“Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking.”
--John Maynard Keynes
John Kenneth Galbraith loved words. Above all, he loved words he and others wrote about him. On this, “Galbraith's First Law” left no confusion: “Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue.”
So it's probably best that Ken Galbraith, who died April 29 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at age 97, missed his obituaries. Far too many got him wrong.
The facts of his life were there, but on what he stood for -- and what finally his life should model for us -- the reviews were all too Galbraith-as-synecdoche, the man who bespoke another era, an earlier time that he and we had long outlived. In committing this error, all sides, even with their differences, seemed guilty: the liberals wanly elegiac at the loss, the conservatives smugly self-satisfied that the things Galbraith stood for had gone to their reward long before he did, the undecided and uncommitted nervously praiseful of his wit. All, in other words, played their parts as expected.
To the very end, he was a figure of exceptional and independent mind and spirit, a skeptic always of power and privilege. He was a man who used both when given to him, but for the benefit of us all. He took sides, but he was never a partisan in the mean, small way of cable talk-show hosts or certain politicians today. He could befriend men as different as Henry Kissinger and Hubert Humphrey, Bill Buckley and Bill Clinton, and then, just as easily as he befriended them, deftly chastise them when they chose to do what he knew was wrong.
He sought to serve great leaders, and was often to others himself one -- as a careful insider when the opportunity to do something large presented itself, or as a courageous outsider when the times called for that.
Like his hero Keynes, he endured most economists only because he loved economics and wanted us all to live secure lives, not lives made more insecure by more bad economic theories. He loved literature and art and conversation, wrote successful (though not memorable) novels, collected Moghul paintings of great delicacy and beauty. He made friends easily, and kept most of them for a lifetime. He drank single-malt, neat.
He knew when to fight and what he would fight for, but hated war and the men who willingly encouraged it. He'd walked through death camps in Germany and the ashen streets of Hiroshima in 1945, and always spoke with vehemence thereafter against the military-industrial nexus that reigned in Cold War America. (At its height, the line he wrote for John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address was this: “We must never negotiate out of fear, but we must never fear to negotiate.”) He loved the company of beautiful, intelligent women.
Shortly before his own death, Kennedy observed, honoring the poet Robert Frost, that
The men who create power make an
indispensable contribution to the
nation's greatness, but the men who
question power make a
contribution just as indispensable ...
for they determine whether we
use power or power uses us.
Galbraith lived what he wanted us to learn.
Not long after he died, a plain coffin was brought in to carry his 6-foot-8-inch body away. Fresh from some mortuary storeroom, it carried an inventory tag with these words: “John Kenneth Galbraith. Oversized.”
They got him just right.
Richard Parker is the author of John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics. An Oxford-trained economist, Parker teaches at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
A memorial service for John Kenneth Galbraith was scheduled for May 31 at 2 p.m. at Harvard University Memorial Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138; Grace Cottage Foundation, P.O. Box 1, Townshend, VT 05353; or Economists for Peace and Security, P.O. Box 5000, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504, www.epsusa.org.
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