Previously in Politics & Prose:
Slaves' Wages (May 1999)
What price can be put on the exorbitant theft of labor that was American slavery? Jack Beatty looks at a new work of history that suggests an answer.
Playing Politics With the Planet (April 1999)
A forecast of the 2000 election predicts squalls and continued global warming.
How Big Business Got a Soul (March 1999)
A recent book by Roland Marchand shows how the hated monopolies of the late nineteenth century used advertising to give themselves a makeover -- and to shape public opinion to their advantage.
What Work Costs Us (February 1999)
Richard Sennett's The Corrosion of Character examines the demoralizing effects of the new "flexible" economy.
More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.
Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.
From the archives
The 1929 Parallel, by John Kenneth Galbraith (January, 1987)
Will the stock market crash? History may not repeat itself, argues the author of The Great Crash, but the dynamics of speculation are remorselessly constant, and they, along with other ominous indicators, give no comfort to optimism
From FDR to LBJ with JKG
by Jack Beatty
At six-foot-six or -seven, with a petrified crewcut and a pastel summer suit, John Kenneth Galbraith stood out on the floor of the 1956 Democratic National Convention -- stood out, at any rate, to me, a twelve-year-old boy glued to the TV set in the hope that our junior senator, John F. Kennedy, would be nominated for Vice President. The only excitement of the convention was Kennedy's challenge to the Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver for the (alas) fleeting honor of being Adlai Stevenson's running mate in a year of peace and prosperity and against a popular Republican President who had ratified the social legislation of the New Deal. Kennedy lost, but in losing he made a stirring concession speech that gave Democrats everywhere something to look forward to in 1960, when it was already clear that he would run for President.
As a member of the Massachusetts delegation, Galbraith came into this picture, I think now, by giving interviews to TV newsmen about the Kennedy boom. Or perhaps to comment on Stevenson's prospects, or on the party platform. In any event, here, to my wondering pre-teen eyes, was a grown-up who spoke ironically and with wit on matters that grown-ups usually made into occasions of pomposity. He also had a stylish way with the sentence, saying aloud things that I had only read in books -- "Of this we will hear more later," for example. Satiric hints lay just below the surface then, and the same is still true forty-five years later, in Name-Dropping: From FDR On. Joseph Kennedy Sr., for example, was objectionable in some eyes, Galbraith writes, for his "unduly talented money-making." An account of FDR's appointments includes a touch of levity: "Lurking always in the neighborhood of the White House was the highly available Bernard Baruch."
The other noteworthy thing I remember about my introduction to Galbraith is that reporters referred to him as a "liberal" and as standing and speaking for "liberalism." I had not heard the word before, my parents dividing the political world into the children of light (the Democrats) and the children of darkness (the Republicans), not into liberals and conservatives. Whatever a liberal was, if he was anything like as smart, superior, stylish, and funny as Galbraith, then I wanted to be one. If the reader can believe it, liberals were cool. To my delight, I later discovered that liberalism championed the cause of minorities and the poor and thus was in line with my own Catholic worldview. Liberalism, for me, was Catholicism in politics. Over the years, the Catholicism faded; the liberalism remains. Galbraith, it turns out, marked me deeper than The Church.
Name-Dropping, his thirty-first book, displays the same Galbraithian qualities that wowed me at age twelve. And it adds insight into the leading political figures of the forties, fifties, and sixties. Galbraith was an early and ardent New Dealer who served the Roosevelt Administration in posts fitting his advanced education in economics. (He received a Ph.D. from Berkeley.) It fell to him, for example, to control U.S. prices during the Second World War. He found, as he later wrote, that it was not hard to fix prices that were "already extensively fixed" -- a discovery that proved to be a milestone in the growth of his mind. That the great corporations of the postwar era did not compete on price was one of the mature economic insights he developed in American Capitalism (1950) and The New Industrial State (1967); today that insight is a staple of reflection on the "era of oligopoly."
Galbraith barely met FDR, but he and the other brainy young economists called into government service by the crisis of the Great Depression got close enough to the President to see something important about him. He was highly available intellectually. "He was a man of intelligence and a deep sense of social responsibility," Galbraith writes in Name-Dropping, "but he was also without a controlling personal ideology, social belief, of his own. That meant he was available to be persuaded; he was open to any well-stated solution to the great and painful problems of the time.... All of those around FDR admired and loved him because his actions were partly ours or could seem to be partly ours." He rounds off this striking observation with a vintage Galbraithian flourish of moral realism: "Thus, admiring ourselves, we admired him." Throughout his economics books, Galbraith is a student of non-economic motives like the desire for prestige. With him as with Adam Smith, economics leads back into moral psychology.
Name-Dropping is a delightful portrait gallery of personages Galbraith knew or worked with in politics from FDR to Harry Truman, from Stevenson to JFK and LBJ. It is a short book, so it would not do to give away more of its treasures -- okay, just one more.
Politicians told great stories to Galbraith because he clearly relished them. You can see LBJ warming to the task in this classic political story. Meeting Johnson outside the Vice President's office, Galbraith was invited in for a chat.
Engaging in reminiscence, I asked him what it had been like to be a senator from Texas and have had to deal with the Texas oil lobbyists. The independent oil producers had been particularly ruthless in their pressure on me as a price fixer. I asked if he knew one unusually rapacious lobbyist, whose name I've long since forgotten.To conclude, the most Galbraithian thing I can think of to say about Galbraith, born on an Ontario farm ninety years ago, is that he justifies Canada.