John Kenneth Galbraith Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Intellectual Journey: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom; Conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith, 3/27/86 by Harry Kreisler

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Political Leadership

I would like to talk about leadership. How would you compare Reagan to John F. Kennedy? Some of the rhetoric is the same. Some of the presentability via the media is the same. But there are differences. What are they?

The fact that they both are very accomplished masters of television and the importance of television as an instrument of communication, as an instrument of persuasion, including those ghastly commercials, is one of the great, and in some ways devastating, facts of our time.

The difference is that Kennedy had an instinct for the reality. He stayed with the reality, or tried to. He felt obliged to. President Reagan is our first president out of our greatest theatrical tradition, which is Hollywood. And for President Reagan, there is both the script and the reality, and it is the script that he uses. He doesn't feel confined by the reality. He looks at the speech as a script, and then [Press Secretary] Larry Speaks comes along after he has dealt with the script on television or on radio and corrects him, and says, "This is what the reality is." We are a theatrically minded people. We prefer the script, it's always more pleasant than the reality. And the president is a master of the script. If I were the president, I would keep Speaks quiet. I would say to Speaks, "Look, if you're going to a play, if you're in the theater, you don't have to get up after every act and say, 'This is what Macbeth was really like.'"

So all the administration lacks is rock music and they could really be on MTV all day.

I don't think you want to go quite that far but I do say that President Reagan is an accomplished master of the script and doesn't worry, in the manner of somebody out of the theatrical tradition, he isn't appalled when the script improves on the reality.

Because the reality could be cut like a script, like the film on the cutting-room floor.

Well, that's right, but I think President Kennedy stayed more closely with the reality. Those of us who were variously associated with him hoped he would.

He was a Renaissance man really, I mean, witty and intelligent, and he actually read books.

Oh yes, yes indeed. He read books right through the Presidency. I remember going in to see him one day when I was back from India. He handed me a book by John Masters on the revolution in Burma, and he said, "You know, this is the best thing that's been written about that." My goodness, I hadn't been even close to any other books on the more obscure history of economic dissent in Burma. And I carried it along with me on my airplane ride back to India so that I would know as much about that part of the world as the President.

Was Kennedy too cautious a politician?

He was too cautious, there's no question. I don't know if too cautious is the word or not, but he was very cautious and, I've said this many times, I think it's a cliché, John F. Kennedy always used less power than he had, in dealing with the Congress and dealing with the public. And Lyndon Johnson, in contrast, with a better understanding of power, always used slightly more than he had. Slightly more, including some of the tragic part of his history on Vietnam. If Lyndon Johnson had not had this terrible incubus of Vietnam, he would be remembered as one of the great social innovating presidents of our time, more so than Kennedy.

Of your generation, who do you think was the greatest political leader that liberalism had?

Oh Roosevelt, no question about it.

And what distinguishes him? What stands out in your mind?

What stands out in my mind is that those of us who were young in the Roosevelt administration, and most everybody in that administration was young, had a sense of fealty, a sense of loyalty which was beyond sense, and maybe too great. I, in those days, along with everybody else, had ideas until Roosevelt had spoken. And then I automatically accepted his. Through the whole structure of New Deal Washington, including the war years, the greatest mark of pride was to be a Roosevelt man. But this was, in turn, related to the fact that the president had great flexibility of accommodation to the disaster and despair of the Depression years.

This was a terrible time, a perilous time in the history of the republic, and a singular feature of Franklin D. Roosevelt was his pragmatic accommodation to whatever needed to be done. If you ever hear a politician say, "I'm going to adhere strictly to principle," then you should take shelter because you know that you are going to suffer. In contrast, Roosevelt was, in his time, the supreme pragmatist. One other thing too, which is of present relevance: he used radio with the same skill that Ronald Reagan uses television. He was a master of that medium of communication.

What about Stevenson?

Adlai Stevenson was one of the most lovable figures one ever encountered in politics. So, we loved him, our wives loved him -- my wife loved him. He was caught in the circumstances of the time, including the fact that he was up against, as we now recognize, one of the ablest politicians of our time, Dwight D. Eisenhower. And he was particularly caught by, what I mentioned before, the fear of liberals of being thought soft on communism. So Dwight D. Eisenhower could say, in the 1952 campaign, "I will go to Korea," where Stevenson, by contrast, said, "The problem originates in Moscow and that's where we can't do anything about it." So Ike brought to an end a very unpopular war in Korea -- I almost said Vietnam. He brought to an end a very unpopular war in Korea on the very sound principle that a bad peace, which that undoubtedly was, is better than a bad war. Eisenhower also had the capacity for being wonderfully clear when he wanted to be, as when he gave that really magnificent speech on the military-industrial complex, of which we've been celebrating the 25th anniversary this last January.

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