each child was born until he or she reached age 18.” He noted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Over the last 30 years, both political parties seem to have stopped generating truly new ideas. And political mechanics have taken over in place of the visionaries who thought up Social Security in the first place.”

His experience as Treasury Secretary was the subject of Ron Suskind’s, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill, published in 2004. When O’Neill was terminated as Treasury Secretary in 2002, he was reportedly asked by then-Vice President Dick Cheney to say that his departure was his own decision. Paul refused, noting: “I’m too old to begin telling lies now.”

Among his legacies is the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, which “prepares students to address the issues of modern society in ways that more traditional schools overlook.” As described on its website: “Founded in 1972, the O’Neill School was the first school to combine public management, policy, and administration with the environmental sciences. It remains the largest public policy and environmental studies school of its kind in the United States.” O’Neill was also a consistent supporter of the Academy’s work.

Paul O’Neill epitomized how enlightened business leaders might add their voices and perspectives to national debates on public policy in general and social insurance in particular. We need more understanding of, and appreciation for, the business case for the vital role that social insurance plays in our nation’s economy.

Please join us in sending the O’Neill family our deepest condolences as they mourn the loss of a beloved husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. May he rest in peace. 

Posted on April 20, 2020  |  Add your comment
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Mr. O’Neill was also a passionate leader and advocate for systemic and radical quality improvement in healthcare - much as did implemented in transforming Alcoa. In one visit with him when I was at RWJF, he expressed shock - and disdain - that hospitals - and hospital leaders - accepted as an inevitability that some patients could get infected when admitted and in some cases die needlessly. It was incredibly motivating for those of us with the privilege of meeting with him, and as was apparently typical of him, he devoted time and expertise to working on that in Pittsburgh. A great leader.
Paul began his tenure when it was the Bureau of the Budget, but he was Deputy Director of OMB, not BOB. He worked his way up from his initial role as a junior civil servant, a budget examiner, to the top ranks of the agency.

He appreciated and rewarded good work, and was intelligent, analytically sound, honest. About the best and the brightest I served under in my 7 year OMB tenure.
O'Neill is admired and mourned in my hometown of Pittsburgh, where he contributed greatly to environmental, cultural, and social causes. (And architecture. The "new" Alcoa headquarters, on the Allegheny River shore just across from downtown, is a masterpiece.) I remember reading that on the day he was dismissed as Treasury Secretary, he and his wife got in the car and drove home to Pittsburgh with a sense of relief. Home.

He was a selfless man, one of a vanishing breed of moderate Republicans, who served others and makes us better.
My sympathies to the O'Neill family. Paul was a creative, empathetic, and analytical leader in our national government and in the world of business and public policy. He put the needs of the country and the world ahead of partisan interests.
He was a stimulating mentor for me. I met him when I was a White House Fellow during the dramatic year of 1973-74 and he was deputy director of the OMB. When I returned from Seattle to Washington in the Carter White House Office of Science & Technology Policy he had helpful comments. When I was appointed an Associate Director of OMB in 1980, I called him in NYC at International Paper and asked for an opportunity to come to NYC and sit at his knee for guidance. Instead, he said he came often to DC and would prefer to come see me. That worked out great, as I had his former office and he arrived to a weekly meeting around the conference table of 10 individuals, nearly every one of whom he had appointed or promoted! It was a total surprise for them, too.
We shared views about public health and health care policy when he was at Alcoa, and later when he was at The Treasury.
What an inspiring man!
--Gil Omenn, Ann Arbor, 4/20/2020
I worked closely with Paul when we were both at OMB. He was one of the nicest, smartest, and hardest working people with whom I have ever had the privilege of working. He was very analytic, managed to maintain his cool at all times (the epitome of grace under pressure), asked great questions, and was always appreciative of help. Much of his influence devolved from his being the best informed person in the room. I have always been impressed that I could give him a draft late in the afternoon, and he would invariably have it back to me with comments the next morning. He is from an era where facts and analysis were respected and were the starting point of discussion.
I fondly remember Mr. O’Neill as the thoughtful iconoclast - cutting directly to the core of big questions. In one instance, “Why am I choosing my employees’ health plan? I don’t choose their shoes or where they educate their children.” We're worse off for failing to engage with the same lucidity.

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