A LIFE IN OUR TIMES: Memoirs by John Kenneth Galbraith
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Perhaps economist Galbraith--the epitome of the intellectual in public life--was always the amused observer, even of himself, that his memoirs would have us think. Perhaps his private life was so placid that there is, indeed, nothing to tell. But the book is pinched: fascinating for all that Galbraith did and perceived, consistently entertaining because he's a witty, sardonic raconteur, tantalizing because you haven't heard all those stories (on famous people) before. And, why dither, it's History. What it isn't, though, is a drama of growth and change: by page three, you know virtually everything you're ever going to know about Galbraith--the ""inherent insecurity"" of the Ontario farm-boy, the sense of intellectual superiority and compulsion to demonstrate same--except his ""rules"" (strategems) for success. The life can then be divided, as Galbraith very nearly does, into slightly overlapping circles. There's academe--an unloved ag-school alma mater; brief, happy sojourns at Berkeley and Cambridge; distasteful Princeton; ""Harvard before democracy"" and--very little improved--afterwards. There's economics--Veblen; Keynes; eminent, idiosyncratic contemporaries; the Galbraithean reconstruction of American economic life. There's government service in Washington--preeminently as WW II price czar, surmounting the ""disaster"" of ""my"" design for price stabilization. And government service abroad--surveying the (meager) economic effects of strategic bombing. There's a stint on Fortune--where Galbraith learns, from H. Luce, how to measure his words. Then Galbraith returns to Harvard, sets out ""to repair my academic reputation,"" begins work on what will ultimately be The Affluent Society, and signs on with Stevenson (in 1952) to write speeches. There's a gathering sense, now, of engagement in great matters, along with sharp assessments of the greats. Adlai Stevenson ""spent his adult life in a persuasive attempt to present himself"" --erroneously-- ""as a harried, wavering intellectual lost in the harsh, demanding, dogmatic world of politics."" JFK ""was one of the few public men who was wholly satisfied with his own personality."" (And why, Galbraith reflects, do we call one president by his initials, another by name?) Come Kennedy's election, Galbraith goes to India as ambassador--where (as he didn't tell in Ambassador's Journal) he aborts CIA activities and defuses the India-China border conflict. And finally, in 1967, he opts out--scoring, in one of the book's truly bitter, truly felt passages, ""those who drew Lyndon Johnson away from these preoccupations""--the War on Poverty, civil rights--""into Vietnam."" A little more such passion, and a little more opennes (as per his encounter with psychiatry), would have given the book the breadth of the life.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1981
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin