John Kenneth Galbraith; Why does he make some people so mad?

One suspects that, down deep in his Democratic heart, John Kenneth Galbraith loves warfare. Not the variety that features bullets and platoons, but the kind of battle waged with books, bureaucratic footwork, and sharp wit. It is an easy scene to fantasize:

Galbraith, 6 feet, 8 1/2 inches tall, stately as a grandfather clock, is testifying before Congress. He has just completed an irrelevant but highly amusing anecdote about Bernard Baruch when a squad of conservatives leaps through the door. Galbraith takes cover behind the podium, while William F. Buckley Jr. accuses him of shoddy logic and Milton Friedman lobs statistics at him.

Galbraith retaliates with a crack about Buckley's tendency to sound as if he were speaking with a mouth full of a pic. He criticizes Friedman's taste in suits and then darts' about the room, firing off counterfigures and having a wonderful time.

Before the assault team can regroup, Galbraith has escaped, and is last seen striding off down a hallway telling no one in particular what Nehru once said about American involvement in Laos.

Throughout 40 years of public life, economist-author-political aide John Kenneth Galbraith has drawn plenty of criticism.

In 1943, when he was deputy director of the Office of Price Administration, he so infuriated the editors of a trade journal named Food Field Reporter that they amended their masthead to include the phrase "GALBRAITH MUST GO."* During the 1960 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon trumpeted that the Democrats had become "the party of Schlesinger, Galbraith, and Bowles," in a tone of voice that indicated a moral eqivalency to the three witches of "Macbeth." Most recently George Gilder, laureate of Reaganomics, has taken to excoriating Galbraith as "America's leading socialist intellectual." In Gilder's latest book , "Wealth and Poverty," there are 10 references to Galbraith. None of them are favorable.

Why does this man make people so mad?

To begin with, he is tall: tall enough to have the slight stoop of those who must constantly bend over to hear the rest of the world. Then there is what he refers to as his "negligible talent for invisibility." Others call it a natural talent for arrogance.

Perhaps it is his sheer output. He was born in the flatlands of southeastern Ontario, and insists (a bit too vehemently) that early exposure to farm life left him determined to avoid manual labor at any cost. As a result, he has produced a steady stream of books and articles, secure in the knowledge that writing is usually less onerous than milking cows.

His latest volume, the memoir "A Life in Our Times," has just been published. Does he think of the book as light entertainment, or a work of weighty import?

"I regard this as a major effort," he says, leaving some doubt as to whether he means the book or the interview being conducted in his Washington hotel room.

He is in town to testify on the effects of President Reagan's economic recovery program. He is often in town to testify on something or other. But the call to comment will probably come less frequently now that a conservative revival is under way. Galbraith is one of the last authentic New Dealers left in the public eye, an archetype, a symbol of liberalism.

"All of my generation agreed with Roosevelt," he says in a slow, rough voice. "Whatever he did we thought was right."

The Republicans who have flooded Washington, eyes alight with budget-cutting zeal, have sometimes been described as the conservative equivalent of the New Deal. By dismantling pieces of the federal government, it is said, they will bring about a political change in direction as profound as Roosevelt's social programs.

Picking his words carefully, as if off a shelf, Galbraith says: "I think that that is stretching the analogy beyond belief."

He has never been demure in his criticism, subscribing instead to the Vince Lombardi school of public relations: The best defense is a vigorous and precisely timed insult.

"Both scholarly and political life requires criticism of others and invite attack and reprisal," Galbraith writes in "A Life." "Anyone who is initiating combat should, as a matter of elementary caution, gauge the extent and severity of the probable reaction and consider his defense. If attacked, he should promptly and strongly respond . . . a demonstrated capacity for reprisal serves valuably as a deterrent."

Few public officials have been so good at deterrence as Galbraith. In the early 1950s, as recounted in "A Life," Sen. Joseph McCarthy was asked if the blatantly liberal Galbraith would be a target in the coming assault against suspected subversives.

"No," replied the senator. "I am going after people who aren't that politically sophisticated."

