A Times Profile of Bernanke is Too-Decorous By Half

The New York Times put Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke front and center on Sunday. But in this long, long profile, there’s precious little news.

Instead, the piece reads a bit like an authorized biography, with some interesting childhood details, but precious little pressure on some key assertions and and a few too many comments from Bernanke about his commitment to public service.

“I never thought I would get this job,” says Mr. Bernanke, adding that 9/11 had spurred his interest in public service. “But now that I have it obviously it’s important to do the very best I can — which is all I can do.”

It is true that the Fed beat, even more than most, seems to wallow in its own decorum, with crisp but unwritten rules about what a reporter can and can’t ask the chairman. But there ought to be a limit to the limits.

There’s also a bit too much on the mood of the man, perhaps an attempt to answer the headline’s not-too-important question, “Is Ben Bernanke Having Fun Yet?”

“He just looked like he was fatigued,” one friend told the Times. “I don’t know how he has made it through the ordeal that he had to go through,” said another.

We’re not unsympathetic, but that’s no reason for the kid-gloves treatment here.

Some people have asked, ‘Why didn’t the Fed stop this from happening?’ ” he says. “Well, like other regulators, there were some things we could have done, at least with hindsight. But we had neither the mandate nor the tools to be the financial system’s supercop. We had well-defined responsibilities that excluded many of the areas that turned out to be problems.”

That’s quite a strawman he’s using there. Whether or not the Fed was supposed to be a supercop isn’t really the question. Doesn’t he need to explain the Fed’s failure to wield the power it clearly did have, to regulate mortgage lending? This is not a detail.

There’s also an odd gee-whiz sense to the story—how darned fast things are moving these days.

The brief market plunge “was just a small indicator of how complex and chaotic, in the formal sense, these systems have become,” he says. “Our financial system is so complicated and so interactive — so many different markets in different countries and so many sets of rules. What happened in the stock market is just a little example of how things can cascade or how technology can interact with market panic.”

This, we know. But what does it mean for the Fed and the future?

More than ever, he suggests, the Fed’s supervisory role needs to be reoriented around financial stability.

“I just think it’s not realistic to think that human beings can fully anticipate all of possible interactions and complex developments,” he says. “The best approach for dealing with this uncertainty is to make sure that the system is fundamentally resilient and that we have as many fail-safes and backup arrangements as possible.”

Any there there? Any reader of a Bernanke profile at this point really would want a little meat on those bones.

It is interesting to note that the usually quiet Bernanke has started to reach out to the public in recent weeks. As the SundayBusiness piece notes, he gave a commencement address this month at the University of South Carolina (a rare graduation speech with footnotes). And the Times tagged along on Thursday when Bernanke toured the old site of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard (there’s a new Tastykake factory there now).

Some additional context for this charm offensive would be nice.

But, again, at this point in the game, and with well more than a full page devoted to Bernanke, it would be nice to hear him asked, say, just what the FOMC means when it talks about “an extended period,” even if he only explains why he can’t answer that question.

There are a few new nuggets in this story, but even these require a little following up.

Mr. Bernanke lived in Winthrop House, a dorm along the Charles River, where classmates included Lloyd C. Blankfein, now C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs (who didn’t know Mr. Bernanke well).

Small world. A little more here would’ve been nice.

Or this:

In 2002, R. Glenn Hubbard, a top economic adviser to President George W. Bush, asked whether Mr. Bernanke would consider serving as a Fed governor. “I was mildly surprised that Ben wanted to come,” Mr. Hubbard recalls. “I reached out to him expecting him to say, ‘No way.’ ”

Sorry, but it’s not self-evident why this would be so.

Or this:

That Mr. Bernanke was a Republican came as a surprise even to longtime colleagues like Alan S. Blinder, a Princeton economist who had been the Fed’s vice chairman during the Clinton administration. Mr. Bernanke, who is soft-spoken, is socially liberal but fiscally conservative.

Oh, he’s a Republican. This Times construction plays into the Fed conceit that politics are irrelevant, when of course they certainly are relevant.

It’s somehow an odd moment to run a big Bernanke profile, especially one that doesn’t break much news. Sure, it’s good to know what’s on the Fed chairman’s reading list, and that:

He is tempted to buy an iPad but isn’t sure he can justify the cost. He likes to drive, but stays under the speed limit, friends say.

But, some 3,600 words later, readers deserve a bit more. This is a very important person, at a very important moment.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.