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.”
Galbraith’s whiplash wit never faltered, but in the Bush years — as he grew discouraged by the lethal failures of American leadership–Galbraith told friends that developments made him think thoughts he had never thought himself capable of thinking. “I asked such as? ,” Schlesinger remembered. “I begin to long for Reagan,” Galbraith replied.
The former President of Harvard Derek Bok described Galbraith’s quiet acts of kindnesses–a side not often seen amidst the glitter and celebrity of his life. He assigned some of his royalties to the economics department, he asked to retire at age 65 to pave the way for young professors, he and his wife Kitty housed an undergraduate student each year. Bok recalled a letter Galbraith had sent him in the early 1970s, in which he predicted (accurately) that the university would face tough financial times. (He reviewed the university’s stock portfolio.) Galbraith asked that he no receive further salary increases. “You may laugh,” Bok said as laughter erupted in the church, “but I assure you that letter has never been duplicated since.”
There was talk of the books which changed not only the way the country viewed itself, and gave new phrases to the language (“conventional wisdom,” private opulence and public squalor,” the bland leading the bland”), and there were also amusing anecdotes about Galbraith’s celebrity. Bok recounted a story Former Harvard Dean Henry Rosovsky told him many years ago. Rosovsky had stopped at a garage in Hoboken where the local mechanic asked him, “what do you do?” “I teach at Harvard, “Rosovsky replied. “Do you know Professor Galbraith?” asked the mechanic.
In these times when staged foodfights pass for debate, Galbraith’s life is a model of how a man can take sides–with intelligence, passion, and wit–while eschewing mean and and petty partisanship.The ecumenical nature of Galbraith’s friendships was clear as conservative intellectual William Buckley Jr. delivered a spirited and warmly acerbic tribute to his old friend. (In the local bookstore in Gstaad, Switzerland, where they both went skiing, they would do battle to get their books the best spot in the shop’s window.)
“Denounce the Iraq war and your influence as a conservative will soar, ” Buckley remembered Galbraith advising him. (Steinem remembered that on one of her last visits to see Galbraith, he announced almost gleefully: “There’s still time for Buckley’s redemption.”)
With Harvard’s ex-President Larry Summers sitting in the front pews, Steinem spoke of Galbraith’s support–in word and deed–of women economists. He always challenged “the conventional wisdom that women aren’t good at math.”
In many eyes, Galbraith was America’s Great Liberal Economist. But, surprisingly,only George McGovern spoke explicitly of Galbraith’s contribution to the creed of liberalism, “the most creative and most uplifting spirit in the American political tradition, though now assailed.” (In these times, McGovern added mordantly, “I’d settle for some old fashioned conservatism.”)
Instead it was Galbraith’s exceptional and reasoned independence that so many spoke of. “To the very end,” Parker said, “he was never a synecdoche of a time gone by–but of immense relevance today, a figure or exceptional and independent mind and spirit, a skeptic always of power and privilege.” As Richard Parker observed, ” I believe that …what Ken most wanted us to learn… and lived in his life in testimony to it: that we must use–and sometimes oppose–power in order that power not use us.”
Galbraith’s role as Ambassador to India was remembered by many–but it was the Indian economist Amartya Sen who spoke eloquently of how his longtime colleague and friend “captured the hearts and minds of Indians.” Over the years, Sen recounted, many Indians lamented the hostility between the US and India, and spoke of how Americans didn’t understand their country. However, Sen noted, they would always add, “with the exception of John Kenneth Galbraith.” The Nobel-Prize winning economist’s tribute was a polite rebuke to those (economists and others) who never forgave Galbraith for being too readable. Some fifty years ago, Sen said, “I remember reading this captivating book [American Capitalism] in one gulp in a Calcutta coffee house, while a student at the university there, and I had a determination to seek out the wisdom from this John Kenneth Galbraith wherever he might be.”
One of the final tributes of the afternoon came from Senator Kennedy, who spoke on behalf of his brothers and his family. “If there were any justice in the world,” Kennedy said, “he’d have won the Nobel Prize.”
“There might not have been a New Frontier without him.”
Kennedy recalled how Galbraith, while Ambassador, routinely bypassed the traditional State Department route when sending missives to the White House. “Going through the State Department,” he liked to say, ” is like making love through a mattress.”
“His words and wisdom resonate today, even as the gap between private opulence and public squalor continues to widen under our misguided leadership.” With voice cracking, Kennedy ended, “We love you Ken. We miss you very much.”
Before Galbraith’s son Peter gave his father the last words, he took a moment to reflect on his father’s kindness, the lives he changed through his generosity of spirit and humanity.
Although he was “discouraged by developments in America in these last 25 years,” Peter said, “there is a Galbraithian legacy…” Scores of people have worked to make America a less bigoted country, a more just country, and though “we do not have the Good Society my father wanted, he helped bring us closer to one.”
A video of the Memorial Service will be available online in June.
In honor of Galbraith’s memory, donations may be sent to: Economists for Peace and Security, P.O, Box 5000, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504