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Alan speaks, all of the pens roar

Alan Greenspan, beloved by the bond market and increasingly popular with the public, has some new fans: political cartoonists.

John William Deering of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, for example, recently drew a balding man labeled "Wall Street" joining hands with others around a Thanksgiving dinner table. "And most of all," he says, "we give thanks for Alan Greenspan."

Greenspan has been Federal Reserve chief since 1987, but has been appearing in cartoons with regularity only for the past few years, says Washington investment banker Edward Mathias, who, as a hobby, clips cartoons and newspaper headlines every morning. "He really came out of nowhere," he says of Greenspan.

And over the past three or four years, Greenspan's image in the cartoons has undergone a transformation. Initially drawn as the Grinch who stole Christmas, Greenspan emerged in editorial-page cartoons as a reluctant optimist around the middle of 1997. Now, he is often drawn as a national economic treasure.

The cartoonists' interest mirrors the general public's growing familiarity with the Fed, Greenspan and, especially, the stock market, Mathias suggests. Cartoonists concur, but say there's more to it.

The 72-year-old Greenspan starts with what cartoonist Tom Toles calls "a cartoonable face." What's that? "Well, Al Gore does not have one," replies Toles, who draws for the Buffalo (N.Y.) News and U.S. News & World Report.

"I think he's got one of the greatest faces to draw in the world," says Mike Peters, cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News. "He looks like, if he were a candle, the bottom half of his face would be melting onto the ground. He's got those glasses, the large nose, the balding head, heavy eyebrows you can put anywhere, but the bottom half of his face just melts down."

Political cartoonists, perhaps the most idiosyncratic of journalists, don't agree on much _ including the merits of Greenspan. Yet the punch lines of many of their cartoons have changed noticeably in the past few years, and most have changed in Greenspan's favor.

A few years ago, Greenspan was often portrayed as taking away the punch bowl just when the party started to get good _ which is how his predecessor, William McChesney Martin, described the Fed's job.

When interest rates were rising in 1994, a typical cartoon looked something like the one drawn by the Boston Globe's Dan Wasserman, an unrelenting Greenspan critic. He showed Greenspan as a gardener stomping on a tiny seedling and shouting, "Just when the recovery starts to sprout, stomp on it! This eliminates the need for pruning."

As susceptible to cliches as other journalists, cartoonists often drew Greenspan a few years ago as a man worrying about non-existent inflation under his bed. Some still do, and Greenspan's marriage last year to NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell offered a new angle. One cartoonist drew a pajama-clad Greenspan standing beside a bed and calling, "Honey, would you mind checking under the bed for signs of inflation?" His wife's offstage reply: "Not again."

Then two years ago, Greenspan handed cartoonists a Christmas gift with his admonition about "irrational exuberance" in the stock market. Mostly it was the stock market's sharp, negative reaction that attracted the cartoonists. A number of them drew variations on the same theme: Greenspan sneezing, burping or telling a joke, prompting people to jump out of windows.

In the New Yorker magazine, Robert Mankoff drew a man watching a television newscaster report: "Jitters on Wall Street today over rumors that Alan Greenspan said, "A rich man can as soon enter Heaven as a camel fit through the eye of a needle.' "

A few had fun with Greenspan's phrase itself. Pat Oliphant of the Universal Press Syndicate drew a nasty-looking caricature of Greenspan playing a grand piano. The caption: "When Alan Greenspan sat down at the piano, all irrational exuberance ceased."

A Fed interest rate increase in 1997 provoked a few old-style caricatures of Greenspan as the man fighting inflation only he could see. But cartoonists took note when Greenspan grew upbeat in public, declaring that the current U.S. economy was "as impressive as any I have witnessed in my near half-century of daily observation."

Several cartoonists sought to convey that Greenspan delivered spectacularly good news in precisely the same less-than-exuberant manner that he delivered bad news. Mike Thompson of the Springfield, Ill., State Journal Register drew a two-panel cartoon: The first, titled "Remarkable," showed an upward-pointing chart labeled "U.S. economy." The second, titled "Truly Remarkable," showed a somber Greenspan saying, "I'm being optimistic."

In the past few months, Greenspan has been getting credit for the pleasant mix of low unemployment, low inflation and economic growth that the United States is enjoying. Not surprisingly, the cartoons have grown increasingly friendly. Few have been more flattering than Peters' likeness of the backside of a dollar bill with the legend: "In Greenspan We Trust."

No longer able to mock Greenspan or to attack him for strangling the U.S. economy to save it, some cartoonists have turned to mocking the markets' fixation on his every word.

Oliphant drew Greenspan as a cult leader luring a mesmerized couple into his flying saucer. "We believe, O, Alan, we believe!! We'll follow you anywhere! We want you to take us to the next level!" they tell him. "Good," he replies. "Not that you loons have much choice."

If the economy turns sour or Greenspan resumes his warnings about rising stock prices, cartoonists will quickly change, predicts cartoonist Peters. "He'll be that bad uncle coming downstairs, telling everyone to shut up," he says.