For those with a taste for learning the inner truth about White House politics, reading Paul O’Neill’s story is like eating a bowl of peanuts–difficult to stop. For those who have always seen a fraudulent character in George W. Bush, it is like cashews. The news coverage has mined The Price of Loyalty by Ron Suskind for many extraordinary “gotcha” nuggets, but the cruelest revelation is in the texture of this narrative–a devastating portrait of our imperial President. Up close, he is smaller than life, an oddly uninteresting person. Yet he possesses all of the presidency’s dreadful powers and cheerfully authorizes their use. The publicity apparatus successfully created a guy who is Mr. Macho Fighter Pilot. Behind the closed door, he submits complacently to the close supervision of others–Cheney, Rice, Rove et al.

The book is deeply scary on that level. That’s why the Bush henchmen have piled on O’Neill with such fierce denials and personal attacks. Even GWB felt the need to speak out against its message. They understand how damaging this book is to the concocted persona they sold the American people–and therefore how it threatens their agenda. O’Neill is one of them (or was until they booted him as Treasury Secretary). He’s a meticulous man, strong-willed and experienced in government and corporate life, a conservative Republican with a talent for systems analysis. Yet he comes across as the innocent everyman, honest but slightly goofy in his naïveté, repeatedly shocked by the cynicism and sloppiness, angered by the gross deceptions and flaky decisions. O’Neill is believable because his own story portrays him as goat, not hero.

“Condi, what are we going to talk about today? What’s on the agenda?” the Commander in Chief asks, convening one of his earliest National Security Council meetings. Regime change in Iraq, Mr. President. CIA Director George Tenet rolls out a large, grainy aerial photograph of an Iraqi factory. What’s that? “A plant that produces either chemical or biological materials for weapons manufacture,” Tenet reports. Bush and Cabinet officers hover over the picture, nodding. O’Neill, an old factory man himself as former CEO of Alcoa, looks at the photo and remarks, “I’ve seen a lot of factories around the world that look a lot like this one.”

Tenet mentions circumstantial evidence. The President hands out assignments–Rumsfeld and Shelton at the Pentagon “should examine our military options.” O’Neill explained later and Suskind reported, “The meeting had seemed scripted. Rumsfeld had said little, Cheney nothing at all, though both men had long entertained the idea of overthrowing Saddam. Rice orchestrated, and Tenet had a presentation ready. [Secretary of State] Powell seemed surprised.” O’Neill’s insider history contains no “smoking gun” in the Watergate tradition but is somewhat more convincing than the heroic version told by Bob Woodward in Bush at War.

On nearly every page, the reader gets a clear understanding of why O’Neill was shown the door late in 2002. It was not that he occasionally made off-the-wall remarks in public but that he made them in private too. His behavior was more than obnoxious. He offended the concept of the modern presidency, in which propaganda is policy and everyone in the room understands what O’Neill could never grasp–that propaganda comes before all else.

This division of labor did not start with Bush II, of course, but the Bushies have perfected hermetic secrecy and the cynical manufacture of mass deception, taking it to a level that might make Nixon or Reagan blush. More than a generation ago, truth-telling had its historical moments–the shocking revelations surrounding Vietnam, Watergate, the CIA’s assassinations and domestic spying–and for a time the imperial President shrank to human-scale fallibility. This did not last. In our media-drenched age, Americans know less of reality than they once did. Even worse, many accept the artificial presidency and judge the man mainly on the quality of his performance.

The man behind the curtain is not a wizard, not even an impressive mortal. Bush does not work tirelessly, dawn to dusk, to improve the Republic. He doesn’t even read newspapers or, as O’Neill noticed, ask challenging questions. He gets on airplanes and flies around the country for fundraising and political stunts. Twenty-plus years ago, I participated in a similar moment of truth-telling with a lengthy magazine article (“The Education of David Stockman”) in which Ronald Reagan’s brainy young budget director disclosed the utter chaos and error behind Reaganomics. The Gipper’s tax-cutting triumph was a fiscal mess that would take twenty years to clean up with a series of major tax increases–started by Reagan himself.

Like O’Neill, Stockman shocked Washington by violating its code of omertà. He told the actual inside truth about public affairs. It’s OK to write a tell-all memoir revealing presidential lapses and indecision, but you are supposed to wait until after the man leaves office. When Stockman committed the sin of premature truth-telling, he was still in government himself. Many loyal Reaganauts cried out for a public lynching. Reagan’s wise advisers knew that the devastating facts were indeed accurate but would soon pass if they arranged a bit of convincing theater.

Stockman went to the Oval Office for apologies, and the encounter was portrayed as “a trip to the woodshed.” Never happened, Stockman revealed years later. Reagan was, on the contrary, surprisingly meek and sympathetic. The mythological Gipper continued in office triumphantly. And so did the monster budget deficits Stockman had predicted “as far as the eye can see.” When Paul O’Neill disappears from the headlines, will people remember that he spoke the truth?