With recession and inflation romping hand-in-glove through the deeply troubled U.S. economy, no one has a right to be gloomier than Arthur Burns, the crusty, bushy-haired chairman of the embattled Federal Reserve Board. Instead, the 70-year-old Burns, a counselor of Presidents since the days of Dwight D. Eisenhower, thinks he has glimpsed recovery at the end of the tunnel. “Nobody can say precisely when it will happen,” he acknowledges, “but I expect the economy to improve before the year is over. Interest rates will be down, and there will be a bullish rise in the stock market. I think we have a very bright future.”
Despite his optimism, however, Burns has been critically roasted of late for resisting demands to prime the economy. As FRB chairman, he has the power to influence the flow of money and to help set interest rates. AFL-CIO President George Meany has called him “a national disaster,” and Sen. Hubert Humphrey has compared him to Simon Legree. But if Burns is troubled, he is not letting on. “Criticism doesn’t bother me,” he chuckles in a voice that sounds a little like W.C. Fields. He glances around his office which is chockablock with piles of books and papers and adds: “I wince for a second, but it doesn’t interfere with my sleep or my digestion. Now and then I say a prayer for my critics.”
An unreconstructed fiscal conservative, Burns has a prodigy’s impatience with those who seem not to grasp his ideas. The son of a house painter, born in Stanislau, Austria, he emigrated to New York City with his family in 1914. When he was 6 he could translate the Talmud into Polish and Russian. At 9, he decided socialism couldn’t work. After graduating from high school he wandered over to Columbia University with the intention of quizzing its president. “I wanted to know if it was worthwhile to spend four years there,” Burns says. The president was out, so Burns talked to the university secretary. The result: Burns was offered a scholarship within 48 hours.
For the intellectually voracious Burns, college was a revelation. “A whole new world opened up,” he remembers. “I don’t think I had a single date in college. I would sing my studies, I got so much joy out of them!” Graduating Phi Beta Kappa, he went on to become an instructor at Rutgers. Soon after he met another teacher, his future wife, Helen Bernstein. “It was too much trouble to travel to Brooklyn to see her,” Burns says. “It was much more efficient to marry her.” Married 45 years—”it’s still an experiment,” jokes Burns—the couple has two sons, David, 38, a lawyer, and Joseph, 36, an economist. (The boys once saw a snapshot of their father as a young man, with his hair parted sharply in the middle then as now, and commented, “You really took a chance, Mother.”)
Mrs. Burns is vice-president of the Academy of American Poets and has led a drive to get American poets on U.S. postage stamps. She calls her husband “Ba” (pronounced “bay,” short for baby) which embarrasses him. They seem to enjoy each other enormously, although Burns expresses regret that he does not have the time to keep his wife on a budget.
It was in 1953 that Burns, then director of the National Bureau of Economic Research, was named chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and immediately began teaching Eisenhower economics. “He asked me about various problems,” Burns recalls, “and I said I would prepare a paper. He said, ‘I can’t read,’ and I said, ‘I can’t write.’ ” After that Burns and Eisenhower began talking informally, and Ike told his aides, “I want the doctor in here once a week.” As for Ike, Burns says simply, “I loved the man. I think history is reappraising Ike, and as the years go by he’ll be recognized as a wise man who brought the country tranquillity.”
Among other Presidents he served, Burns found Kennedy “most attractive and brilliant, a keen analyst, a fine student. If he had lived, he might have become one of our truly great Presidents.” Burns will not discuss President Johnson, though he does observe that “inflation has been underway since 1964. Our current troubles are because we’ve practiced loose finance, running deficits year in and year out.” Burns urged LBJ to raise taxes to head off Vietnam-induced inflation, but was ignored. “I am not much of a diplomat.” he admits. The chairman does not speak much of Nixon either, although he had such clout with him—so the story goes—that Burns could silence a roomful of White House aides by clearing his throat at a meeting. Burns’s view of President Ford: “A man of great simplicity, honest, dedicated to the job and the country.”
Absorbed in his work, Burns rarely takes time to relax (he reads the Bible and history before he goes to sleep) and, to his wife’s despair, seldom shops for clothes. “The man is in tatters,” she wails. Though he once spent four months a year at his Vermont farmhouse, he has cut back on vacations. “I went up last summer but came back after 10 days. After spending eight hours on the phone every day, I decided it was easier to be in Washington.”
Around the capital, Burns has a reputation for absentmindedness, based partly on his occasional habit of wandering out of dinner parties with napkins that Mrs. Burns must wash, iron and return. As Burns explains it, his mind tends to fasten on whatever issue he’s dealing with. Once, he recalls, he was concentrating so ferociously on passing a car on the highway that he almost ran into a train. Bells were ringing, sirens blaring and a companion was shrieking, “Stop! Stop! Stop!,” but Burns’s attention was riveted on the car ahead. “Focusing on the problem at hand,” Burns concedes, “can be both a source of strength and a weakness.”