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How an Art Scene Became a Youthscape
By BENJAMIN GENOCCHIO
Imagine that you have opened a Chelsea art gallery. Not a white cube with vaulted ceilings and frosted glass doors, but a showroom in your 200-square-foot studio apartment. Each night, a futon is retrieved from the bathtub and flopped on the floor for sleeping. Come daylight, it is rolled back up and put away in preparation for visitors. How long do you think you would last?
Daniel Reich spent two years running such a gallery in his Chelsea studio apartment, and he prospered. Several of the artists he worked with are among those selected for the next Whitney Biennial, and in November he moved his gallery from his bedroom to an upscale storefront on West 23rd Street.
Mr. Reich, 28, is part of a group of enterprising young dealers who are shaking up a corner of the New York art scene. Roughly the same age (mid-20's to mid-30's), they have come to the fore in the last few years and are committed to showing new work by emerging artists and artist collectives. They have even formed their own collective, the New Art Dealers Alliance, known as NADA.
Their approach shows signs of succeeding. With a hint of small sister-big sister rivalry, NADA staged its first art fair last month alongside Art Basel Miami Beach, a big, mainstream contemporary art fair. True to form, the NADA fair was organized like a co-op, with each participating gallery paying a set fee ($2,000) and receiving the same size booth. Sales exceeded expectations, the participants said, and have continued beyond the fair. "It used to be the case that you'd hear a young person was starting a gallery and it was considered a kind of odd eruption," Mr. Reich said, standing in his new Chelsea space. "But suddenly an unprecedented number of young people have opened galleries all over the city, making us into a new scene for collectors and writers to follow."
Mr. Reich is not the only young dealer to have started in an apartment. Oliver Kamm, a former employee of the Marianne Boesky Gallery, set up shop in the living room of his one-bedroom Chelsea apartment in late 2002. "The first month I sold $20,000 worth of art, and sales continued steadily," said Mr. Kamm, 31, who in early 2003 moved to a white-cube gallery on West 22nd Street.
Like Mr. Kamm and Mr. Reich, who cut his teeth at the Pat Hearn Gallery, many of these young dealers worked for more established outfits before going it alone. John Connelly, 35, spent eight years at the Andrea Rosen Gallery before opening his own in mid-2002, a closet-like space on the 10th floor of a building on West 26th Street. "I was excited by a new, younger generation of artists," he said. Three of his artists will be in the Whitney Biennial.
Other young dealers have found the Lower East Side and Brooklyn (where many of the artists they represent live) more congenial. Two years ago Michelle Maccarone, 30, opened a gallery in a dilapidated three-level building on Canal Street, which doubles as her home. "I wanted a space with character, and this place is funky," she said, sipping tea and chain-smoking in her messy makeshift office. Mirabelle Marden (a daughter of the painter Brice Marden) and Melissa Bent at Rivington Arms, Lia Gangitano at the nonprofit space Participant Inc. and Yuki Minami at the Transplant Gallery are nearby.
Aside from youth, what binds these dealers is the precarious economics of their ventures. Few have backers, and many have relied on part-time jobs or family money to subsidize their galleries. At one point Mr. Reich was so broke that his mother had to pay the rent on his apartment-gallery.
There are also similarities among the artists whom the dealers show: most are young, still in graduate school or fresh out of college. (Galleries looked down on this practice until a few years ago.) Two recent Cooper Union graduates, Nick Mauss and Shelby Hughes, were presented at the inaugural exhibition at Mr. Reich's Chelsea gallery in November; in February Mr. Kamm is to present the New York debut of Kamrooz Aram, 24, a painter who just completed his M.F.A. at Columbia.
Artists' collectives, a throwback to the 1960's and 70's, are also resurgent. Among today's fashionable ensembles are Dearraindrop, Milhaus and the collaborative art project K48. The art they produce varies widely, although they all tend to mix media to create total environments.
Zach Feuer, 25, a founder and director of LFL Gallery in Chelsea, sees this collectivist and collaborative tendency as characteristic of his generation. "Even when artists work individually, you will often find other artists working together on the same thing, sometimes sharing a studio," he said.
As for the art, the reigning spirit seems to be coolly detached and style-conscious. With all the talk of youth culture being digital and high-tech, many of the artists shown in the new galleries are obsessed with craft and the physical act of making art. Knitting and sewing are popular, as is a kind of doodle drawing.
