John Kenneth Galbraith loved words. Above all, he loved words written or spoken about himself. On this, "Galbraith’s First Law" left no confusion: "Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue." He would be immodestly pleased with us–and himself–here today.
I talked with Ken last, two days before he died. I’d dropped by Mt. Auburn Hospital to deliver a small surprise–the Japanese edition of my biography of him, which had just arrived in the mail. I could see he was clearly very weak, and knew his prognosis was not good. But propped up in bed, he became marvelously and completely alert when I explained what I’d brought.
He took the book from me, then turned it over several times before slowly paging through it. After a few minutes, he placed it on his lap. "Richard," he said gravely, "I do not read Japanese–but given the enormity and importance of the subject, I shall devote my remaining days to learning it."
Having written an 800-page biography of the man and his times, you might expect I’d know exactly what I want to say today. Yet I find myself even now groping for the right words, not so much about his achievements–for those were so many and yet easily catalogued–but what finally his life should mean for us.
Reading through the obituaries and memorial pieces following his death, I’m afraid I thought too many treated him mistakenly 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-confident that what Galbraith stood for had gone to its reward long before he did, the undecided and uncommitted, nervous of controversy, focused in their praise on his wit, celebrity, and style.
All, in other words, played their parts.
To the very end, he was never a synecdoche of a time gone by–but of immense relevance today, 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 was never a partisan in the mean, small way of certain talk-show hosts or 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.
Ken sought to serve great leaders, and was often one himself–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 many economists because he loved economics and wanted us all to live secure lives, not ones made insecure by bad economic theories, of which he knew there were–and are–far too many.
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 loved his wife and children without qualification. He loved this University too, and no less the often flickering but ever-generous promise of American democracy.
He drank single-malt, neat.
He knew when to fight and what he would fight for, but hated war and the men who sought or encouraged it, whether in Vietnam forty years ago or the Middle East today. 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, he wrote this for John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: "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 forty years ago, President Kennedy, honoring the poet Robert Frost, observed that
men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness–but men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable–for they determine whether we use power, or power uses us.
Above all, I believe that is what Ken most wanted us to learn. He had understood it early and lived his life in testimony to it: that we must use–and sometimes oppose–power in order that power not use us.
I last saw him, three days after he died, in an enormous casket–and it was there I finally found the words I feel befit him.
Fresh from the mortuary storeroom, the casket mistakenly still carried an inventory tag that read:
John Kenneth Galbraith. Oversized.
I did not write those words, but will always wish I had.
John Kenneth Galbraith. Oversized.
That gets him, I think, just right.