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Bernanke Unwrapped

Fed chief nominee Ben S. Bernanke.
Fed chief nominee Ben S. Bernanke. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Bloomberg News)

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Kenneth Manning, a friend a few years older than Bernanke, won a scholarship to Harvard University. Manning, now a science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lobbied Bernanke's parents to let their son join him in Cambridge. Manning spent hours convincing Edna and Philip Bernanke that Ben would not get swept up in turbulent campus protests or lose his connection to Judaism.

"They were apprehensive. They really wanted him too close to home," Manning said. "But I thought his staying in South Carolina [for college] would be an absolute waste. And I think he was glad to have me say that to them. I remember a two- or three-hour conversation with them about how their son would not be corrupted."

Bernanke did not become an activist when he arrived at Harvard in 1971, just a voracious student, said Manning. Bernanke also worked a variety of jobs during his college breaks, including one summer as a waiter at South of the Border, the sprawling cathedral of kitsch just off I-95 in South Carolina, famous for endless billboard advertisements featuring sombrero-clad cartoon pitchman "Pedro."

Bernanke considered English and mathematics as majors at Harvard before turning to economics. Friends say the fact that Bernanke considered majoring in English reflects his love of language, a skill not always associated with the often opaque Greenspan.

"Greenspan's been head of the Fed so long that the markets have gotten to sort of understand the language. They speak Greenspanese," said professor Alan S. Blinder, a former Fed vice chairman and frequent lunch partner of Bernanke's at Princeton's economics department. "Oddly enough, while Bernanke will speak English, which is a much more commonly understood language, I think the markets are going to have some adjusting to do when the English starts coming out."

As a graduate student at MIT, Bernanke probed the roots of the Depression, studying the Fed's role and what he viewed as its failure to fight a dangerous downward spiral in prices. He also nurtured his fascination with baseball statistics and his new love for the Boston Red Sox. Bernanke, now an avid Washington Nationals fan, has said he missed classes at MIT in 1975 because he was busy following the Red Sox in the World Series.

After MIT, Bernanke moved to California with his new wife, Anna, and his MIT colleague Jeremy I. Bulow. Bulow and Bernanke taught at Stanford University while Anna, now a Spanish instructor at the National Cathedral School, studied for her master's. The three lived in a rented house with economist Mark Gertler, a close friend of Bernanke's and now a professor at New York University. Anna Bernanke did the cooking. None of them had any money.

"I lent him $500, and he really did not like being in debt," Bulow recalled of their first year in California. "I think he paid me back by the second paycheck, which is maybe a good characteristic for someone running the Fed."

The group house, while convivial, was hardly party central. "As economists go, he's well above average," Bulow said of Bernanke's social habits. But such a distinction, Bulow cautioned, is "a bit like saying a guy is the best surfer in Topeka."

Friends and colleagues say that unlike Greenspan, Bernanke will probably not be a fixture on the Washington social circuit, preferring quiet nights at home and small gatherings of friends and family. But they say he is not so introverted that he will fail to develop close, private relationships with key members of Congress and at the White House.

Bernanke quickly emerged as a top teacher at Stanford, earning six-plus scores on his evaluations on a seven-point scale, besting professors with 20 years of experience. He continued to draw high marks as a teacher after moving to Princeton in 1985 but eventually gravitated toward administrative duties as chair of the economics department.

Many professors blanch at the idea of serving as department chairman, an often thankless task requiring fierce lobbying of school administrators for resources and deft ego massage of faculty members. "You've got 50 prima donnas and no stick to hit them with, so you just try to persuade them and hope they fall in line," said Gene M. Grossman, a Princeton economist and former chairman of the department.


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