by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
May 4, 2006
FAREWELL, PROFESSOR GALBRAITH
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- John Kenneth Galbraith's death on Saturday at the age of 97 left a great void in my life. Whatever success I now have as a writer and observer of press, politics and public policy, I owe in large part to him.
I first met him in the summer of 1994, when he was giving a talk on his 30th book, "A Journey Through Economic Time," at Olde and New England Books in Newfane, Vt. It was my first live exposure to the charming and intelligent man behind some of the best prose on economics and political power of the 20th Century.
That was also the year when the book I edited, "The George Seldes Reader," came out. Later that summer, I also had a talk on Seldes and his work scheduled at Olde and New England Books.
In contrast to the 75 or so people who crammed into the tiny bookstore to see Professor Galbraith, no one showed up for my Sunday afternoon talk.
No one, that is, until I saw Professor Galbraith ambling up the walk with his wife, Catherine, in tow. The Galbraiths, who spent nearly six decades summering in Newfane, had decided to come out to hear my presentation. For the rest of the afternoon, my wife and I had a private audience with the Galbraiths. We discussed the journalism of George Seldes and the rest of the history of the century. It was an incredibly classy gesture on his part and I've never forgotten it.
But even classier was what he did for me a year later, when my wife convinced me to apply to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and get a master's degree. I needed three recommendations, so I decided to ask one of Harvard's greatest icons if he would put in a good word for me.
He graciously agreed. He said he liked my columns and that the Kennedy School needed more Vermonters in it. He wrote to the head of the school's mid-career program in August 1995 and called me "a thoroughly excellent candidate - one we would very much like to see in Cambridge."
There may have been other reasons why I was accepted by the Kennedy School, but I cannot help but think that Professor Galbraith's words helped my chances considerably.
He downplayed his help, of course. "It was virtue, in its various forms, that was, I am sure, far more important than any single recommendation," he wrote me after I was accepted.
The public reputation that Galbraith had over his long career in academia and politics was one of supreme self-confidence, bordering on arrogance. Away from the limelight, Galbraith was known for his generosity, charm and humor. That one of the greatest and most influential public figures of the past century would take the time to befriend a small-town newspaperman and help him achieve some seemingly impossible thing is but one illustration of the kind of man he was.
If Seldes, another kind and generous man I was privileged to have known, has been one of my heroes and role models in journalism, Galbraith was the inspiration for my interest in economic and political issues.
Galbraith wrote 33 books which have sold more than 7.5 million copies and been translated into nearly three dozen languages. He also wrote more than 1,000 articles and essays for newspapers and magazines around the world over the past 70 years.
Galbriath liberated economics from its impenetrable prose. Like his role model, the English economist John Maynard Keynes, Galbraith recognized that economic and political power always trumped economic theory and that it was more important to write for the general public than one's peers.
That's why his peers in the field of economics frequently sniped at him, calling him more of a sociologist than an economist. Unlike most economists, who cling to graphs and theories and discount the vagaries of human behavior, Galbraith knew from his long service in government as well as academia the sharp difference between economic theory, and the political and social realities that often alter those theories.
Although the apex of his political and economic influence was in the four decades from 1932 to 1972, the last three decades of his life have been just as important. As he moved from inside player to outside observer, he kept writing in his graceful prose, challenging what he called "the conventional wisdom" in politics and economics.
With the rise of conservatism over the past three decades, Galbraith fell out of favor. Conservatives like to say that Galbraith's time had passed and the liberal ideas he so ardently and eloquently defended are now passť. But on issues of war and peace, economic justice and the ongoing battle between human reason and irrationality and superstition, Galbraith never wavered in his essential optimism that common sense would eventually prevail.
And he never slowed down. He kept writing and lecturing well into his 90s and stayed engaged with the world right to the end of his long, impossibly full life.
Galbraith's last book, "The Economics of Innocent Fraud," came out in 2004, in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He concluded the book with what could be an epitaph for a world he tried to shape for the better.
"Civilization has made great strides over the centuries in science, health care, the arts, and most, if not all, economic well-being," he wrote. "But also it has given a privileged position to the development of weapons and the threat and reality of war. Mass slaughter has become the ultimate civilized achievement. ... War remains the decisive human failure."
For more than seven decades, Galbraith provided us with invaluable insight and knowledge into the way the world works. That he is no longer around to help guide us is a terrible loss to all of us.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more
than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He
can be reached at email@example.com.