At the same time the works carry little social or political freight. Nobody is protesting anything. And for the first time in a long while young gay artists are doing work that has nothing to do with loss, sorrow or AIDS. Instead they trade in a fluid, playful sexuality, with lots of kinkiness and gender-bending, along with frequent allusions to drugs, sex, pornography and music (especially glam rock).
The collective mentality also appears to have spread to the dealers. NADA was founded about a year ago by Mr. Feuer, Mr. Connelly and two dealers who work for other galleries, Sheri L. Pasquarella and Zach Miner. The goal was to create a forum for professional and social exchange among younger dealers.
"We sensed that there was another, less adversarial way of doing business that would support and foster a greater sense of community," said Ms. Pasquarella, 27, the director of the Gorney Bravin & Lee gallery. NADA has more than 50 members, most of them under 35 and nearly all in New York.
So far its activities have been largely social, consisting of pizza nights and cocktail parties at the galleries and homes of members. There is even talk of a softball team. (Maybe NADA could play A.D.A.A., the Art Dealers Association of America.) There have also been loans of equipment and artwork among members and some referrals of buyers. In the fall the group arranged guided tours of NADA galleries in Chelsea and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The dealers admit to rivalries, but say common interest unifies the group. "We tend to look at our businesses in a different way from another generation of dealers," said Becky Smith, the owner and director of the Bellwether Gallery in Williamsburg. "We don't see the art market as one big pie that we all have to fight over, but as something that is endlessly expandable. If we can make people excited about our galleries and the kind of art and artists we show, then we figure this will benefit us all."
Recalling NADA's first meeting, Mr. Kamm said: "The thing that struck a few of us was that there was a lot less Prada than we thought there'd be. It was just a bunch of scrappy, ambitious young people with a passion for art and a desire to learn more about others doing the same kinds of things."
But will it last? Ms. Smith, 37, is not sure. "There is no doubt NADA is utopian," she said. "Hopefully it will last. Most likely it will go the way of free love when enough feelings get hurt. But for now it is fun to be together and enjoying each other."
At NADA's art fair in Miami, Ms. Smith said, there was a lot of interest in her artists. "I used to joke that NADA stood for networking and drinking," she said, "but after Miami I've realized it is much more. Three years ago I would sell one print of the work of Sharon Core out of a show. I sold 25 of her photographs in Miami, ranging in price from $2,000 to $4,500. Since coming back, I've sold a couple of prints almost every day. There are even waiting lists for work she hasn't made."
Although still relatively affordable, some of the works shown by the NADA dealers command higher prices because of increasing demand. In his apartment, Mr. Reich sold Tyson Reeder's drawings for $200 each; in an exhibition opening today at Mr. Reich's gallery, the drawings are priced from $1,000, and there is a waiting list. Paul P.'s paintings started around $800 when they were shown in Mr. Reich's apartment; a still life with flowers in a group show that opens today at Andrea Rosen is priced at $3,000.
But NADA's chummy atmosphere is not for everyone. Despite overtures, Ms. Maccarone remains a nonmember. She says she has a different vision and model for her gallery. "I operate more like a kunsthalle, doing four or five in-depth solo exhibitions a year," she said. "I'm also more interested in installation and site-specific work. Basically it's less market driven."
Mr. Reich says that for the younger dealers the art business is less about making money than about expressing the values and experiences of his generation. "It's all about being happy about whatever you can be happy about," he said. "My generation grew up in a time when we didn't have heroes. You grew up believing you were being hoodwinked and manipulated — and knowing you were, but learning to enjoy it because it came in fun colors or was on MTV.
"The bottom line," he added, "was that I really wanted to have a gallery, and sometimes you just have to start doing something with whatever you have at your disposal."
Sampling Brooklyn, Keeper of Eclectic Flames
By HOLLAND COTTER
If you say art and Brooklyn in the same sentence, you probably mean Williamsburg, which for about a decade has been the only viable alternative to Chelsea as a New York gallery scene. It's also an art neighborhood in the old, un-Chelsea way: artists live, work, kvetch and party there, even when their art commutes to Manhattan.
Not that everything is idyllic. Clubs, bars and latte joints continue to elbow aside the diminishing number of Polish-American shops. Rents are now punishing, with the result that artists and galleries have scattered into neighborhoods like Greenpoint, Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Red Hook. The borough's public exhibition spaces have always been outside the Williamsburg orbit, and still are. Several of them have joined forces this winter for an ambitious if problematic survey of African art.
