(HOST)Today Commentator Madeline Kunin joins us to share some thoughts and rememberances of her friend, John Kenneth Galbraith.
(KUNIN) He was a big man, in body, mind and wit. At six feet, eight inches tall, John Kenneth Galbraith stood out. He was rejected from military service in World War II because of his height, but served his country in Washington as head of the
Office of Price Administation, designed to cap inflation.
Known as Ken to friends and family, it was his life as a public intellectual that gave him the greatest stature. What does it mean to be a public intellectual? A person with uncommon ideas who conveys them with a common touch.
In the field of economics, often called the dismal science, his writing was neither dismal, nor some might say, scientific. Academic economists frowned upon him. Perhaps they were jealous of his popularity; perhaps he didn’t speak their language.
Ken was a part-time Vermonter who had a summer farm house deep in the woods on a hard to find dirt road in southern Vermont. I was invited to share lunches with rapid fire conversation which made it hard to concentrate on food.
I first got to know him when he was a renowned professor at Harvard and I was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School. I was recovering from my first and only election defeat against Richard Snelling and was burdened by a campaign debt, which, at the time, seemed huge – $40,000. I had come to know another professor, Robert Reich. He and Galbraith offered to hold a fundraiser for me to retire my debt. Of all the supporters one encounters in political life, those who help retire a campaign debt are the most valued. There’s nothing in it for them. It’s a pure act of faith. I will always be indebted to Galbraith for his faith in me when I needed it most.
He was also the wittiest man I ever met. He could turn a phrase and send a strong message simultaneously. He was not relegated to the ivory tower, although he loved it.
He was dedicated to fostering the public good, a rare quality today. No doubt his most well known book remains “The Affluent Society,” written in 1958, in which he said the consumption driven United States is identified with (quote)”private opulence and public squalor.”(end of quote) That was way before we knew about the $144,000 a day salary of the president of Exxon, and the poverty that rose to the surface with Katrina.
This man who knew better than most how to put down fools and focus the limelight on his own ego, had a surprising quality for a man of his day: he strongly supported women leaders. One of his good friends was Gloria Steinem. Another was Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan.
With his death, a voice has been silenced after a long and productive life. A voice that railed against economic inequality, without hesitation, that spoke out for liberalism, without apology. Ken Galbraith, a giant of a man, who reminded us what matters most – justice and opportunity.