NAME-DROPPING:FROM FDR ON; by John Kenneth Galbraith; Houghton-Mifflin; 194 pages; $26.John Kenneth Galbraith, a legendary Harvard economist, has written 31 books spanning five decades, including such classic works as "The Great Crash" and "The Affluent Society."
Most of the time, his books are serious academic contributions written in a style that appeals to the average reader. But a few are lighter efforts with a generous dose of his compelling wit.
The latter best describes his newest book, "Name-Dropping," a conversational and entertaining look at the public figures he has known best during a long, distinguished career in both government and academia.
Initially, he intended the book to be a study of how the great leaders of the 20th century influenced the political scene. But as he got into the project, it became a look at these leaders as seen by their contemporaries, of which Galbraith was one.
He freely admits the title is apt, because "nothing so disarms a prosecutor as a prior confession of guilt." He even admits that name-dropping results in "self-enhancement," and so the fact that he knew all of these people means also that he gave them advice and often made them look good.
Among those he discusses are Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Speer, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, John and Jacqueline Kennedy, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lyndon Johnson.
Galbraith is a master at direct description; he can a tell story succinctly without multiplying words. As adept with the English language as he is with monetary policy, he vividly characterizes the outstanding figures whom he served as a speech writer, policy analyst or ambassador by enriching his story with fascinating anecdotes.
He also artfully differentiates Hitler's munitions minister, Albert Speer, from Hitler's other advisers by saying, "They were indeed -- and I do not exaggerate -- an incredible collection of often deranged incompetents."
An interesting example of conflict between Gandhi and Lord Irwin, who served as British ambassador to the United States, emerges with Galbraith's account of a friend saying to Gandhi, "Mahatma, you must know that Lord Irwin never makes a decision without praying over it first."
Gandhi thought about that, then asked, "And why do you suppose God so consistently gives him the wrong advice?"
Galbraith relates an Eleanor Roosevelt anecdote about Bernard Baruch, who had a falling-out with the president well before FDR died. Nevertheless, said Eleanor, Baruch rushed over when he heard of the president's death.
"He came with us on the train to Washington. He was with us for the state funeral. He came on the train with us to Hyde Park. He was there at the family funeral. And there were several times, Ken, when I thought he was going to get into the coffin with Franklin."
Galbraith describes how Roosevelt replaced Cordell Hull as secretary of state with Edward R. Stettinius Jr., a man with admirable business connections. "With prematurely white hair, singular beauty and nearly total incompetence, he was as impressive as Knudsen (former head of General Motors) was inadequate but, in his progress through the government hierarchy, more fortunate."
Relating how Adlai Stevenson hired him to write speeches during his 1952 campaign against Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, Stevenson said, "Ken, I want you to write the speeches against Nixon. You don't have this tendency to be fair."
When Galbraith did write a particularly acerbic speech about Nixon, Stevenson read it and almost backed out, saying, "This is the kind of speech that can only lose us votes." Then realizing it was almost time to deliver it, he said, "I suppose we might as well tell the truth about the man."
When Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Galbraith briefly considered the possibility of running himself for the vacant Senate seat from Massachusetts. When he spoke to the president-elect about it, Kennedy advised that he could do more good as ambassador to India.
Galbraith adds, "I later learned that the family succession had already been planned. The youngest brother, Edward, was too young to be appointed to his brother's seat at the time. Two years later, however, when Ted reached 30, the temporary appointee would retire according to a well-understood plan, and Ted would be elected to the Senate in his own right."
Throughout the book, Galbraith maintains a delightfully self-deprecatory tone, although he never fails to make it clear when his sometimes prophetic advice to a president was not heeded. The most notable example was Galbraith's advice to Lyndon Johnson that the Vietnam War was a grievous mistake and that "communism as an economic system was totally irrelevant."
He forcefully notes that the history of Vietnam "has shown that Communists can govern; it has also shown that they cannot sustain a Communist system."
Don't be fooled. This delightful book is as profound as it is entertaining.