A provisional account of this evolving activity will arrive in April with the Brooklyn Museum of Art's "Open House: Working in Brooklyn," a historical overview of art produced in the borough since the 1970's. Meanwhile, that history is still in the making, and here's what it looks like — a little of it, anyway — at the start of 2004.
Maybe it's a winter slump, but the Williamsburg gallery situation feels static these days. Flagship commercial spaces like Pierogi, Bellwether and Roebling Hall have been augmented by a clutch of newer arrivals. But the census hasn't changed significantly in a while, and Manhattan remains an all-but-irresistible pull. Bellwether is moving to Chelsea next fall. Roebling Hall has opened a satellite space in SoHo. The successful young sculptor Robert Lazzarini, long represented by Pierogi, recently left the gallery to manage his career on his own.
Actually, one of the recent complaints about Williamsburg is that its art is undistinguishable from that shown across the river. The alternative is no alternative. Yet a difference in atmosphere is undeniable. This is less a function of architecture than of attitude, with Brooklyn continuing to value a degree of financial informality, an aesthetic of process, a we-won't-grow-up sense of community.
As a result, startup ventures are still possible, even if they last only a month. Some of the best art is in the form of events, the most formal of them open video nights at Four Walls; screenings of experimental work at Ocularis; and performances at Galapagos and Parlour Projects, where a video karaoke project with viewer participation is scheduled for February. There is a lingering sense — you get it on the Lower East Side, too — that flames could burn here that would die for want of air in Chelsea's concrete shells.
Williamsburg Solo Shows
Spontaneity and confinement both play roles in one of the odder one-man shows of the season so far, Ward Shelley's "We Have Mice" at Pierogi. This Brooklyn artist gained attention when he and some colleagues built a full-scale live-in version of the Mir space station from plywood and plastic a few years ago. For his current solo he has taken up a month's residence in Pierogi, though it's unlikely you'll see him there: he is living in passageways behind and between the walls.
He has equipped these tight quarters with a computer station, a work table, a bed and an enclosed overhead bridge to the gallery's bathroom. He spends most of his time on the premises making art. Video monitors in the gallery carry live feeds of his activities; new work keeps showing up behind little doors in the walls.
There are plenty of precedents for Mr. Shelley's self-immurement. Vito Acconci and Chris Burden come immediately to mind, though the obsessiveness and masochism that marked their work have little to do with his. "We Have Mice" is basically a wacky fantasy about how the average artist can keep working and living in a city priced way beyond his means by taking the irrepressible urban rodent as a model. And like a mouse, Mr. Shelley leaves his burrow periodically, usually at night, "to forage for food, materials and mating opportunities."
Other solo shows also involve environments, though less encompassing ones. For her New York debut at the recently opened Monya Rowe Gallery, the young Argentinian-born artist Gabriela Micchia has assembled a grottolike garden, replete with a waterfall, from potted plants. Visitors can join her there for a cup of maté on Sunday afternoons and examine her sweet, small collage-paintings made with moving parts.
Thornier strains of whimsicality run through shows by Kimberley Hart at Bellwether and Rosemarie Fiore at Plus Ultra. Ms. Hart looks at conventions of gender through memories of her own childhood as a committed tomboy who had more interest in the Daytona 500 than in Barbie. Her installation plays havoc with the stuff of prepubescent feminine dreams: a life-size stuffed-doll horse lies on the floor as if dead; an assortment of frilly sachets serve as pedestals for toy race cars.
Ms. Fiore's environments take the miniaturist form of ceramic tabletop sculptures based on the classic cartoon saga of Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. The stories turned on a recurrent plot device: in every episode the coyote invents fantastically complicated traps to catch his prey, only to have the Roadrunner avoid them at the last second. In Ms. Fiore's brightly painted sculptures the coyote gets his revenge as his nemesis is squashed, stabbed, throttled and blown to bits. Whether you take the sculptures as confectionary jokes or as comments on pop cultural aggression, they're funky and neat.
That said, the shows at Rowe, Bellwether and Plus Ultra are all afflicted — Ms. Fiore's least — with a cuteness factor that is proving to be the Achilles' heel, or one of them, of the New Craftsiness. The same was true in the 1980's, when childhood and adolescence first became both a theme and an attitudinal pose for artists. Neo-Conceptualism, newly emergent at the time, toughed things up a little, and still can.
