Galbraith's 'Name-Dropping': What's in a title?

May 02, 1999|By Paul West | By Paul West,Sun Staff

"Name-Dropping: From F.D.R. On," by John Kenneth Galbraith. Houghton Mifflin. 194 pages. $26.

Flip to the JFK chapter in "Name-Dropping." It tells all we need to know about John Kenneth Galbraith's slender reminiscence of the great public figures of his time.

Galbraith's often repeated (and unprovable) assertion that Kennedy would have ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam, had he lived, is of little interest. No, what we want, since you're dropping names, Ken, is the dirt on JFK's sex life.

After decades of debate, and now that Jackie is gone, it's past time to hear the inside story. And where better to get it than from a trusted Kennedy friend and adviser for decades, dating from the late 1930s, when the future president was a Harvard student and Galbraith was a young resident tutor?

Alas, our man Ken pleads ignorance. "Of his sexual adventures, real or alleged, I never heard in all the years of my association with him," Galbraith testifies. It is "reasonably clear" that our obsession with Kennedy's amorous escapades is not due to any exceptional promiscuity on JFK's part, the noted economist maintains. It's simply that there's gobs of money to be made in scandal-mongering.

Not that Galbraith is above passing along good gossip. Just so long as it isn't about a Kennedy. He dishes Alice Roosevelt Longworth's observation that Lucy Mercer Rutherford's long-running affair with FDR meant "nothing. Everyone knows that Franklin was paralyzed from the waist down."

To the vision of Camelot that he and others crafted so superbly, he remains true. After taking a dubious shot at Jimmy Carter's ne'er-do-well brother Billy (who, according to Galbraith, entered "beer-drinking contests and similar athletic events"), Galbraith concludes that, to be successful, a "president needs the full support of a well-behaved family. This was and, had he lived, would have continued to be the good fortune of John F. Kennedy."

Brother Ted is praised as "the most diversely effective liberal legislator of his time." Left unmentioned is his accident at Chappaquiddick, a few years after JFK's death, in which womanizing and booze proved a lethal combination.

With little success, one searches this collection of character sketches for insight. "Name-Dropping" began as a promising, Machiavelli-like attempt to deconstruct the American political personality. For whatever reason, that idea was largely abandoned. It was replaced with a breezy set of "I-was-there" reminiscences by the 90-year-old Galbraith, some recycled from previous work, that will be of interest mainly to nostalgic New Dealers and fans of his earlier books.

As an adviser to Democratic presidents from FDR to LBJ, ambassador to India, campaign speechwriter and celebrity academic, Galbraith brushed up against some of the century's most intriguing figures. His intimate contacts with the high and mighty turned out to have been rather few and far between, though, leaving us to wonder whether that says more about them or him.

He calls Roosevelt the dominant figure in his life but admits their personal encounters were rare. His most significant contact with Eleanor Roosevelt took place on a TV show. He was more closely involved with Adlai Stevenson than with JFK, whom he describes as remote.

A name-dropper tries to impress others by mentioning famous or important persons in a familiar way (Webster's). So give Galbraith due credit. The man can still write a great book . . . title.

Paul West is The Sun's Washington bureau chief. Before joining the paper in 1985, he was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution and the Dallas Times Herald. He has worked as a reporter in the capital for almost 20 years. He helped cover Senate hearings and the 1996 presidential campaign.

Pub Date: 05/02/99

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