It seemed right that John Kenneth Galbraith had the last word at his memorial service.
“My father’s last book was devoted to the destructiveness of war, the unimaginable cruelty of war” Peter Galbraith told the 1000 friends, colleagues, family members who gathered in Harvard University’s Memorial Church on a warm Wednesday afternoon to remember the life of a great public intellectual, economist, thinker who was also a man of generous heart and exceptionally independent mind and spirit. “‘War remains the decisive human failure,” Galbraith wrote. As his biographer Richard Parker said, “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 was a man who despised how the military-industrial complex had so terribly skewed America’s priorities. Words he wrote for John F. Kennedy’s first Inaugural address, at a time when Cold War orthodoxies rode high, resonate today. “We must never negotiate out of fear, but we must never fear to negotiate.”
It was a gathering rich in imagery and recollection, with a modicum of sadness. “In another age, ” Senator Edward Kennedy said of Galbraith ” He would have been a Founding Father.” Former Senator and Presidential candidate George McGovern described him as the tallest economist in the world–physically, morally, intellectually. His son Jamie, also an economist, remembered that he and his father ( “my mentor, my coach, my critic and my friend”) were always on the same side of history-in 1968, 1972, up until today, He described his father as having “the thinking man’s suspicion that the emperor had no clothes.” And “in an age of naked emperors, ” Jamie observed, “there’s a use for that.”
The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. sent words which were read by his son Stephen–he was in New York recovering from an illness. He described his closest friend as “the Republic’s most valuable subversive.” Pointing out their 13 inch height difference, Arthur argued playfully that being the tallest economist in the world, at 6’8″, reinforced Galbraith’s boldness with which he confronted the status quo. “Salvation,” Schlesinger said, ” lies in the subversion of conventional wisdom.”
Galbraith’s brilliant deployment of irony, satire, laughter–one of his favorite phrases, repeated by several speakers was “Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue”–reconnected academic economics with human and social reality.
Longtime friend Gloria Steinem, who offered an exquisitely humane tribute, said, “I believe he was the only person I know kept honest by ego.” She spoke of her belief that his generosity of spirit, his love of good conversation showed in his work.” His public and private selves were never dissonant.”