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The Time of His Life

A Life in Our Times By John Kenneth Galbraith, Warburg Professor of Economics Emeritus Houghton Mifflin Company; $16.95

By Jeffrey R. Toobin

John Kenneth Galbraith describes a return visit to his alma mater, the Ontario Agricultural College, about 30 years after his graduation to receive the first honorary degree the university had ever bestowed. A former professor recognized the returning honoree, stopped, shook hands, and said 'I see by the newspapers, Galbraith, that they are awarding you one of those honorary degrees.'

"I bowed in recognition.

"He shook his walking stick in a menacing way and said, 'Well, if I had my way, they'd be taking away the degree you already have.' I was not, in my college years, well regarded."

This is why Galbraith endures, or, in the view of others, why he refuses to go away. Of course, he is an economist--possibly the most notable of his generation--but he long ago transcended the dismal circle of his colleagues. Galbraith is, above all, a student of human nature, and his memoirs are the culmination of that study. Written in the polished style for which he is reknowned, Galbraith's recollections yield an unending series of anecdotes and observations both entertaining and enlightening.

But there is something a little too clean about Galbraith's life, the unwanted fat comes away from the meat with too much precision. We learn much of Galbraith's political struggles but little about what he was ultimately fighting for; it seems almost as if he were trying to distinguish his work from the memoirs of another occasional Harvard professor, The Education of Henry Adams, published publicly in 1918, dwelt perhaps excessively on the soul of the nation it portrayed, but from Galbraith comes too little about that nation's--and his own--soul.

Galbraith's diffidence on these matters can be overlooked with minimum difficulty, for the view of his biolographical landscape proves relentlessly fascinating. The journey begins on the Ontario farm where young Ken grew up, proceeds to the aforementioned dubious triumphs at OAC, then to the more highfalutin precincts of graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley (which he loved), Princeton (hated) and, eventually, in 1934, Harvard.

The description of Harvard, and the author's nearly half-century association with it, comprises one of the highlights of the book. The professor undoubtedly holds many warm feelings toward the old school; they have served each other's purposes long and well. But Galbraith's unfailing eye zeroes in on the excessive self-importance and overzealous self-taking that distinguishes Harvard from any another institution. His relationship with the university has not always been cordial. In 1948, the board of overseers attempted to block his tenure appointment--the first (and last) time it tried to intervene in a tenure decision. Several board members considered Galbraith a dangerous radical--he had been in charge of price controls during World War Two--and fought his appointment to the economics department. Galbraith treats the episode with gracious good humor, perhaps because he was never in real danger of losing the job. Detached good humor, not to mention physical detachment, often for years at a time, seems to have been his passport to almost 50 years of Cambridge gentility. Consider, for example, this passage, which is something of a statement of principles--in matters academic, architectural, literary and, of course, political.

The city of Berkeley, in the days before Messrs. Jarvis and Gann' and Professor Milton Friedman made the spending of money on urban sanitation an infringement of personal liberty, was sparkling clean and covered with geraniums....Especially in the filthy snows of winter, Cambridge was a dismal contrast. Harvard's random architecture, drifting incoherently into the city, did little for one's soul. Old Harvard men are known to love it. There is no accounting for taste.

As the reference to Proposition 13 indicates, the core of Galbraith's book is political--because tenure notwithstanding, the author's most important undertakings have been in the real world outside of the ivory tower. The bare outlines of that career begin with wartime service at the Office of Price Administration followed by a stint as a surveyor of bombing damage in Germany and Japan.

He wrote speeches for both Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaign and served as ambassador to India under President Kennedy (a resident of Winthrop House in the 1930s, when Galbraith was a tutor there). Not surprisingly, a life of this variety yields a wealth of anecdotes and portraits told in his characteristicly elegant manner. Galbraith's insights into the characters of the famous men of the era are few, but he profiles several lesser-known individuals to delightful effect. Henry Dennison, a maverick New England business mogul of the 1930s and Leon Henderson, Galbraith's Hemmingwayesque superior at the OPA stand out particularly.

Galbraith himself never wavered--and continues to stand firm--in his support of the liberal agenda established in the New Deal, and supported by his work on the economics. The author's many publications on economics and society--the best known are The Affluent Society (1958), The New Industrial State (1967) and Economics and the Public Purpose (1973)--understandably receive little attention in the memoirs; Galbraith does however, give valuable short summaries of the works. But, again, for all the campaign anecdotes and academic infighting, it is difficult to understand what drove this man in these admirably egalitarian crusades. That crusade hardly stopped him from living extraordinarily well (the action shifts from the Galbraith "mansion" in Cambridge, to the 235-acre farm in Vermont and to an apartment in Gstaad, Switzerland), but for that he can hardly be faulted. In fact, despite his political battles against the status quo, he seems remarkably pleased with how life has treated him. Certainly, his personal life has been a joy. (It is a man whose marriage is secure indeed who can write, "I have never understood why one's affections must be confined, as once, with women, to a single country.")

But of the motivation that compelled his public life, we, alas, learn little. If he forgoes discussing his personal life, he willingly notes his public failures as well as his many successes. Among the former he counts his suggestion to President Johnson that then-Supreme-Court-justice Arthur Goldberg be named ambassador to the United Nations; among the latter he seems proudest of his work, as ambassador, to diffuse the Indian-Chinese conflict of the early 1960s. Few, if any, of Galbraith's contemporaries, combine his proximity to the central events of the era, and his mastery of the English language; this combination alone would make A Life in Our Times a worthy endeavor. Yet Galbraith has something beyond the advantages of access and writing skill--insight into the human heart. That insight might not extend into the knowledge of his own soul (at least for public consumption), but it is a rare talent, displayed to great advantage in his memoirs, and, consequently, worth celebrating.

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