Galbraith traveled a long road to sophistication. After garnering his doctorate in agricultural economics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1934, he drove to Washington, D.C., for a little sightseeing before beginning a Harvard teaching position in the fall.

On his first day in D.C., he dropped by the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, he writes, and it was "immediately suggested that I go on the payroll for the summer. I . . . agreed. I was not a citizen, but it is not certain that one was even asked about such details in those civilized days. I affirmed that I was a Democrat; one could be a Democrat without being a citizen or voter."

Over the next decade, Galbraith alternated teaching at Harvard and Princeton with public service, serving in the Office of Price Administration and the Strategic Bombing Survey -- where he compiled a report claiming that saturation bombing had little effect on Germany's will and ability to fight.

Subsequently he worked on Fortune magazine, settled in as the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics at Harvard, and served Democratic luminaries from the late Adlai Stevenson to George McGovern as speech writer, envoy, and general lightning rod.

Along the way he found time to write 21 books. Apparently this was done by shirking his other duties in a creative manner. In New Delhi, during his stint as ambassador to India for John F. Kennedy, it had previously been the custom for all envoys to gather at the airport and greet arriving heads of state.

Galbraith writes that he began sending a deputy to such events, "Along with a well-phrased letter to the arriving potentate explaining the inescapable character of my duties that day. It seemed to me in keeping with the dignity of the United States that its ambassador should seem to be deeply engaged. I could then read or write."

In this manner he finished several volumes, including a work on Indian painting and a history of his ethnic ancestors titled "The Scotch." His ambassadorial accomplishments during this period consisted mainly of helping settle small wars, sympathizing with Jawaharlal Nehru about the naivete of visiting American congressmen, and wiring back diplomatic cables sardonic enough to keep President Kennedy amused.

"I've tried to combine writing with whatever I was doing," he says. "I wouldn't claim that I was the greatest Harvard teacher."

Of Galbraith's myriad professions, he says nothing ever gave him "as much pure pleasure as writing novels." He is the author of two: one written under the pseudonym Mark Epernay, and "The Triumph," a Galbraithian sendup of US foreign policy in general and the State Department in particular.

His fond memories of fictiondom may stem from the fact that "The Triumph" became a best seller, returning a sum that was "the same, by rough calculation, as my earnings in my first 15 years as a full professor at Harvard."

Almost all critics have praised his new book, "A Life in Our Times," as a sprightly volume full of Galbraith's paring-knife wit. But there consensus breaks down, and ranks form according to what one thinks of his economics.

George Ball, undersecretary of state from 1961 to 1966, writes in the Washington Post that "What makes Galbraith an embarrassment to brother economists is that he writes with grace and style, abjures mystification and does not revere solemnity for its own sake."

William Wolman, summing up for the opposition in Business Week, counters that the memoirs show how "Galbraith used his impressive literary and bureaucratic skills to disguise thin analytical talent."

Galbraith's view of how the economy works, centered on the Keynesian ideal of demand management, is most thoroughly expounded in his trilogy "The Affluent Society," "The New Industrial State," and "Economics and the Public Purpose."

As industrial development progresses, Galbraith claims, economic power passes from consumers to producers. Producers become large corporations with a life of their own, the "technostructure." These corporations, wishing to control their own destiny, are not thrilled at being subject to the whims of a free market. So, through advertising and marketing, they refine methods of selling their products whether the public really needs them or not. According to Galbraith, the free market isn't that free at all, as the "technostructure's" hand becomes its guiding force.

As they first appeared, these positions stirred many economists and businessmen to fits of fury. Few of them have calmed down since. "A Life," however, passes quickly over ideas economic; it is indeed a memoir, mainly comprising amusing stories about the high and mighty whom Galbraith has associated with over the years.

Of course it is a great help that everyone he ever met, worked with, or lived next to went on to become rich or famous, or both. Of all his acquaintances, the least successful seems to have been a man named Carlos Hevia, who was President of the Republic of Cuba for but 72 hours.

