Opinion | Finance

A requiem for a legend — and a friend: Alice Rivlin

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Imagine being a kid who grew up worshiping Joe DiMaggio before being lucky enough to meet him one day. Then, imagine getting to be his teammate.  

That trajectory mimics my own extreme good fortune in getting to know and ultimately work with Alice Rivlin, the famed economist and American hero, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 88.   

For many of us, Alice really was the policy wonk's equivalent of Joe DiMaggio. She was incredibly talented. She was amazingly accomplished. But she was the ultimate team player and always the champion of younger colleagues. 

She was a straight-shooter, blunt as could be without ever being unkind. She relished debate without needing to win every battle. In fact, I think she preferred the kind of exchange in which she came away partly persuaded, or at least intrigued, by her sparring partner's point of view. She was somehow youthful right up to the very end.  

A few specific memories stand out: 

When she came back to the Brookings Institution in the early 2000s after her stint as vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, and some of us became her colleagues for the first time, we watched her also hold down a part-time job helping Washington, D.C.'s financial control board with the city's out-of-whack economics. 

She was about 70 at the time. Rather than treating a return to Brookings as a way station on the path to retirement, she arguably took on her toughest job of her career. Washington, D.C. is a much different and better place today largely thanks to her efforts.

In December 2010, after the rise of the Tea Party foreshadowed a tightening of federal spending, Alice and I were on a panel together, addressing the question of the future American defense budget.

Alice, a centrist Democrat from Indiana, was no wimp or dove when it came to military power. But she was equally a deficit hawk and had been on two prestigious panels that very year with a mandate to propose pathways to greater national fiscal responsibility. 

Another panelist, a pro-defense conservative, talked about the need for greater resoluteness toward China and greater military spending - not an unreasonable position. But the budgetary and political tea leaves made such a position ultimately untenable. Alice let him know it. 

She also told him that if he wanted an arms race with what was becoming the world's manufacturing superpower, that was a fool's errand. It was a great discussion, but I think she got the much better half of the argument. 

A couple of years later, we had a private roundtable discussion with retired Gen. David Petraeus to discuss the nation's future. We organized the conversation as a sort of friendly debate.

Some scholars, lamenting America's poor public school test scores, decaying infrastructure and big fiscal deficits, forecast a declining role for the American economy and American global power. 

Alice acknowledged those concerns but went on to talk about the many strengths of today's youth and the many other positive attributes of this country in general. 

Maybe it's too soon to know which side of the debate was right; maybe both sides were, in a sense. But what I'll always remember is Alice's optimism - a sober, realistic, cautious optimism, to be sure, but still a profound belief in the promise of America.

When I had a question for her, circa 2016, about whether the United States could ever, in a national security crisis, selectively choose not to honor its obligations for Treasury bills held by China, but otherwise uphold the integrity of America's financial commitments abroad, Alice patiently but firmly explained to me why my idea was ridiculous. That might even have been the word she used. I enjoyed the scolding because it was Alice who delivered it.

In 2017, when a couple colleagues and I wanted to begin a Brookings project on the future of the middle class but lacked the credentials to do so ourselves, we looked around for a partner who could lend the seminar series the necessary credibility, gravitas and appeal that would make everyone want to come. 

There was only one natural answer: Alice Rivlin. And of course, when I asked, she said yes. Thus, "Rivlin's Renegades" came into being, though Alice proposed that the group should be called "O'Hanlon's Hooligans." 

Needless to say, that particular suggestion of hers was rejected. I think she made it to almost every seminar all year, out of 18 or 20 in all, despite having a broken hip for a couple of months.

Throughout the year, Alice encouraged me to keep the group going, despite my limited expertise on the subject, saying half-teasingly that one of my advantages in coordinating it was that I "didn't know too much about economics." 

When Brookings' new president John Allen made reviving America's middle class a top priority of the institution and turned the reigns of the project over to the brilliant Richard Reeves, there was one person to thank more than anyone else for sowing the seed of that idea: Alice Rivlin.

Finally, and so fittingly, when I sent out a lunch invitation last week for a monthly roundtable that we hold at Brookings to discuss national and world events, Alice replied in what would be her last email to me: "I can't make it this week, but please keep my name on the list."

Alice, we always will. Forever. Thank you my dear friend.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelEOHanlon.

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