You can see the corrective dynamic in action in two solo shows at Priska C. Juschka Fine Art. Debra Hampton's paintings of vaguely floral forms, executed in blown and dripped paint, have an urbane, all-of-a-piece prettiness favored of late. By contrast, Lucas Ajemian's installation of videos, sculptures and photographic images seems diffuse and eclectic. Yet its texture is unsettled enough to be intriguing, and it sharpens into focus with a display of magazine pages on which the artist has drawn turnstiles and revolving doors so that every image — Prada models, a picturesque mosque, a battle scene — is about detainment and restriction, an apposite idea delivered with a light, clean touch.
Not all the concept-based art is effective. Kenn Bass's video and sculpture installation at Roebling Hall is too intricate in its information and spare in its visual means to be as alluring as it seems to want to be. On the other hand, Liselot van der Heijden's two-video installation at Schroeder Romero, no less rich in ideas, goes right for the gut. The artist made both films in Africa. One is a continuous, looped shot of the head of a dying zebra, facing directly into the camera. In the other a flock of vultures tear apart a corpse — whether of the zebra or some other animal, we don't know — as words appear on the screen: "this is not political," "this has nothing to do with oil."
I don't know exactly what Ms. van der Heijden is getting at, but hers was the only piece I encountered on this gallery tour that had stayed with me by the end of a long day.
Williamsburg Group Shows
In January, as in July, group shows abound. Williamsburg has its share, most of them at galleries fairly recently opened. Champion Fine Art was established last fall by Drew Heitzler (an artist) and Flora Wiegmann (a dancer) specifically to present a series of 20 exhibitions with artists as curators. The third in the sequence, "No. 18," is the work of Allyson Vieira, and she has done a nice job.
Of the three artists, Macrae Semans has a big assemblage-style sculpture involving a deconstructed futon and baskets, and Molly Welch has a site-specific piece that suggests a cracked Minimalism. Alex Kwartler's paintings, which have the stylistic variety of a group show, knit together references to Modernism, Romanticism and Pop with a purposeful nonchalance that is one of the most attractive features of new art today.
The curator of Champion's inaugural offering last fall, Reed Anderson, is also responsible for "On a Wave," a show at Jessica Murray Projects that takes its title take from Thad Ziolkowski's coming-of-age surfer memoir. The theme gets a clever workout in a surfboardish sculpture by Vincent Szarek and a sand-sprinkled one by Rosy Keyser, in Chris Gentile's photograph of a living room tsunami, super-eight videos by Mr. Heitzler and an elaborate, mandalalike California-dreaming collage by Mr. Anderson himself. Brady Dollarhide's "Never Forever" has no surfer connection that I could detect, but it's such a good painting it doesn't matter.
Midcareer artists make splashes elsewhere. The Finnish photographer Jaako Heikkila, in his New York debut, delivers a fine exhibition at Sideshow. At Parker's Box, John Bjerklie and Matt Blackwell, longtime Williamsburgians, have ignited a kind of painting-sculpture explosion with help from a young artist, Andrew James. And Jack the Pelican Presents, after a memorable David Shapiro solo, brings together work by four women whose careers have been in forward motion since at least the early 1980's.
In that show, "Wry Material," Margaret Evangeline contributes a set of classy abstract reliefs created with sheets of stainless steel and a shotgun. Samm Kunce moves Earth Art into the gallery and lets it grow. Fariba Hajamadi photographs images of war and everyday life reflected in droplets of raw petroleum. Elana Herzog, in three 2001 pieces, unravels the fabric of patterned bedspreads thread by thread, leaving whatever remains intact attached to the wall with thousands of staples. Altogether, the work is formally direct and art-historically trenchant; it makes much of what's happening elsewhere look tentative.
A show of drawings introducing several young artists opens today at one of the best young Brooklyn galleries, Southfirst. The senior presence is Lemi Ghariokwu, the Nigerian artist who created the fabulous cover art for many of Fela Kuti's albums. He is surrounded by estimable junior contemporaries from New York, some of them familiar from Chelsea. Peter Coffin, for example, has shown at Andrew Kreps. Sterling Ruby has a solo at Foxy Production. Nick Mauss, with the best work of all, is in "The New Romantics" at Greene Naftali, though he looks even better here.
Beth Brideau has the largest piece, an impressionistic watercolor derived from a photograph taken from a plane. Other newcomers include Benjamin Cottam (with thumbnail portraits of deceased artists), Mari Eastman (an underwear design in the form of a bat), Corinne Jones (pictures of stalactites), Yuh-Shioh Wong (watercolor collages), Joshua W. F. Thomson (an update on Goya), Tucker Nichols (text paintings and Japanese-y flowers) and Hrafnhildur Arnardottir (drawings of big hair).
