Alan Greenspan is a man whose very life is filled with contradictions: A brilliant economist who has also mastered the political jungle of Washington; a public speaker whose very voice is an unequaled cure for insomnia, yet who has a reputation for being a lady’s man; a scholar with an insatiable appetite for the driest economic statistics, yet a man who began his career as a saxophonist in a be-bop jazz band in the early 1950s.

It is fitting that the man behind the obfuscating opining oratory be the subject of a book. In a mildly inflationary trend, two biographies have recently found their ways to local bookstores. Both Justin Martin’s The Man Behind the Money, and Bob Woodward’s Maestro, provide a comprehensive picture of the man who has more control over the U.S. economy than any other individual, including the president. Each book has its strengths and weaknesses, but both offer a rich portrait of this multi-dimensional man.

Martin’s book is the more complete, digging deep into Greenspan’s childhood and adolescence. He tells us a great deal, but what we learn is that Greenspan had a relatively normal upbringing. No signal moment in his youth put him on the path to the Fed. On the contrary, he showed a strong talent for music and mastered both the saxophone and the clarinet early on. He enrolled at the Juilliard School as a clarinet major, and supported himself by playing in a swing band. As a result of his musical ability, Martin dubs him “Woody Allen with math skills”.

Following the end of World War II, Greenspan realized that the coming wave of “bop” jazz was not for him and he transferred to New York University to major in economics. Most of his classmates were headed for careers in banking, insurance or real estate, but Greenspan fell in love with the theories underlying pure economics. He had discovered his niche. From NYU, he went on to graduate school at Columbia where he found himself at the feet of future Fed chairman Arthur Burns. He started his professional career as a staff economist at the Conference Board, and eventually presided over his own highly successful economic consulting firm, Townsend-Greenspan.

A seminal moment in Greenspan’s life came when he was first introduced to the work of Ayn Rand, author of such novels as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. He found Rand’s objectivism compelling and immersed himself in both her work and her soirees. Arthur Burns, his mentor at Columbia, was the other great influence on Greenspan, helping him learn the importance of pragmatism and empiricism. Greenspan has shown throughout his career that his preference is to begin and end with facts and figures, with little taste for ideology or party politics.

He came to Washington, reluctantly, as chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors in the Ford Administration. Ronald Reagan named him Fed chairman in 1987, George Bush reappointed him in 1991, and Bill Clinton sent his name to Congress twice, most recently in January 2000. His relationship with the first President Bush was a disaster, with Bush blaming Greenspan for his loss to Clinton in 1992 because of Greenspan’s reluctance to drop interest rates and pump up a dull economy. It was only during the Clinton administration that this Republican appointee began to come into his own and shine.

In late 1992 and early 1993, Greenspan spent many hours with Clinton discussing the danger to the economy of the rapidly growing deficit. Greenspan had gone on record to say that large budget deficits effectively eliminate the Fed’s power to control inflation. He strongly believed that something radical needed to be done to reign in government spending and reduce the deficit. Clinton heard Greenspan’s concerns and acted on them. The combination of fiscal restraint and a booming economy throughout the 1990s has put the U.S. economy in a situation where the government not only could eliminate the annual deficit but actually begin to pay down accumulated debt. Given the success of that approach, Greenspan’s recent support for the new President Bush’s tax cuts appears all the more curious.

But, as both Martin and Woodward make clear, Greenspan is a man of contradiction, someone who is difficult to predict and who positively revels in his reputation as a master of obfuscation. Martin notes that Greenspan once told Congress, “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Only Greenspan could preside over a lengthy meeting of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve and ask that their principal action at any given meeting be to provide him with an “asymmetrical directive”.

For all the encomiums heaped on him, Greenspan has not always been right. In 1985 he wrote a letter to thrift regulators in his capacity as head of Townsend-Greenspan, his consulting firm, in which he spoke positively of both the management team and the financial condition of Lincoln Savings and Loan. Within a few years, Charles Keating’s financial manipulations caused Lincoln to sink at a cost to the U.S. taxpayers of well over $1 billion. To be sure, at the time Greenspan wrote the letter, the company was thriving, but his oracle-like powers failed him in this situation. He later acknowledged that he had been wrong about his assessment of Lincoln. And, as Martin says, quoting economist Paul Samuelson, “The thing about Greenspan is that he doesn’t stay wrong.”

He recently signed on for a fourth term as chairman of the Fed. He will be 78 when his term expires in 2004, so it is likely that he will step down. These two books present a portrait of a man who is as committed and dedicated to his job as anyone could ever hope to find. The job the Fed does is extraordinarily difficult, blending science and art. The man who currently occupies the chairman’s office is no oracle, just a brilliant man, who is also quite human.