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First Words


"It is told that the such are the aerodynamics and wing-loading of the bumble-bee that, in principle, it cannot fly. It does, and the knowledge that it defies the august authority of Isaac Newton and Orville Wright must keep the bee in constant fear of a crack-up. One can assume, in addition, that it is apprehensive of the matriarchy to which it is subject, for this is known to be an oppressive form of government. The bumblebee is a successful but an insecure insect."

So wrote John Kenneth Galbraith at the start of his first big book, American Capitalism. Those first words were published in 1952 -- as it happens, the year I was born. And so my life and his literary career have gone along together, up to now.

What was it like to grow up in his home? Summers on the unfarmed farm, long walks through the woods, buttered corn flying to Mother who almost never missed a catch, the mornings of typing never to be disturbed, "grown-up hour" when Arthur or Gloria or George might be around. Christmas in Gstaad with the Buckleys. India -- one grand word that says it all. At sixteen he set me free -- off alone to Prague and Paris, out of Andover to Berkeley, Harvard and Cambridge, his places that became also mine. And along the road that led us through Chicago in '68 and Miami Beach in '72, we were always on the same side.

Until the end, John Kenneth Galbraith was my father, my mentor, my coach, my critic and my friend. If he had one enduring law, it was Galbraith's First: "modesty is a vastly overrated virtue." On April 26th, I showed him an article on "predatory capitalism." He said, "You should write a small book, on corporate predation. You can make yourself into the leading economic figure in the country. If I could do it, I would put you in the shade. When you're well along, run up to Cambridge and I'll give you my ideas. I've been working it out every night for weeks."

Like Bogart in Casablanca, I've heard a lot of stories lately. 'Mister, I read an economist once," they always begin. I reply: "so did I." It's not so bad. For as long as we have him to read, he has us to carry on. One of my students called his legacy "the thinking man's suspicion that the emperor has no clothes." In an age of naked emperors there's a use for that.

I have a letter I'm proud of. It begins, "Dear Jamie, you and I have had the privilege of having fathers who were mighty giants... I am greatly blessed as my father was, to have known both you and your Dad's time, talent, wit and wisdom." And it ends, "With a lifetime of admiration and love, Luci Baines Johnson."

And here in Cambridge a few days ago I called for a cab. I gave my number and my name, and the dispatcher said, "are you The Professor?" -- as if in Cambridge there were only one. I cut her off: "I'm his son." And she asked me how he was, and I had to give her the news. She fell silent, and for a moment it felt as though Cambridge had lost the only professor it had. But then she said, "He was a very nice man, always kind and gentle, and very appreciated by all of us. He'll be missed here."

Remarks at the Memorial Service for John Kenneth Galbraith, The Memorial Church, Harvard University, May 31, 2006. Video here.