The news of John Kenneth Galbraith’s April 29 passing brought but a moment’s sadness before it swept me back to the book-lined study of his home where, in mid-June 1986, he availed himself to a lengthy interview so I could prepare a profile of him for Farm Journal’s Top Producer magazine.
An idea. The story had been my idea after a trip to a used book store yielded a worn, $1 paperback edition of Galbraith’s 1981 memoir, A Life in Our Times.
The book was everything Galbraith and it captured me.
Each page found its author slaying fools, foolish thinking or foolish politicians. His trick to great writing was simple: He used blood for ink, sometimes even his own.
While the book led me to his Cambridge, Mass., home, the then-being-debated 1986 farm bill led him to agree to the interview.
By upbringing and by training he was, at heart, just a farmboy with a Ph.D. in ag economics who always had something to say about farmers, farming and farm policy.
It came from a youth on a 150-acre Ontario farm and an almost inbred fear that his “superiority would not be recognized,” he explained in the memoir.
Arrogance. It was only half josh; Galbraith was famously, fabulously arrogant.
When President Kennedy once complimented him about a praise-filled profile in the New York Times, Galbraith replied that while the story was excellent it didn’t need to call him “arrogant.”
“Why not,” chided the president, “everyone else does.”
That arrogance, and his intellect, scared me silly as I prepared for the interview. Two days prior, I holed up in a Cambridge hotel and immersed myself in his writings.
When it was time to walk through Harvard University to his nearby home, my legs were pure putty.
Nervousness. I rang his home’s doorbell at exactly 6 p.m. An assistant led me to his study, then vanished.
Afraid to sit lest the great Galbraith walk in to see me reclining, I examined his books. No, his books; the books he had authored.
The 25 or so (he wrote 33 in his 97 years) were in a line on one shelf. All were bound in leather with a golden “Galbraith” embossed on their spines.
The Affluent Society. The New Industrial State. The Age of Uncertainty. Ambassador’s Journal. It was a half century of economic thought all in a row.
My knees jellied again.
The grand entrance. Then, as I wrote in the magazine story and a later piece, Galbraith entered.
“Across the room he walks. At 78 years old he is still an astonishing 6’6″ tall even with the slight stoop in his thin frame. Silently he offers his immense hand in greeting. It enfolds your hand in a grip as soft as the leather on his beautiful books.
“‘Did you know that I’m the only faculty member of Harvard University with an undergraduate degree in animal husbandry?” he asks.
“‘What’s your first degree?’
“‘My first and only’ – I over-emphasized “only” while feigning life-long disappointment – I said, ‘is simply agriculture.’ He smiled.”
The ice broken, Galbraith – the charming, brilliant economist, not the haughty, snobbish Scot – answered questions for nearly two hours.
His days, thoughts. His politeness was total. We talked about his days, in 1940, when he was the American Farm Bureau Federation’s first staff ag economist, (“The Farm Bureau was delighted to have a reputable economist who could explain the necessity of price supports.”), the Reagan Administration’s “antipathy” toward farmers, and his 1986 farm bill prescription: production controls so “the market pays farmers higher prices, not taxpayers higher subsidies.”
Alas, there was little hope the White House and farmers would follow the “inherently correct policy – production limits.”
“An economic rule states that one should never underestimate the inability of free marketers to use common sense,” he announced sternly.
After the interview concluded, I did something I had never done before or since; I produced the tattered paperback copy of his memoirs and asked for an inscription.
He smiled, then quickly scribbled “JK Galbraith 1986.”
He sighed as he handed it back. “Writers rarely make a nickel on paperbacks,” he said.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)