From FDR On
By John Kenneth Galbraith
Houghton Mifflin. 194 pp. $26
"Nothing so disarms a prosecutor as a prior confession of guilt," John Kenneth Galbraith writes at the outset of this pleasantly inconsequential memoir. For "prosecutor" he could well substitute "reviewer," and indeed perhaps he had just that in mind, knowing full well that a reviewer's objections to what he sees as a book's shortcomings are entirely undercut when the author himself not merely acknowledges those same shortcomings but does so with all good cheer.
So "Name-Dropping" is unabashedly exactly what its title says: a collection of reminiscences about the notable and more or less admirable men and a couple of women whom Galbraith has known in the course of his exceedingly long (he turned 90 last October) life. He is entitled to this self-indulgence, even if it adds rather less to our understanding of this difficult century than the author himself seems to believe. Not merely has Galbraith's life been long; it has been productive and useful, and he is entirely within his rights to insist that attention be paid to his backward glances.
They are directed toward Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Speer, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Chester Bowles, George Ball, Averell Harriman and assorted others. None gets more than a few pages, and it must be said that in only a handful of cases--in particular Stevenson and Johnson--do we get much more than what Galbraith has already offered elsewhere, most notably in his books "Ambassador's Journal" and "A Life in Our Times."
Galbraith, as few need to be reminded, is a liberal Democrat whose life, when not lived in the cozy environment of Harvard University, has been spent in the service of liberal causes and Democratic presidents. He has served up economic advice in various ways, done time as ambassador to India, written speeches for candidates and presidents and offered advice to one and all, not much of which seems to have been taken. His chief influence upon his times has been as author of "The Affluent Society" rather than as a shaper of public policy, but he has indeed been an insider among, if not an intimate of, the great and not-so-great.
Like his fellow academic and longtime friend Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Galbraith mixes scholarly authority with fan-club enthusiasm. Let a habitue of the campus into the corridors of power and he has a tendency to go gaga; Galbraith, for all his austerity of manner and formidability of height, is not entirely immune to this, as is suggested by his confessions of "love" for Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson. Though his feelings surely are genuine, there is something vaguely unseemly about these genuflections toward people to whom Galbraith cannot have been a great deal more than an uncommonly tall member of an exceedingly populous retinue.
Having reminisced about most of these people in other pages at other times, Galbraith has not much more to add here, which gives his observations a somewhat perfunctory and familiar air: FDR "was a man of intelligence and a deep sense of social responsibility, but he was also without a controlling personal ideology or belief of his own"; or "Harry Truman was of unassuming presence, deeply conscious, perhaps overly conscious, of his meager formal preparation for the post he had so suddenly assumed"; or "No modern politician, not even Roosevelt or Kennedy, had a more faithful coterie of supporters" than Stevenson. However gracefully phrased, these observations are little more than restatements of (to borrow the author's own famous words) the conventional wisdom.
For some reason, when he comes to Johnson, Galbraith suddenly shines. He understands, as few others do, that for all Johnson's ambition and overwhelming presence, to him "political office, while indeed greatly enjoyed, was for what he could accomplish," and he exercised all of his extraordinary powers to achieve it. As Galbraith writes:
"There was even a physical aspect to this effort. Anyone whose action was needed by LBJ might be firmly grasped, shaken slightly, while being told what he must do and when he must do it. The only escape was acquiescence and compliance. This was a small symbolic manifestation of how Johnson dealt with the Congress and, indeed, the electorate as a whole. Back of it was Lyndon Johnson's commitment to the public good and his belief--more precisely, his faith--that government was made to serve it."
Galbraith goes on to say that Johnson's strength was in domestic affairs and his great weakness was in foreign affairs. This, most certainly, is at the center of the conventional wisdom. But Galbraith remembers what a quarter-century of debunking has made most forget: that Johnson was a man of passionate conviction and devotion to the public good. If Galbraith's words direct others to a more balanced assessment of this remarkable and singularly complex man, this little book will prove more valuable than it seems.
Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org