“In politics,” writes John Kenneth Galbraith, “the most common, indeed the most commonplace, distinction is between the man or woman who holds public office in order to enjoy the personal pleasure it provides and the one who sees such a position as an opportunity to effect public action and change. The first is forgotten; the second becomes the history of the time.”

Both kinds crossed paths with Galbraith, Harvard University’s 91-year-old dean of American liberalism. Having outlived his contemporaries, Galbraith now pronounces acerbic judgment on them in Name-Dropping: From FDR On, a wonderfully waspish collection of elegant vignettes (culled, admittedly, from previous books) capturing some of the century’s most accomplished men and women.

Born on a Canadian farm in 1908, Galbraith studied economics under John Maynard Keynes at the University of Cambridge. A committed New Dealer in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Washington, he was, with the outbreak of war, placed in charge of price controls nationwide. Preparing correspondence for Galbraith then was a junior Navy lawyer named Richard M. Nixon. They never met, but Galbraith’s intimate association with Nixon’s political rivals over the next three decades eventually earned the Harvard professor a (cherished) place on the Nixon White House “enemies list.”

It wasn’t the first time “Ken” Galbraith aroused a president’s ire. During World War II, the young price czar imposed strict rationing on rubber tires: They were to be used only for the national defense, medical personnel, public transportation, or an equally compelling need. President Roosevelt passed a direct message to Galbraith “asking what congenital idiot had supposed that ministers of the Gospel were not essential. Particularly, he asked, had I never heard of Southern Baptists and their political impact? In a day or two, ministers became essential.” To Galbraith, FDR was “the greatest political personality of the century—the leader against the Great Depression and the most necessary and unforgiving of wars.” Roosevelt’s death, on April 12, 1945, “meant a world come to an end.” The next day, Galbraith shared a distressed train ride with Nelson Rockefeller, then the administration’s point man on Latin America: “Even for a Rockefeller, it was now the great unknown.”

For Eleanor Roosevelt, Galbraith reserves equal reverence. “Far more than her husband,” he writes, “she was a creature of conscience and was so recognized.” However, “[o]ne should not exaggerate her contribution….She provided access to the President…she gave reassurance to all those who sought or needed humane action….[But] the response to the primal force of history came from FDR.”

After the war, Galbraith was dispatched to Germany, to assess the impact of Allied bombing attacks. Joining him was the director of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (USBUS), George Ball; 20 years later, both Galbraith and Ball would, futilely, advise Lyndon Johnson against bombing North Vietnam.

The USBUS team, which also included future Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze, conducted interviews with several deposed Nazi leaders. Hermann Goering, a drug addict, was suffering withdrawal when they sought his answers; holding up far better was armaments and production chief Albert Speer. Galbraith seems appalled at how Speer, “tall, slender, [and] attractive in appearance,” had escaped execution at Nuremburg, and then found, after 20 years in prison, fame and fortune as a memoirist. He concludes: “Speer achieved much of the distinction he came to enjoy because he, virtually alone among those at the top, seemed a worthy foe.”

(Curiously, Galbraith refers readers to journalist Dan van der Vat’s The Good Nazi: The Life and Lies of Albert Speer, which dismisses its subject’s claims to ignorance and remorse as disingenuous. In doing so, Galbraith pointedly ignores the work widely accepted as definitive, Gitta Sereny’s Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, which was based on extensive interviews with the aged Speer, and in which Galbraith himself is quoted at length.)

Back in America, Galbraith built an academic career in economics at Harvard, edited Archibald MacLeish and James Agee at Fortune and wrote the enormously influential book The Affluent Society, in which he inveighed against acceptance of income disparities and coined the term “conventional wisdom.” Emerging as a kind of Cambridge consigliere to Democratic presidents and candidates, he attained his highest official post during the Kennedy years, when he served as ambassador to India.

If, in Galbraith’s eyes, FDR “saw himself as the overseer of the great national estate, a landlord who assumed responsibility for his tenants,” Truman, by contrast, “saw himself as the tenantry.” Galbraith lauds Roosevelt’s successor for “bringing major economic resources to the support of the Western European states,” and thereby helping to “ensure an orderly and democratic recovery from the wartime devastation and postwar chaos.”

But Galbraith cannot forgive Truman for the governmentwide loyalty program he instituted to ferret out Communist influence: “It ruined the lives of good and devoted civil servants.” Galbraith laments “the obscene politics of the time—the fear of being thought soft on Communism…”

[P]olicy was based not on reality but, instinctively or deliberately, on personal caution. This tendency survived and remained important in the foreign-policy attitudes on Vietnam, elsewhere in Indo-China, in the Middle East and in Latin America. Those who urged a militant and sometimes military anti-Communism were considered sound, trustworthy and personally safe; those who questioned such a course were politically unsafe, possibly even slightly disloyal. This was the least appealing part of the Truman legacy.

Name-Dropping delights with wryly amusing anecdotes about the public figures Galbraith has known, including FDR and Truman, Adlai Stevenson and Gene McCarthy, JFK and Jackie, RFK and LBJ, Nehru and Trudeau. (Close friend George McGovern is excepted “because I prefer to write about those with whom my association was less disastrous.”) But amid fond remembrances, an agenda beyond entertainment emerges.

Galbraith seems incredulous that he has lived to see conservatives credited with winning the Cold War. With so many of the prime exponents of liberalism passed on, Galbraith seeks to remind readers of the dominance it once enjoyed in American political discourse. His anger is undiminished that the national-security state prevailed over the welfare state, as is reflected in his dissections of the War on Poverty and the war in Vietnam. The former, he writes, “did useful things, but it ignored the most fundamental response to the problem”:

The universal cause of poverty is a shortage of money among those experiencing it. The obvious—indeed, the only relevant—cure is money, a safety net protecting all from deprivation. A rich country can afford an effective minimum income to keep its citizens above the poverty line. This, along with low-cost housing, is essential. Nothing, however, is more resisted.

In other words, the federal government’s War on Poverty failed because not enough was spent on it.

As for Vietnam—a war begun and enlarged principally by the Democratic presidents he helped elect and advise—Galbraith hints darkly that for certain elements, the conflict had as much to do with class warfare at home as with guerrilla warfare abroad:

The war in Vietnam brought an end to Johnson’s concern for the poor; to it the principal effort and most of the money had to go. Had one wanted a conservative design for halting unwelcome social action and progress, there could have been no better.

Into the current political scene, Galbraith claims little insight. Stricken with pneumonia, Galbraith watched from his hospital bed as the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Clinton. This event produced “a deep sense of sorrow that I was not, instead, in a mental institution. There I would have had a stronger sense of affinity with what was happening in Washington.”

With America’s bloody course over the 20th century, John Kenneth Galbraith defiantly refuses to make peace. But in the winter of his years, he appears grateful for having at least been in the game. “It is clearly better to win,” he observes, “but even a losing campaign is a compelling experience. It is far, far better than not running at all.” CP