Father Greenspan Loves Us All
The title of Bob Woodward's first, most celebrated book, All the President's Men, played off the old Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme. The book revealed how "all the king's horses and all the king's men" could not put Richard Nixon back together again. It was a dark, riveting melodrama in which two very young reporters, Woodward and co-author Carl Bernstein, discovered the high crimes at the pinnacle of American political power. Woodward's subsequent books also shocked and illuminated with many insider revelations, but Woodward himself has steadily progressed toward a more wholesome and respectful view of those who govern, depicting them as cool, tough-minded leaders who make the hard choices of history. His latest book, one could say, returns to the story of Humpty Dumpty. Only, Humpty is still sitting on the wall. There has been no great fall, and Woodward celebrates the man's wisdom and awesome power.
The subject of Maestro is Alan Greenspan and his thirteen-year tenure as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Greenspan, who will preside over the next meeting of Fed decision makers on December 19, is at the apogee of public esteem and celebrity, since the robust economy and booming financial markets of recent years have been widely attributed to his skillful management of money and credit at the central bank. Woodward goes a step further and engages, uncharacteristically, in a literary flourish that resembles a rite of apotheosis. Father Greenspan is portrayed as a strong and trusted parent who supervises the children's interests; he loves us all, notwithstanding the dour expression. Indeed, he is seen as a godlike Olympian who does the hard thinking on our behalf, worries constantly for us and makes unpleasant decisions for our own good.
"Although his words are almost unbearably opaque, he appears to be doing something rare--telling the truth," Woodward reports. In an epilogue, Woodward suggests that the Fed chairman even embodies the American spirit. "With Greenspan, we find comfort. He helps breathe life into the vision of America as strong, the best, invincible. The fascination with Greenspan has become one of the ways in which the country expresses confidence in itself and its future."
Wow. Is Woodward in love? I cannot remember an important public figure who has enjoyed such adulation, not while he's still alive, still in office. "Outside the Fed," the author observes of Greenspan, "hardly anybody can muster the courage to criticize him anymore." That's true enough in the high realms of Washington politics, but some of us dissenters are still around, still talking back to Father Greenspan though not at his dinner table (most critical voices are far beyond the view of establishment media, some of us dismissed as cranks). In the "good times," conventional wisdom can safely ignore contrary critiques of power. When the "good times" turn sour--an unwinding process now under way in both financial markets and the real economy--a more substantial dialogue may develop about Greenspan's stewardship of monetary policy and the insulated, unelected governing power he represents.
This piece is not a review of Woodward's book but an argument against the shallow, self-protective mythologies the Federal Reserve promotes about itself, which are fully reflected in this book. A review would be improper, given the personal associations (Bob and I are former colleagues at the Washington Post and remain distant friends; we also both write books for the same publishing house and editor). But since I wrote my own book about the Fed more than a decade ago (Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country, 1987), I do feel entitled to quarrel with the conventional wisdom's celebration of the Greenspan era--the triumphalist interpretation that reigns unchallenged not only in Washington and on Wall Street but also in Bob Woodward's book.
The most compelling quality of a Woodward narrative is the authoritative sense of intimacy. The reader is right in the room with high officials, listening to the spirited back and forth among important players. Often the reader feels inside their heads, hearing their unexpressed doubts or hunches. Intense digging is required to pull this off, and Woodward is without peer for his daring and his meticulous style of cross-rough reporting among numerous unnamed sources. In newsrooms, this dramatic form of storytelling is known as a "ticktock"--reconstructing pivotal events hour by hour, day by day--and it implicitly relies upon the "great man" approach to history, focusing almost entirely on who said what to whom behind closed doors.
The problem with the great-man approach is that not only is the reader confined to the insider's version of reality; so is the storyteller. The Federal Reserve described in Woodward's book is a near-perfect fit with the institution's longstanding self-image and, indeed, with the standard version taught in Economics 101 or typically portrayed in news stories. The central bank is described as an island of disinterested technocratic expertise--sober thinkers who are surrounded by the federal government's messy, sometimes barbarous political swamp. The Fed, it is said, must be cloistered from the usual pressures--the accountability and openness required of elected government--so Fed governors are free to focus on the long-term consequences. Thus, the core conceit sustaining this institution is the claim that good government requires the absence of politics--a high-minded notion inherited from the Progressive Era, which created the Fed in 1913.