Where Are the Greenspan Groupies? A Visit to the Fed

In late 1981, a man carrying a sawed-off shotgun, a revolver, and a knife entered the headquarters of the Federal Reserve and was finally stopped by guards just outside the meeting room where the Fed governors gathered. The incident is mentioned in passing in William Greider’s famous book about the Fed during Paul Volcker’s tenure as chairman, Secrets of the Temple. “His plan,” Greider says of the gun-wielding intruder, “was to take the governors hostage and force the news media to focus on what the Federal Reserve was doing to the country.”

Obviously, a lot has changed since 1981, but it’s startling to think how relatively recently it was that the Federal Reserve was the object of populist ire. Greider’s book was subtitled How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country, which at the time suggested something that a mainstream reader ought to be concerned about. Now it seems that the notion that the Fed is actually in control is a source of relief. One of the many throwaway lines I’ve heard or seen repeated several times during the interminable postelection megacoverage is the observation that, luckily, we don’t have to wait around to figure out who the most important man in the free world is going to be because Alan Greenspan’s term has already been renewed.

Yesterday the Federal Open Market Committee, which sets Fed policy, held its latest meeting. By coincidence I happened to be in Washington, D.C., so I thought I would wander by Fed headquarters to see if there were lines of citizen shareholders waiting to sneak up to the boardroom and give Greenspan bouquets of roses or some such thing. At the very least, if Greenspan is actually some sort of populist hero these days, then perhaps his headquarters are worth visiting as a kind of financial tourist attraction.

No one has to force the media to focus on the FOMC meetings anymore as they’ve become among the most analyzed recurring events in America. (Or maybe pseudo-events: Fed deliberations are obviously not open to the public or to reporters, and there’s no press conference afterward, just a printed statement distributed to news organizations.) I gather that yesterday Greenspan arrived at work–an occurrence that on meeting days is faithfully documented  by the financial media–about 10 or 12 minutes before 9 a.m., when FOMC meetings are said to get underway. I arrived around 10 a.m., and by then the cameramen and photographers had pretty much cleared out except for one crew working out of a van mysteriously marked “Diversified Communications,” filming a stand-up on Constitution Avenue with the Fed’s gleaming marble façade, topped by a 6-foot-high eagle sculpture, serving as their magisterial backdrop.

Anyway, the building is closed to the public until 11 a.m., and it was extremely cold and windy, so I walked to a coffee place and read, in the Washington Post “Style” section, a mildly snarky article on the subject of Washington “wise old men.” Its conclusion: “The ultimate Wise Old Man, the biggest old buzzard on the branch, may be Alan Greenspan. Gore and Bush can push and scream and yell all they want in their Florida sandbox. But if the stock market nose-dives, Greenspan just might shoot them a sidelong glance and silence the lot.”

I returned to the Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Building entrance on C Street at 11 a.m. sharp. There was no line. The guards chattered amongst themselves and ignored me for about half a minute. I asked if there was a gallery or something I could tour. While I waited for my visitor badge, I noticed that on the wall in the guard booth was a little sheet with pictures of all the Fed members on it, presumably there so that no one embarrasses Laurence Meyer  or Roger Ferguson Jr. or whoever by demanding an ID.

In the building’s main hall, there was a very pleasant little show of works by late 19th-century American painters influenced by Velazquez. I’m not sure what the connection is to the Fed, but some paintings were quite nice, and the handsome souvenir booklet was mine to keep. On the way out I realized I had nearly missed the small gallery containing actual Fed-related information. It’s about the size of a large dorm room, with modest displays made up of maybe 10 photographs, some explanatory charts, and three old Time magazine covers. Also, there was an unassuming beige box with a blank screen and some buttons, which I gather was a computer game of some sort. (It said “You Are The Chairman,” or something like that.) But it was broken, or unplugged, or otherwise not functioning.

Oh well. It was 11:35 a.m.. I was still the only visitor. I could wait around for some action, or I could go somewhere with a TV set and hear about the FOMC results at 2:15 p.m. on CNBC along with everyone else who cared. (As you probably know, rates and the Fed’s stated concern about inflation remained unchanged.) I didn’t really think there would be throngs of Fed groupies around, but I was kind of hoping for at least one reverent Greenspan enthusiast I could interrogate. Does it make sense that the conventional wisdom has swung from the suspicion that Greider wrote about all the way to the hero worship suggested in the title of Bob Woodward’s newest, Maestro: Greenspan’s Fed and the American Boom? My field trip was inconclusive. I wandered back out into the nasty wind, faintly disappointed. But more on that Woodward book next week.