Every once in a while I’m offered a review copy of a new book. It’s always flattering when someone is interested in what a mere internet wise ass has to say. This time around, I was contacted by Diana Rissetto of Cambridge University Press and offered a copy of The Selected Letters of John Kenneth Galbraith. I accepted with alacrity but it’s taken longer than expected to review this outstanding book. Ms. Rissetto has been as unfailingly patient as I have been dilatory. She also has a most amusing and witty Twitter feed, which is a plus. One can tell that I’ve finished the book because Galbraith’s style is contagious and this paragraph is redolent of it. It’s a good thing I’m under the spell of Ken Galbraith, not Pepe Le Pew. Le sigh of relief.
The British historian Thomas Carlyle dubbed economics the dismal science. Economists are not known for their prose style or sense of humor. It’s dry, dry stuff. John Kenneth Galbraith was an exception to that usually accurate rule. In fact, he’s one of my favorite writers of his era as he dabbled in writing outside his area; especially in the world of politics where he was a committed liberal Democrat with a wry sense of humor. No other economist ever made me laugh out loud, which I did repeatedly as I read this book.
The letters have been edited and annotated by Richard P.F. Holt. He did a smashing job ensuring that we know who Galbraith was corresponding with and why. I knew most of the names but there were some sleepers. Additionally, Holt has collected memos, speeches, and other non epistolary documents. Good job, sir.
Galbraith had an active sideline as an adviser to, among others, Adlai Stevenson, Jack Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and-until they broke it off over Vietnam-Lyndon Johnson. While Ambassador to India from 1961-63, Galbraith was dispatched to Vietnam by JFK and asked for his input. He offered it to his successor as well until Johnson ended the correspondence. It was a pity that LBJ was less receptive to Galbraith’s advice on that lamentable conflict than to his suggestions on domestic policy. If LBJ had listened, he might have been our greatest President.
In addition to his political side, The Selected Letters, dips a toe into Galbraith’s personal life. Most interesting are his exchanges with Jackie Kennedy. They’re flirtatious on both sides without being OTT. Ken Galbraith would have made an excellent courtier, which he was by analogy. He offered the Kennedys his loyalty but it was never blind fealty. Galbraith believed in plain speaking wrapped in wit when corresponding with the Kennedys. It’s a pity that the Current Occupant is surrounded by nothing but yes men, relatives, and non-entities. He could also use a decent joke writer. Believe me.
Galbraith had some close friends on the other side of the political spectrum: Henry Luce, William F. Buckley, and fellow economist, Milton Friedman. Friedman was the godfather of Thatcherism and Reagonomics but his correspondence with the uber Keynesian Galbraith was respectful and, at times, hilarious. Friedman did a better job of hiding his puckish side than Galbraith so I enjoyed their exchanges inordinately. That’s another Galbraithian word. I seem to be turning into him. I hope I don’t become 6’8″ at my advanced age: none of my clothes will fit…
I’m not known for my adherence to chronology, so let’s circle back to Galbraith’s war-time activities with the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS.) His letters home to his wife Kitty from 1945 are a must read for anyone interested in World War II. His service with the USSBS led to Galbraith being the only Harvard faculty member ever name checked by Pete Townshend in a Who song. Now that’s an honor.
Speaking of The Who, I considered reviewing this wonderful book as a Saturday Odds & Sods segment, but thought better of it. I think it’s time for a Galbraith revival. He was a witty and wise man who was usually right. He was an uncommonly good, decent, and intelligent human being; qualities we are badly in need of as we endure an uncommonly bad, indecent, and stupid administration*.
I highly recommend that y’all pick up a copy of The Selected Letters Of John Kenneth Galbraith. Ken Galbraith passed away in 2006 but he remains good company; pun intended, it always is. The only bad thing about finishing the book is that I will miss hearing his marvelously droll voice in my head as I read. For those of you unfamiliar with JKG’s cadence, here’s a 1986 interview with the man himself.
Who else but Ken Galbraith could possibly have the last word in this post? That would be me. But I’ll use his typical epistolary closer, his Won’t Get Fooled Again as it were: