Washington — Sometimes there is the question in Washington whether Arthur F. Burns, veteran economist picked as President Reagan's new ambassador to Bonn, is the real Arthur Burns or a character actor playing the part.
On the witness stand he has great stage presence, holds senators breathless by his deliberate, modulated voice, as expressive in its pauses as in its words, to which he can give sadness as he speaks of "over 7 million of the public still unemployed" or anxiety over "persistent federal deficits."
It is said that he can give solemn feeling even to such a phase as "monetary aggregates." He would be one of Shakespeare's king's councilors, or the grave adviser who speaks the last couplet summarizing the tragedy.
The most dramatic episode in his life, perhaps, was when he came quietly back to Washington in 1960 to warn Vice-President Nixon confidentially that the business cycle statistics pointed to a downturn and that if Mr. Nixon hoped to win his prospective race against John F. Kennedy for the White House he had better get President Eisenhower to stimulate the economy.
Mr. Burns knew what he was talking about: He had served as chairman of the Eisenhower Council of Economic Advisers from 1953 to 1956 and was (and is) an authority on the business cycle.
Nixon took the warning, which was given to him on a personal basis, but he was unable to influence Eisenhower economic policy. He vainly made several appeals. Later he declared, "Arthur Burns was absolutely right; the economic downturn followed me throughout the campaign."
This is a long way from being ambassador to Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's West Germany at a time when some regard cooperation between Bonn and Washington as of critical importance to NATO.
Burns has never served as a diplomat before, but the episode of 1960 indicates the weight he has carried in American government and his continuing influence on presidents, particularly Republican presidents. He was chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1970 to 1978 under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Business Week magazine called him "one of the two or three most powerful men in the land."
Today he serves on President Reagan's economic advisory council, a body of distinguished economists and consultants working outside the government.
Burns is a moderate conservative by many criteria, but he is not an easy scholar to pigeonhole. He believes in cutting government expentidures at present but has registered doubts on the Kemp-Roth "10- 10- 10 formula" (10 percent tax cuts for three years). He favored wage-price controls in the Nixon administration, a stand that would seem alarmingly radical to one holding the Reagan philosophy.
The white-haired former professor whose long pauses between answers drive television interviewers to desperation, is an expansionist with political independence. He is perfectly sure of himself and not awed by presidential power. A sense of the importance of the US relationship with West Germany, it is believed here, accounts for selecting the unusual ambassador at a critical time.
Arthur Burns was the only child of Jewish parents. He was born in 1904 in Stanislau, Austria, now part of Russia's Ukrainian republic. In 1914 the family moved to Bayonne, N.J., where his father was a house painter. His teacher, who shortened his name from Burnseig to Burns, was struck by his precocity. He won scholarships and worked to support himself: at Columbia University he was a salesman, house painter, and postal clerk. What next? He toyed with the idea of law, architecture, drama critic. But then he was attracted by famous economist Wesley c. Mitchell, authority on business cycles. Eventually, Burns succeeded Mitchell as head of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The Burns interests are still eclectic: his office walls are decorated with abstract canvases which he paints in oils. For years Burns was a fixture of the Washington social scene.
Ambassador-designate Burns shares one point of view with Chancellor Schmidt and the Bonn government: Inflation, they agree, is the great danger of the democracies and strong measures are justified to curb it. Germany has been doing that for some time. Its inflation was around 5.5 percent last year; that of the US was 12.6.
Various efforts have been made to define Arthur Burns. He has been called "everybody's rich uncle, aloof and a little stuffy, but amiable enough if treated respectfully." Or again, "He could pass as a smalltown druggist" (Wall Street Journal in 1969).
Economic monetarist Milton Friedman can hardly forgive Burns for what Friedman regards as dangerous (liberal) thoughts. Nobody doubts the Burns knowledge of economic dynamics, his closeness to President Reagan (exercised in the campaign), or his rock-hard personal integrity.