The art-and-music collective LoVid breaks the works-on-paper barrier with a video image incised on a ceramic tile, and Eduardo Santiere, who is based in Madison, Wis., gracefully messes up formal distinctions by using a needle to scratch a paper surface into all-but-invisible sculptural relief.
One Southfirst participant, Ms. Wong, is also in "The Neon Forest Is My Home" at *sixtyseven, where paintings by Anke Sievers and Jeana Baumgardner and minute cutout sculptures by Satoru Eguchi stand out. For size and variety, though, no exhibition matches "Kult K48 Klubhouse," an art-collective extravaganza overseen by Scott Hug and installed at Deitch Project's cavernous Brooklyn outpost.
In addition to providing a mazelike sequence of cubicles jammed with work by dozens of artists, the gallery serves as a performance space for bands, a hangout and a think tank — it's an artist community within Williamsburg's wider artist community. The show is scheduled to close, after an extended run, this weekend, but I suggest that Deitch Projects just hand over the keys to Mr. Hug and let the Klubhouse stay open, like, forever.
At Naked Duck Gallery, one of a handful of modest-size spaces in Greenpoint, an art-music link is the focus of a show organized by Marc Gartman, a musician and filmmaker. It includes work by five artists who are also members of indie jazz and rock groups.
Rob Mazurek, a cornetist and composer and a founder of Chicago Underground Ensembles, contributes color prints of his own abstract paintings. Bill Callahan, singer-guitarist of Smog, draws and paints Jesus-like men with big eyes, though the best piece is a picture of a vermilion chair in a room. The Dirty Three guitarist Mick Turner has a thing for cars, which he paints with expressionistic generosity.
Ida Pearle, a violinist for Magnetic Fields, Low and her own band, Ida, makes cut-paper collages suitable for children's books and for her album covers. Finally, Zak Sally, Low's bassist, is an expert comics artist. A sequence of some four dozen original drawings is on view, along with prints and a cool, weird self-published zine. Mr. Gartman's search for art by musicians proved so fruitful that he has enough material for several shows, of which this is the first.
Elsewhere, the artist-run Vertexlist has opened with a solo show by the new-media artist Joe McKay. A kind of electronic fun-fair, it includes a wide-screen voice-activated video Ping-Pong game and a motorized version of a paleo-Macintosh screen icon, sure to have geek appeal. Of most interest, though, is an online database of clips produced by digital camera users who accidentally used movie mode when they meant to take still pictures of family and friends. The results have the unflattering awkwardness of old-time candid snapshots and are just as funny and touching.
Such snapshots now have a gallery of their own in Brooklyn's Dumbo section, where M. F. Adams opened in September. The gallery is devoted entirely to what is sometimes called vernacular photography, the sort that accumulates in drawers and attics and ends up for sale at church fairs. Giving such material full commercial gallery treatment may sound like a stretch, but the current show, "Objects of Pride: Houses, Cars and Pets," is genuinely engaging, for formal, historical and sentimental reasons.
Selected, framed and hung on a white wall, images that might look like nothing in another context assume a real presence, with their hints of unknown lives and untold narratives. If you need proof of how socio-politically loaded such snapshots can be, pay a visit to the International Center of Photography's great maelstrom of an exhibition, "Only Skin Deep." If you want to feel the individual picture as a shock of private, frozen time, check out M. F. Adams.
While in the neighborhood — which seems to be losing rather than gaining galleries — drop by Dumbo Arts Center for "Home," a solid group show organized by Bruce Brown, curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport. The 16 artists are a New England-New York mix.
Diana Cherbuiliez, for example, formerly of Brooklyn, now of Vinalhaven, Me., contributes a sculptural Tower of Babel made of crossword puzzles from The New York Times Magazine. But here and there a distinctly Down East spirit of place emerges: in David McQueen's tiny mechanized snowscape; in Pia Walker's sweater made of burdock burrs; in John Bisbee's hallucinatory, rapid-fire video; and, most insistently, in Melonie Bennett's devastatingly candid family photographs.
A short walk away, in Brooklyn Heights, Rotunda Gallery has one of its series of exhibitions introducing young curators. The choice in this case is Katarina Wong, a New Yorker with graduate degrees in art and Buddhist studies. And her show, titled "A Slow Read," considers various time-release techniques that art uses to reveal itself.
