I suppose there is nothing staler than yesterday's Fed nominee, but I somehow feel constrained to add a followup to the superplus excess of stories about the virtues and defects of Larry Summers—and an invidious comparison to the present Fed chair, Ben Bernanke.
Here's the thing: the one thing everybody seems to agree on re Summers, friend and foe alike: he's b-r-r-r-illiant, with the particular capacity for coming into a room and just blowing everybody away with his success at mastering his brief (counting “foes,” I exclude people like Rick Perry who simply do not give a damn what they say).
I have no basis on which to quarrel with b-r-r-r-illiant, and I actually liked the little bits of authentic Summers scholarship that I've run across (I even liked the one about exporting pollution costs). But could it to be that Summers' ultimate purpose in life is to blow people away, and that he cares far less about what he says—or even what he achieves—than he does about his success in leaving people gobsmacked by his knack for saying it?
Which brings us to Bernanke. I'm not going to venture a judgment on whether Bernanke is as brilliant as Summers (though I bet Summers would). But the personal traits use to identify him seem almost the opposite of Summers': his modesty, his courtesy, his disposition not to make himself the center of attention. Sometimes in the work of journalists, this can come close to Stockholm syndrome: the reporters who know him best seem almost constrained to write about how the world at large just doesn't understand what a good job Bernanke is doing.
Actually, I'd agree that he has done a good job: probably as good a job as anybody could have been in these perilous times. But he's made his blunders (Not Seeing it Coming certainly counts for a lot). If he is a success, he is at best a success on balance--but that may be the best we have any right to expect. At any rate, my immediate point is that insofar as he has accomplished anything, those traits of personal character have a lot to do with it—that it's more than merely cosmetic, that the very qualities that win the hearts of reporters are qualities that make him so effective in his job. If nothing else, the very idea of a Fed chief who is not Full of Himself, must alone be enough to leave his adversaries wrong-footed. Now, is there any other candidate with that sort of personality?