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John Kenneth Galbraith, Canada's most well-known intellectual export and a Harvard icon, may be famous for his theories on Keynesian economics and the multitude of famous politicians he's advised, but it was clear last night in the ARCO Forum that his resume wouldn't be complete without one more accomplishment: gifted storyteller.
For nearly an hour and a half, the 93-year-old captivated the audience with personal - and hilarious - stories about his days as a public servant, including advising five American presidents. Kennedy School Lecturer Richard Parker, who is finishing up his book, John Kenneth Galbraith: The Making of American Economics, hosted the interview. He began by asking Galbraith to give his thoughts on several famous "first couples."
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Galbraith said, were the largest political figures of his life and his generation. "They ruled America as if it were an extension of their Hyde Park home," he said. He added that during his time working in Roosevelt's Office of Price Administration, he would go to Eleanor, the more liberal of the duo, whenever he wanted something.
"First, we had more of a sympathetic audience. Second, we could get an appointment," Galbraith said, deadpan, employing what Parker called his "trademark Galbraithian wit." "Eleanor was one of my best loved friends. There should be no doubt that the position of FDR was strengthened because of Eleanor. No doubt."
He called Lyndon Johnson "the most misunderstood man we had in the White House." Galbraith told a story about hunting with LBJ in Texas ("I had never held a gun before. Those doves in Texas have never been so safe."), and also praised Johnson's commitment to race relations, which was "plastered over" by the Vietnam War.
When asked by Parker about John and Jackie Kennedy, Galbraith smiled. He said he knew them very well, and particularly admired John's older brother Joe, who died in battle during World War II.
"It was in that background that John came into being. John Kennedy was intelligent. He was attractive," Galbraith said, adding playfully: "And he was not given to an excessive amount of work. He had a highly detached commitment to labor."
The funniest moment of the night came when Galbraith, who retired from Harvard in 1975 and still lives in Cambridge, talked about his days during the early 1960s as President Kennedy's ambassador to India, where he had constant, direct contact with the president. At one point during the heated moments of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the State Department instructed Galbraith to send all of his correspondence to the president through them. When Kennedy sent a telegram to Galbraith asking what he thought of the new order. Galbraith wrote back, saying he didn't like it.
"I told him that communicating through the State Department was like having sexual intercourse through a blanket," Galbraith said, sending the crowd into hysterics. "I may have put it in rougher terms, actually."
Photo by Doug Gavel