Paintings dense with incident, like those by Carey Maxon and Alex O'Neal, take time to sort out visually, while the images in drawings by James Nelson and in the inky paintings of Stephen B. Nguyen are so abstract or delicately executed as to be hard to see. In some cases, subjects elude identification, as in Elizabeth Fleming's close-up photographs of household dust. In others, sleight-of-hand manipulation of material holds the eye: Adam Henry's ingenious architectural collages work this way.
"A Slow Read" is Ms. Wong's first show anywhere. She has a sharp if not faultless eye and a subtle way with an idea. They could take her far in the future.
Far into Brooklyn is where "Kenya Art" takes an art-trekker set on visiting all five of its widely spaced sites. Supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation, the project was organized by a pair of Kenyan curators, Judy Ogana and Carol Lees, drawing heavily on two sources in Nairobi, the private Gallery Watatu and the Kuona Trust Art Studio, near the National Gallery.
It should be said right away that like many survey-style shows of contemporary art from Africa, this one is rife with problems, art-historical and aesthetic. Its choice of artists is chronologically circumscribed and leaves out many influential figures going back to the Modernist pioneers of the 1950's and 60's. And in an exoticizing definition of "contemporary art," it heavily favors self-taught painters of village scenes. Little overtly political work is included; a single comic strip drawn by Frank Odoi suggests a vast resource left untapped. There is no work in experimental media. In what is best considered a highly selective "personal choice" show, the lessons taught by recent exhibitions like "The Short Century," seen last year at P.S. 1, are ignored.
But by the same token, Kenya, and East Africa as a whole, have been all but ignored by Western institutions, so "Kenya Art" is at least turning its sights in the right direction, and it has brought together a lot to look at and think about. Much of the work on paper, which makes up a substantial portion of the show, is at the Brooklyn Public Library's central branch (Mr. Odoi's work is here) and at Kentler International Drawing Space in Red Hook. The library's lobby display is big and rambling; individual pieces — including polished work by Joel Oswaggo and beautiful paintings by E. M. Kuria and Alan Githuka — are seen to better advantage in Kentler's concentrated quarters.
Welancora Gallery, housed on two floors of a Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone, and a real find, has large-scale paintings, including a politically inflected allegorical piece by Sebastian Kiarie. And among the paintings at Salena Gallery at Long Island University is a delightful piece by Richard Onyango, part of a long series documenting his relationship with a white woman.
The most persuasive installation is at Five Myles in Crown Heights; the gallery's director, Hanne Tierney, initiated the project. Pictures by Peter Ngugi and Meek Gichugu share the antic flair and polish of European Surrealism. A brightly colored stop-sign of a painting by Michael Soi is one of the show's handful of abstract works. A collage by Rosemary Karuga, one of the show's few women, is composed in part of clips of 57th Street gallery listings, making a Kenya-New York connection concrete.
Despite its shortcomings, "Kenya Art," with its bright colors and accessible figurative style, should prove to be a public draw. And that it has been made available to a public at all is remarkable. It's hard to imagine five Manhattan institutions lending their time and space to a comparable project. But Brooklyn, short on resources and generous with art-frontier spirit, has done so. More power to it.
Confessions of a White House Insider
A book about Treasury's Paul O'Neill paints a presidency where ideology and politics rule the day
By JOHN F. DICKERSON
Saturday, Jan. 10, 2004
If anyone would listen to him, Paul O'Neill thought, Dick Cheney would. The two had served together during the Ford Administration, and now as the Treasury Secretary fought a losing battle against another round of tax cuts, he figured that his longtime colleague would give him a hearing.
O'Neill had been preaching that a fiscal crisis was looming and more tax cuts would exacerbate it. But others in the White House saw a chance to capitalize on the historic Republican congressional gains in the 2002 elections. Surely, Cheney would not be so smug. He would hear O'Neill out. In an economic meeting in the Vice President's office, O'Neill started pitching, describing how the numbers showed that growing budget deficits threatened the economy. Cheney cut him off. "Reagan proved deficits don't matter," he said. O'Neill was too dumbfounded to respond. Cheney continued: "We won the midterms. This is our due."
A month later, Paul O'Neill was fired, ending the rocky two-year tenure of Bush's first Treasury Secretary, who became known for his candid statements and the controversies that followed them. Rarely had a person who spoke so freely been embedded so high in an Administration that valued frank public remarks so little.
