Monday, May 01, 2006

Galbraith and the little men

John Kenneth Galbraith was 6 foot 8 inches tall.

I know how imposing that is because I saw him towering over my father once. Pop Mannion is not tall. I've been taller than my dad since my junior year in high school. He dwarfs me, but he's five inches shorter. My father has been involved with various speakers' organizations since I was kid. Some time in the 1980s, I forget the exact date and so does Pop Mannion, one of those organizations, The Freedom Forum, invited Galbraith to speak. There was a dinner before the speech and Pop Mannion took me along to meet the Great Man. We sat at his table.

Galbraith was gracious and I remember he liked the soup. What stands out in my memory is a discussion about who the Democrats should run in the next election. Now that I think about it, this must have been in 1983 because Mario Cuomo's name wasn't the first anybody mentioned and I was still too conscious of being young and stupid to offer any suggestions of my own---in fact, I probably hadn't said a word all through dinner. I didn't get so full of myself until 1985 or so.

Pop Mannion said he thought Fritz Hollings might do.

Galbraith's reaction was instantaneous.

"NO!" he said. "No more Southerners!"

Jimmy Carter had never been popular with the Kennedy crowd, of course, and Galbraith must have thought that Carter's loss in 1980 proved them right about the man. But Galbraith had personal experience with another Southern President who'd failed because, like Carter, he was stubborn, too proud to take advice, contemptuous of political rivals, and hostile to the Kennedy crowd. Galbraith had apparently decided that Johnson and Carter were of a type and the type defined Southern politicians.

Pop Mannion was undeterred. He liked Hollings, thought he'd make a good, telegenic candidate with his handsome head, white hair, and sonorous Southern drawl, but he wasn't wedded to him. In fact, Pop Mannion has always felt that sitting Senators make bad candidates (JFK excepted, even before Kennedy won), and he said preferred that the Democrats run a Southern governor.

I didn't know it at the time, but my dad had his eye on a particular Southern governor, one who had recently stopped being the "youngest ex-governor" by winning back his office in the Governor's mansion in Arkansas.

"Especially no Southern governors," Galbraith said.

Galbraith was Galbraith, and there's no doubting his brilliance as an economist, but at least on that one subject, Pop Mannion proved the smarter guy.

After dinner we adjourned to the hall where Galbraith was to deliver his speech. My dad had the honor of introducing him. The podium was set up for Galbraith, though, that is, for a man over six and a half feet tall. Pop Mannion decided it would be undignified for him to stand on tip toe to see over the lectern, so he stood off to the side to say his piece. Of coure the reason he was out in the open like that was obvious to the crowd and we all had a good chuckle at Pop's expense. We laughed harder when Pop had to reach up and bend the arm of the microphone way down so that he could talk into it.

Pop Mannion has never been insecure about his lack of height and he knows how to milk a laugh. He made a show of it and of returning the mic to its original altitude for Galbraith and got a big hand, Galbraith applauding with all the rest of us.

This all reminded Galbraith of an anecdote. He opened by telling it. It was about the first time he'd met Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle was another toweringly tall man and when two men who spend most of their time looking down to talk to other people find themselves looking somone in the eye they can't help remarking on the novelty of it. Galbraith said that he said to de Gaulle, "General, don't you find that men of our height have it a little easier in politics? People tend to defer to us and get out of our ways. We don't have to work so hard to impress a crowd or call attention to ourselves."

De Gaulle agreed but then he said, "Yes, but we still must be on our guard against the little men."

Galbraith died Saturday. He was 97.

Brad DeLong has posted a book review he wrote last year for Foreign Affairs by way of a eulogy and adds some criticisms of the New York Times obit.

Wikipedia has collected some great Galbraith quotes. My favorite is this:

Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.

But I'm also fond of this one:

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.


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