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Knights in Shining Armor

What unlikely British title unites U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and New York City’s former mayor, Rudolph Giuliani?

August 13, 2002

What unlikely British title unites U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and New York City's former mayor, Rudolph Giuliani?

Unlike Americans — who awarded over 117,000 decorations after the Gulf War out of an assembled force of 532,000 — the British are fairly parsimonious with their honors. It's the rare person in the United Kingdom who gets knighted — and is thus permitted to be called Sir or Lady.

The British are even more leery of making foreigners Knights of the British Empire. British candidates for the honor can be nominated by anyone. In the case of foreigners, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs must nominate worthy candidates.

Then the Queen — upon the advice of the Prime Minister — personally chooses the recipients of the award.

And yet, this year alone two Americans of distinction — Rudy Giuliani and, more recently, Alan Greenspan — became Sir Rudy and Sir Alan, respectively. (Although as democratic Americans they are not, strictly speaking, allowed to be called that.)

It is probably no coincidence that British awards are starting to fall on U.S. citizens with what for the normally reserved Brits seems like a relative frequency. After all, Tony Blair's government in London has been keen to strengthen its "special relationship" with the transatlantic giant.

Great Britain has been the closest ally of the United States since September 11, fighting alongside American forces in Afghanistan. Although the Blair government has its misgivings about forcing a regime change in Iraq, it has indicated it will support the Bush Administration in its undertaking. And it will try to persuade its continental allies, who are even more skeptical of the merits of invading Iraq.

It is probably no coincidence that both freshly minted "KBEs" are Republicans. It also helps that they, throughout their careers, have been remarkably bipartisan.

Mr. Greenspan has worked just as well with the Clinton Administration as with President Regan, who appointed him initially to the post as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and the two Bushes.

Mr. Giuliani, as a mayor of a predominantly Democratic New York City, was on the left wing of the Republican party — as far as ideology was concerned. He even backed a Democrat, Mario Cuomo, when he ran for — and lost — reelection as Governor of New York State.

Perhaps equally significant for the British, who are hoping to shed their image as a stodgy, conservative and class-conscious society, both men are very much self-made. They are also the products of "ethnic" New York — Jewish in one case and Italian in the other.

But this is where similarities between the two men end. Mr. Giuliani was knighted at the height of his most glorious moment, when he led New York City's recovery from the September 11 terrorist attacks.

As to Alan Greenspan, the peak of his career is probably well behind him. In fact, his life's work may be coming undone even as he receives the coveted British honor.

The U.S. stock market, which he fostered throughout his 15 years at the helm of the Fed, is collapsing. The national admiration for business leaders, which went hand-in-hand with the stock market boom, has turned to resentment and hatred as more stories of fraud and greed are uncovered.

While none of that is Mr. Greenspan’s fault, he seems to have lost his knack for calming investors' nerves. Some analysts now predict that it might take 20 years for the NASDAQ Composite index to return to its 5,000 peak seen in 2000 (it currently stands at around 1,300). At the age of 76, Mr. Greenspan may yet live long enough to see that, but he surely won't be at the helm of the Fed by then.

Moreover, in light of the scandals convulsing the U.S. business establishment, and the fall from grace of American CEOs, the Queen may want to thank her lucky stars.

At least the UK government didn't suggest to her that, for example, Ken Lay of Enron or Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom should be made Knight of the British Empire. At the time when American CEOs were so universally revered, the UK government could easily have done so. In retrospect, it would have been quite an embarrassment.