Now O'Neill is speaking with the same bracing style in a book written by Pulitzer prizewinning journalist Ron Suskind. The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill traces the former Alcoa CEO's rise and fall through the Administration: from his return to Washington to work for his third President, whom he believed would govern from the sensible center, through O'Neill's disillusionment, to his firing, executed in a surreal conversation with Cheney, a man he once considered a fellow traveler. Suskind had access not only to O'Neill but also to the saddlebags he took with him when he left town, which included a minute-by-minute accounting of his 23 months in office and 19,000 pages of documents on CD-ROM.
So, what does O'Neill reveal? According to the book, ideology and electoral politics so dominated the domestic-policy process during his tenure that it was often impossible to have a rational exchange of ideas. The incurious President was so opaque on some important issues that top Cabinet officials were left guessing his mind even after face-to-face meetings. Cheney is portrayed as an unstoppable force, unbowed by inconvenient facts as he drives Administration policy toward his goals.
O'Neill's tone in the book is not angry or sour, though it prompted a tart response from the Administration. "We didn't listen to him when he was there," said a top aide. "Why should we now?"
But the book is blunt, and in person O'Neill can be even more so. Discussing the case for the Iraq war in an interview with TIME, O'Neill, who sat on the National Security Council, says the focus was on Saddam from the early days of the Administration. He offers the most skeptical view of the case for war ever put forward by a top Administration official. "In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction," he told TIME. "There were allegations and assertions by people.
But I've been around a hell of a long time, and I know the difference between evidence and assertions and illusions or allusions and conclusions that one could draw from a set of assumptions. To me there is a difference between real evidence and everything else. And I never saw anything in the intelligence that I would characterize as real evidence." A top Administration official says of the wmd intelligence: "That information was on a need- to-know basis. He wouldn't have been in a position to see it."
From his first meeting with the President, O'Neill found Bush unengaged and inscrutable, an inside account far different from the shiny White House brochure version of an unfailing leader questioning aides with rapid-fire intensity. The two met one-on-one almost every week, but O'Neill says he had trouble divining his boss's goals and ideas. Bush was a blank slate rarely asking questions or issuing orders, unlike Nixon and Ford, for whom O'Neill also worked. "I wondered from the first, if the President didn't know the questions to ask," O'Neill says in the book, "or if he did know and just not want to know the answers? Or did his strategy somehow involve never showing what he thought? But you can ask questions, gather information and not necessarily show your hand. It was strange." In larger meetings, Bush was similarly walled off. Describing top-level meetings, O'Neill tells Suskind that during the course of his two years the President was "like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people."
In his interview with TIME, O'Neill winces a little at that quote. He's worried it's too stark and now allows that it may just be Bush's style to keep his advisers always guessing. In Suskind's book, O'Neill's assessment of Bush's executive style is a harsh one: it is portrayed as a failure of leadership. Aides were left to play "blind man's bluff," trying to divine Bush's views on issues like tax policy, global warming and North Korea. Sometimes, O'Neill says, they had to float an idea in the press just to scare a reaction out of him. This led to public humiliation when the President contradicted his top officials, as he did Secretary of State Colin Powell on North Korea and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman on global warming. O'Neill came to believe that this gang of three beleaguered souls—only Powell remains—who shared a more nonideological approach were used for window dressing. We "may have been there, in large part, as cover," he tells Suskind.
If the President was hard to read, the White House decision-making process was even more mysterious. Each time O'Neill tried to gather data, sift facts and insert them into the system for debate, he would find discussion sheared off before it could get going. He tried to build fiscal restraint into Bush's tax plan but was thwarted by those who believed, as he says, that "tax cuts were good at any cost." He was losing debates before they had begun. The President asked for a global-warming plan one minute and then while it was being formulated, announced that he was reversing a campaign pledge to cut carbon dioxide emissions and pulling out unceremoniously from the Kyoto global- warming treaty, short-circuiting his aides' work. The President was "clearly signing on to strong ideological positions that had not been fully thought through," says O'Neill. As for the appetite for new ideas in the White House, he told Suskind, "that store is closed."
To grope his way out of the wilderness, O'Neill turned to his old friends from the Ford Administration, Alan Greenspan and Dick Cheney. According to the book, Greenspan agreed with many of his proposals but could not do much from his Delphian perch. When O'Neill sought guidance from the Vice President about how to install a system that would foster vigorous and transparent debate, he got grumbles and silence but little sympathy. Soon O'Neill concluded that his powerful old colleague was rowing in a different direction."I realized why Dick just nodded along when I said all of this, over and over, and nothing ever changed," he says in the book. "This is the way Dick likes it."
