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." This symposium in the Journal of Economic Issues would vastly appeal to Ken's own sense of virtuousness.
I talked with him 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 here about Ken. Yet I find myself even now, nearly two years after his death, 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. Except Galbraith.
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...