Books Essay

A liberal’s debt to Canadians

August 2 1999
Books Essay

A liberal’s debt to Canadians

August 2 1999

Galbraith writ large


Anthony Wilson-Smith

John Kenneth Galbraith has always seemed larger than life. One reason is his great height, which he revels in: at six feet, eight inches, he jokes, “I’ve all my life regarded everyone else as being unnaturally short.” Then, there is the extraordinary range of his acquaintances: he has had firsthand dealings with almost every U.S. president since, and including, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as scores of other world leaders.

Most of all, there are his achievements: along with teaching economics at Harvard University and advising presidents, he is the author of 31 books, ranging from economic treatises and sociocultural analyses to novels. Although his neo-liberal views are largely out of favour, some of his books, ranging from The Affluent Society in 1938 to the 1992 polemic The Culture of Contentment, are considered classics. At 90, he keeps an office at Harvard, and churns out essays on issues that move him (page 40).

Small wonder, then, that a Harvard dean once dubbed

Galbraith the famed university’s “most famous professor”— and that Canadians cherish their link with a man who has been an American citizen since 1937. Galbraith, born in Iona Station in southern Ontario, attracts admirers and attention wherever he goes. Now, there is more: a tribute to Galbraith, Between Friends: Perspectives on John Kenneth Galbraith, a tribute written about him by a select group of friends, and Name-Dropping: From FDR On, a slim but well-rounded portrait by Galbraith of prominent people he has known.

Name-Dropping is a kind of Greatest Hits package. Galbraith wrote about his past more comprehensively in his 1981 memoir, A Life in Our Times—but then, he was only 72 at the time. He once said that “originality is something that is easily exaggerated, especially by authors contemplating their own work.” That said, Name-Dropping reprises some anecdotes and impressions from the 1981 book bundled together with new stories in breezy, snapshot form. Galbraith, a born raconteur, pulls few punches, even when writing about people he admires— and even more so about those he detests. The characters range

from his hero, Roosevelt, to John F. Kennedy, whom he met at Harvard in the late 1930s. They also include Ronald Reagan, whom Galbraith knew when he was an actor and liberal, and Nazi architect Albert Speer, whom Galbraith, a onetime director of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, interrogated after the Second World War to determine what effect the Allied bombing raids had had on the Reich. Throughout, Galbraith brings a keen eye, ear, and willingness to mock himself. He recalls Adlai Stevenson telling him before a vice-presidential debate against Richard Nixon: “Ken, I want you to write the speeches against Nixon. You don’t have this tendency to be fair.”

For Canadians, one bonus in Name-Dropping is fond portraits of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. As well, it’s clear that despite his long absence, Galbraith understands Canadian politics and the country’s longest-running obsession all too well. “The Quebec issue, as it is called, is an indispensable topic for Canadian conversation,” he writes. “If all else fails, it can be taken up with the comforting knowledge that nothing new will be said.” That comes from someone who can call on vivid memories of politics in the early days of the century. He recalls a speech he saw newly minted Liberal Leader William Lyon Mackenzie King make at a rally in London, Ont., shortly after the death of his predecessor, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in 1919. Galbraith, raised in a partisan Liberal household, recalls how his father, speaking to farmers in an election campaign, climbed a manure pile and “apologized profusely for speaking from the Tory platform.”

At 90, the economist retains his capacity for outrage, dismissing players on both sides of the political divide

Like many seasoned performers, Galbraith can’t resist going back to tried-and-true anecdotes and lines. So he tells almost word for word the story—contained in his 1981 book—of how he once complained to Kennedy that he didn’t understand why a New York Times profile described him as arrogant. “I don’t see why not,” replied Kennedy. “Everyone else does.” There is also a familiar feel to other stories illustrating Kennedy’s candour and sense of self-awareness, and to anecdotes about Lyndon Johnson’s vulgarity.

But even when Galbraith has said these things before, it is a pleasure to read them again, for the chance to reflect on his unique view of the century. Galbraith met not only Kennedy at Harvard, but also older brother Joseph Jr. (killed in the Second World War), and younger brothers Robert and Edward.

Initially, he was more taken with Joseph than John, who was “not strongly committed to academic work” or “much interested in the political scene.” It was only when Kennedy began preparing his presidential run in the late 1950s that the friendship warmed. After declaring his support for Kennedy, he was given a key campaign role because, one adviser told him, “we had no one on the whole convention staff who wasn’t Catholic,

Irish or Jewish.” Galbraith, with his Baptist Canadian roots, became a symbol of ethnic diversity. Later, he was both policy adviser and close friend to Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline.

Galbraith retains his capacity for outrage, dismissing players on both sides of the American political divide in a few savage turns of phrase. Reagan ceased being a liberal, he writes, “when his screen career diminished and he began giving well-paid lectures” praising free enterprise. He is no kinder to Bill Clinton.

Galbraith recalls hearing about the Monica Lewinsky affair while in hospital with pneumonia, and regretted he was not, instead, in a mental institution, where he would “have had a stronger sense of affinity with what was happening in Washington.”

Words of wit and wisdom

As a writer and public speaker, John Kenneth Galbraith has always been renowned for his ability to turn a pithy one-liner. Here are five of his most famous:

Under capitalism, man exploits man.

Under communism, it’s just the opposite.

Nothing is so admirable in politics as a short memory.

If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.

It is almost as important to know what is not serious as to know what is.

One of the greatest pieces of economic wisdom is to know what you do not know.

With such an acid-dipped pen, it’s a wonder Galbraith has friends left in high places. But he does, and some—ranging from former Clinton cabinet minister Robert Reich to former French prime minister Michel Rocard to Washington Post chairman Katharine Graham—pay fulsome tribute in the elegant Between Friends. Canadian Galbraith admirers will particularly enjoy a chapter by Harvard professor Richard Parker that analyzes how Galbraith’s small-town Ontario roots helped shape his view of the world.

In fact, there is little doubt that happened—even in the classically Canadian ambivalence Galbraith shows towards the land of his birth. In his memoirs, Galbraith described the area he grew up in as “devoid of topographic, ethnic or historical interest.” On becoming an American in 1937, he wrote: “No one has done so with so small a sense of emotion, so slight a feeling of trauma.” But he has returned to Canada regularly over the years, is one of the ranking fans of Robertson Davies’s writing, and wrote in 1964: “I never understood why one’s affections must be confined, as once with women, to a single country.” Someone who looms that large, after all, can easily straddle borders. d