Where ideology did not win, electoral politics did. Overruling many of his advisers, the President decided to impose tariffs on imported steel to please voters in key swing states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.
When the corporate scandals rocked Wall Street, O'Neill and Greenspan devised a plan to make CEOs accountable. Bush went with a more modest plan because "the corporate crowd," as O'Neill calls it in the book, complained loudly and Bush could not buck that constituency. "The biggest difference between then and now," O'Neill tells Suskind about his two previous tours in Washington, "is that our group was mostly about evidence and analysis, and Karl (Rove), Dick (Cheney), Karen (Hughes) and the gang seemed to be mostly about politics. It's a huge distinction."
A White House that seems to pick an outcome it wants and then marshal the facts to meet it seems very much like one that might decide to remove Saddam Hussein and then tickle the facts to meet its objective. That's the inescapable conclusion one draws from O'Neill's description of how Saddam was viewed from Day One. Though O'Neill is careful to compliment the cia for always citing the caveats in its findings, he describes a White House poised to overinterpret intelligence. "From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country," he tells Suskind. "And, if we did that, it would solve everything. It was about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The President saying, 'Fine. Go find me a way to do this.'"
Cheney helped bring O'Neill into the Administration, acting as a shoehorn for O'Neill, who didn't know the President but trusted the wise counselor beside him. So it was perhaps fitting that Cheney would take O'Neill out. Weeks after Bush had assured O'Neill that rumored staff changes in the economic team did not mean his job was in peril, Cheney called. "Paul, the President has decided to make some changes in the economic team. And you're part of the change," he told O'Neill. The bloodless way he was cut loose by his old chum shocked O'Neill, Suskind writes, but what came after was even more shocking. Cheney asked him to announce that it was O'Neill's decision to leave Washington to return to private life. O'Neill refused, saying "I'm too old to begin telling lies now."
Suskind's book—informed by interviews with officials other than O'Neill—is only a partial view of the Bush White House. Bush's role on key topics like education, stem-cell research and aids funding is not explored. Bush's role as a military leader after 9/11 is discussed mostly through O'Neill's effort to stop terrorist funding. Bush comes across as mildly effective and pleased with O'Neill's work. The book does not try to cover how Bush engaged with his war cabinet during the Afghan conflict or how his leadership skills were deployed in the making of war. On the eve of the Iraq war, however, O'Neill does tell Suskind that he marvels at the President's conviction in light of what he considers paltry evidence: "With his level of experience, I would not be able to support his level of conviction."
There is no effort to offer an opposing analysis of O'Neill's portrayal of his tenure. The book lists his gaffes—he ridiculed Wall Street traders, accused Democrats of being socialists and disparaged business lobbyists who were seeking a tax credit that the President supported—but it portrays these moments as examples of brave truth telling in a town that doesn't like it. White House aides have a different view: It wasn't just that O'Neill was impolitic, they say; his statements had real consequences—roiling currency markets and Wall Street. What O'Neill would call rigor, Bush officials say, was an excessive fussiness that led to policy gridlock and sniping within the economic team.
O'Neill says he hopes that straight talk about the broken decision-making process in the White House will highlight the larger political and ideological warfare that has gripped Washington and kept good ideas from becoming law. Perhaps naively or arrogantly, or both, he even believes it may help change the climate. Ask him what he hopes the book will accomplish, and he will talk about Social Security reform in earnest tones: tough choices won't be made in Washington so long as it shuns honest dialogue, bipartisanship and intellectual thoroughness. O'Neill may not have been cut out for this town, but give him this: he does exhibit the sobriety and devotion to ideas that are supposed to be in vogue in the postironic, post- 9/11 age.
Loyalty is perhaps the most prized quality in the White House. In the book, O'Neill suggests a very dark understanding of what happens to those who don't show it. "These people are nasty and they have a long memory," he tells Suskind. But he also believes that by speaking out even in the face of inevitable White House wrath, he can demonstrate loyalty to something he prizes: the truth. "Loyalty to a person and whatever they say or do, that's the opposite of real loyalty, which is loyalty based on inquiry, and telling someone what you really think and feel—your best estimation of the truth instead of what they want to hear." That goal is worth the price of retribution, O'Neill says. Plus, as he told Suskind, "I'm an old guy, and I'm rich. And there's nothing they can do to hurt me."
From the Jan. 19, 2004 issue of SLIME magazine