The stunning thing about the career of Arthur F. Burns, who died at 83 last week, was its enormous sweep over time. When he came to Washington 34 years ago at President Eisenhower's behest to resurrect a fading Council of Economic Advisers, he was already, at 49, the nation's most distinguished economist and leading expert on business cycles.
With his iron-gray hair parted down the middle, gold-rimmed spectacles and an ever-present pipe, Burns personified the intellectual who didn't suffer fools easily.
Nixon brought him back to Washington in 1969, first as counselor in charge of domestic programs, and in 1970 as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
He could say, when asked then about his respect for money supply theories: ''I taught Milton Friedman.''
At that time, there was a question -- as there is now in the case of Fed chairman-designate Alan Greenspan -- of whether Burns, with his close connection to the White House, could preserve the vaunted independence of the Fed. The problem was compounded when Nixon, at Burns' swearing-in ceremony, didn't disguise his hope that Burns would ''independently'' agree with the presidential desire for lower interest rates.
In an interview with Burns soon after he took office, I brought up the issue, and got this response: "God, this is my last job, and what I want to leave is a reputation. I'd be crazy to play a political game!''
Burns jealously guarded the independence of the Fed, lashing out at any government official who dared to talk about monetary policy. At the same time, he didn't hesitate to free-lance his views on whatever came into his mind -- fiscal policy, wage-price controls or labor relations.
Burns ruled the Fed with an iron hand, to the point where some of the governors, supposedly co-equal, were afraid to speak out. A legendary workaholic, Burns' got his only relaxation in frequent appearances on the Washington cocktail circuit where, dry martini in hand, he could be charming.
But the gentle side was not exhibited to his colleagues. When a governor at the Fed once suggested a compromise, observing, ''I think we could make a deal . . . ,'' Burns cut in: ''This chairman does not make deals.''
The restlessness on the Fed Board and among its staff didn't bother him. What did -- for years -- was the charge that he eased money policy in 1972 to help Nixon win reelection. The charge, many now think, was probably unfounded, even if the Fed overshot its monetary targets in 1972. Monetary policy is a crude weapon, as other Fed chairmen have found.
In 1974-75, Burns had to confront a near-revolt by the Fed staff, which argued that a substantially easier money policy was then needed to avoid a recession. Events proved that the staff was right and Burns was wrong on that one: He stayed too long with a tight monetary policy.
It was a classic mistake, and helps explain why Jimmy Carter ignored the pleas of the banking community and refused to reappoint Burns in 1979. Besides, Burns singlehandedly had persuaded Congress to scrap Carter's pet proposal for a $50-per-person tax rebate.
But the Fed was not Burns' last public job. Two years later, at age 77, he was appointed by Ronald Reagan to be ambassador to West Germany, where he served with distinction for four years, although he had no prior experience in foreign policy or as a diplomat.
Former AFL-CIO president George Meany thought Burns was a ''disaster'' for the country. But there were others to whom Burns was the personification of economic wisdom, a great man who singlehandedly chose to fight inflation and defend the American dollar.
The reality is that Burns was a pragmatist, not an ideologue. He was a confirmed anti-Keynesian. But he sometimes stunned conservatives and liberals alike: In 1971, he gave support to wage-price guidelines, and even ''last-resort'' government jobs programs. That's because Burns, for all of his posturing about independence and avoiding deals, knew that to be successful one must participate in the political process. And he did.
But there was never a doubt about his personal integrity. In 1981, for example, he testified against the Kemp-Roth bill, warning that it was the wrong time to reduce taxes. Had Reagan listened to Burns, the nation would not now be facing the huge deficits that have elevated the United States to the top of the list of debtor nations.
For those who thought that he had acquired and exercised too much power at the Fed, to the detriment of the system, Burns had an answer.
''There's a grain of truth in that,'' he admitted to me at the Fed one day. ''But what the hell good would I be if it were totally untrue? What is the chairman supposed to be? A purely passive regulator, a policeman who merely keeps order? Or a leader?''
Burns had a clear idea of his role, and he played it to the hilt. He paid a price: Even though to the rest of the world he was the premier symbol of American strength and economic leadership, at home he remained a controversial figure, feared as much as he was loved.