As a young instructor at Harvard, Galbraith often listened to colleague B. F. Skinner (later a famous social psychologist) recount nighttime escapades. His best student was Teddy White, now a renowned historian and chronicler of the making of presidents. His principal memory of the Roosevelt boys, Franklin Jr. and John, involves two cars driven toward each other at high speed on Mount Auburn Street, in Cambridge, Mass. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. is remembered as a serious boy and a friend, while his younger brother John F. was considered somewhat overly devoted to social life.

"On the ceiling of my bedroom" in Winthrop House, Galbraith recounts, "were the marks of bare feet. I was puzzled until I was told that my predecessor in the rooms, Glenn Millikan, one of the famous Millikan family of scientists and scholars, relaxed by walking around on the ceiling."

Perhaps the most intriguing parts of "A Life" deal with the presidents and presidential candidates Galbraith has brushed elbows with. Some of the most unusual Galbraithian personal sketches bear repeating.

FDR -- ". . . a man who saw the United States as would a kindly and attentive landlord, concerned in all aspects for the lives of his tenants and the estate on which they dwelt."

Adlai Stevenson -- "The world saw him as a bookish intellectual. There could be doubt as to whether, after becoming governor of Illinois, he ever read a serious book."

John F. Kennedy -- "More than any politician since FDR, John F. Kennedy was completely content with his own personality."

Lyndon Johnson -- "The Johnson method played on the natural preference of people to say yes when asked by the President personally, especially if the request is in strong and urgent language with the presidential chair and face moved up very close."

Richard Nixon -- "Stevenson had once paid me a notable compliment: 'Ken, I want you to write the speeches against Nixon. You have no tendency to be fair.'"

Galbraith has served, in some capacity, every Democratic president or serious presidential contender since Herbert Hoover.

"My closest friends have always been in politics," he says.

In 1967, a crew of antiwar Democrats roused him at a hotel and asked if he would allow his own name to be placed on the party ballot. Galbraith, reluctantly, pointed out that since he was foreign-born the Constitution forbade his election.

Yet, after all those years glad-handing for somebody else, why didn't he run for a lesser office?

"I wish I'd tried it once or twice," he says. "I was always unduly fearful of defeat." His naturally gloomy face lengthens, as if he will always regret this grave miscalculation.

Perhaps it should be noted that Mr. Galbraith often looks as if his favorite dog has just been hit by a truck. This is a ploy. When you are peddling irony, one does well to wrap the goods in a dour package. He takes obvious pleasure in his better phrases, dispensing them like small presents.

"I'm not terribly introspective. I've always had a fair idea where I was stealing my ideas from." This seems to be a particular favorite of his and he repeats it with relish.

"Civilized" also crops up often, acting as an all-purpose positive adjective. When asked, Galbraith defines "civilized" as "sensitive to the feelings of others."

"Stevenson, for instance, was highly sensitive to the feelings and vanity of people."

The highly ironic are generally not very candid about their private lives. "A Life" passes quickly over personal crises; in interviews Galbraith does not offer much more information. He has been happily married to his wife, Kitty, for 45 years. A son of his died very young. Once he suffered from a period of depression and was helped through by sessions with a neighbor who happened to be a psychiatrist. He does not enjoy going to the beach. These seem to be the salient points.

He says he is no longer actively involved in politics, though he campaigned for Edward Kennedy in 1980. ("A commitment to losing causes is still a constant in my life.") He is still writing. Writers, after all, never retire. They just take longer to correct the page proofs.

"Between adolescent exuberance and eventual disutility," he says in his memoir, "an individual has at best 50 years to come to terms with the world around him, enjoy it and respond as conscience or ambition requires to public responsibilities." Critics like William Wolman complain that Galbraith's facile tongue hides substantive errors, that he gives no praise to other Democratic economists such as Walter Heller, that his memoirs in the end "celebrate mediocrity." This may be true. But Galbraith has an undeniable talent for snatching up life's absurd little events, storing them away, and presenting them as artifacts that enlighten us about our public responsibilities and the political processes of our time.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to John Kenneth Galbraith; Why does he make some people so mad?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today