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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Born a Canadian farm boy, John Kenneth Galbraith was an unlikely candidate to become one of America's leading political dignitaries. Yet, since 1934, he has been an economic adviser and confidant to several presidents, editor of Fortune, ambassador to India, professor emeritus of economics at Harvard, author of 31 books, and all-around éminence grise. Now, at the age of 91, he offers his recollections of the men and women and the triumphs and errors he witnessed from a privileged and intimate perspective. And while this places his work in the political memoir genre, he thankfully avoids the tawdry gossip and bitter backstabbing that have become a standard aspect of White House books -- an aspect he dismisses as "unpleasant and overtly disloyal."
Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson; foreign leaders Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Albert Speer; first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy; renegade philanthropists Averell Harriman and Chester Bowles -- Galbraith offers graceful and concise portraits of all these players. He reveals private moments of unexpected humor and charisma -- an off-color joke told by Harry Truman, a sardonic wisecrack made by Gandhi, the meeting between Hollywood actress Angie Dickinson and Indian Prime Minister Nehru, a day spent dove hunting in the Texas hills with Lyndon Johnson.
Yet, while Galbraith's stated aim is simply to provide portraits of those he knew and admired, he offers us much more than a mere collection of anecdotes. Throughout the book, he offers a compelling challenge to ourconventional views of history.
In 1945, Galbraith was put in charge of determining the overall economic effects of Germany's bombing raids. His duties included the interrogation of Nazis, including the former director of Hitler's war economy, Albert Speer. Galbraith found Hitler's immediate staff to be "an incredible collection of deranged incompetents." Speer shared his view -- referring to his cohorts as "Hitler's nodding donkeys" and confessing that the last months of the Third Reich were spent awash in a "sea of alcohol.... I was always dealing with drunk men." Commenting on the disparity between his observations of pathetic war criminals and the mythical view of a brilliant enemy, Galbraith observes: "When the war is over, those who won do not wish the public perception of the strength and intelligence of the now-defeated foe to be diminished. This would lessen their own wartime achievement and detract from the victory. Only the defeat of a worthy opponent secures the history of the conflict for the victors, and they, indeed, write the history."
Such insight into how official history often revises reality also appears in his portrait of John F. Kennedy. Galbraith recounts his impressions of the president and reveals the reasons he believes Kennedy would have ended the war in Vietnam. Having great respect for the intelligence and achievements of his "well-loved friend," Galbraith is disturbed by the "highly aggressive discussion that has centered on JFK's health and his extramarital sex life." Rather than take the Dick Morris tack of weighing in on his former confidant's infidelity, Galbraith instead critiques the media culture that profits from such obsession. He simply pillories those who stoop to include bedroom antics in presidential history: "Sex is something that even the dimmest commentator can understand, the least literate can write about."
With noble intent and compassionate insight, Galbraith illuminates the progress and failures of the 20th century. His book is at once a primer on political etiquette, a call for economic responsibility, and a witty and charming memoir.