Now He Tells Us

There is the story about a puffed-up political figure, or maybe it was a movie star, who came out with a memoir and began the requisite tour. A reporter cornered him at a cocktail party: “Did you write this book yourself?”

“Write it?” the man said. “I didn’t even read it.”

This crossed my mind while reading Alan Greenspan’s memoir, in which the war for Iraq was all about oil, though the wise have long been prohibited from sharing this insight with the common folk. In interviews, Mr. Greenspan now corrects that: He meant the war seemed to him, though he cannot claim it did to others in power, driven primarily by American dependence on foreign energy.

In the book he fiercely opposes the Bush tax cuts. He feared the budget surpluses enjoyed in 2000 would be transformed into long-term deficits. He worried that entitlement spending would leave “a very large hole in future budgets.” Not facing this was “a failure.” He disdains the Great Pork Spree of the ‘00s. The unifying idea that governed Bush White House economic thinking—”deficits don’t matter”—was, simply, wrong. Mr. Greenspan found it a “struggle” to accept that this is what the Republican Party had come to. Scrambling for political dominance became the party’s great goal. “The reality was even uglier”: They would spend and spend “to add a few more seats to the Republican majority.”

This is all strongly, and clearly, stated.

But when the tax cuts, and the impact of spending, were being debated, Mr. Greenspan allowed his congressional testimony to be interpreted as supportive of the Bush plan. And he did this even though he had been warned in advance by those who’d seen his testimony that it would be seen as an endorsement of the tax plan.

Indeed his testimony—airy vaporizing about long-term trends—was quickly seized on by the White House and its congressional supporters as support for their approach. Mr. Greenspan describes himself—literally, in an aside he seems to find witty—as “shocked, shocked” that politics is going on in Washington, and his words are being twisted.

But he never quite cleared it up, not at the time. He does it now, with the book, and after the advance. As a writer I am in passionate support of large advances, but $8.5 million to tell the American people what he should have told them when his views might have had an impact?

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In the book he seems to brag about how artfully and deliberately obscure his public statements were, all those orotund stylings marked by barely penetrable syntax, passive voice and oblique phraseology. Somehow they seem less amusing in retrospect. Maybe their very obscurity allowed partisans to twist his words into whatever shape they wanted. And maybe that was sort of OK with him.

Alan Greenspan, authorThe book has merits—it is blessedly lucid on how the Fed works and how Fed-heads think—but there is within it a great disconnect. I was thinking about this when I got a note from a former U.S. senator who groused about “the phenomena of high-level public officials ‘bravely speaking out’ after they have left office.” He scored Mr. Greenspan as “perfectly free to have spoken out about the need for the President to veto more spending bills on numerous occasions when he was testifying in public.” My correspondent says Mr. Greenspan’s “total silence” while in office does not exactly qualify as “bravely speaking out.”

The former senator has a point. It can be summed up as: Now you tell us? It doesn’t take courage to speak clearly when no one can hurt you. It takes guts to be candid when candor can earn powerful enemies.

U.S. government officials owe the people who pay them, and who have raised them high—that would be the American taxpayer—real-time wisdom. They owe us their best thinking. Sometimes this is uncomfortable. But that’s the price you pay for the car and the honors and the security detail and the special U.S. Army jet that flies you home, alone, across the Atlantic, on the day after 9/11.

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Mr. Greenspan was reappointed for a three-year term by President Clinton in 2000. He allowed himself to be painted as a supporter of the Bush tax cuts in 2001. He was reappointed by President Bush in 2003. Mr. Bush is now deeply unpopular. Mr. Greenspan, retired and selling a book, has discovered Mr. Bush’s deep flaws. The timing is all so convenient.

One wouldn’t suggest a quid pro quo in Mr. Greenspan’s testimony and subsequent reappointment. He had to some degree tangled with presidents in the past. But it is likely true that Mr. Greenspan would not have wanted to give the president reasons to hesitate, and it would also be true to say that Mr. Bush did not want a reason, for Mr. Greenspan was respected and the markets liked him. Or until this week when he gave the impression his own personal long-term economic planning involves keeping bars of gold under the porch with a dog named Butch—sorry, I mean highly fungible physical entities embodying real and symbolic value next to an exuberant canine.

So to suggest a quid pro quo would be vulgar. And in any case who could say? At that level, the game is played without words or even winks. It’s played through feints, silences, symbols, vague words. Then a handshake and off we go.

Long ago in a book called “What I Saw at the Revolution,” I wrote that I was dismayed by White House memoirs whose underlying message was, “If only they’d listened to me, the fools!” I didn’t want to do that, and in my case I couldn’t. Sometimes if they’d listened to me they’d have been wrong indeed. Mr. Greenspan is an “If only they’d listened to me” man. He should have added, “And they might have if I’d been clear.”

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There has been a certain bite in the Bush White House memoirs, as if they were written by men who felt they’d been badly ragged around and could finally get back. Mr. Greenspan convincingly—well, who could doubt it now?—asserts that the White House discouraged independent thinking and instead emphasized “loyalty and staying on message.” This he says is what did in Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who also argued that deficits matter.

When Gen. Eric Shinseki told Congress, before the Iraq war, that postinvasion troop levels should be “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers,” his views were called “outlandish” by administration officials. He was bureaucratically undercut, and he limped to retirement. When economic adviser Larry Lindsay told this newspaper the war would likely cost up to four times what the administration asserted, he was sacked.

Early and brutal examples were made of those who did not echo the party line. Perhaps Mr. Greenspan was watching, or rather observing certain trends.

The deeper story is not that those who’ve been silenced have often come forward to speak in harsh terms. The deeper story is that the Bush White House hurt itself by using muscle to squelch alternative thinking—creative thinking, independent judgments—that would, in retrospect, have benefited them. Big spending became a scandal. So did not enough troops, and the financial cost of the war. It was this tendency that led to the administration’s gym-rat reputation, all muscle and no brains.