As Stephen Cohen says, it's a cliché to describe him as 'a towering giant.'
But the Brookings scholar also says that no other description can do justice to John Kenneth Galbraith, who passed away April 29 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the ripe age of 97.
He was, among everything else -- Harvard professor, presidential adviser, prolific author, unabashed liberal -- US ambassador to India during the tenure of the late President John F Kennedy, during whose time the US-India relationship was described in yet another cliché as the `golden era' between Washington and New Delhi.
Below: John Kenneth Galbraith at home. Photograph courtesy Colonel (retd) Anil Athale.
I had occasion to meet with this legend, all 6 feet 8 inches of him, at least twice, more than a decade ago, at the Linnean Avenue, Northwest, home of the late 'Mr India' Janki Ganju in uptown Washington, DC.
The abiding memory of those meetings is the sense of awe I felt as he rode the conversational roller-coaster, shifting easily from one topic to another as he discussed various facets of the US-India relationship during his time. His prognostications for the future went down well among the rapt audience of diplomats, academics and mediapersons all dining on Janki's rich, high-calorie, carbohydrate-laden Kashmiri cuisine.
When Galbraith talked, it was like an eat-all-you-can buffet for the intellect -- you absorb as much as you can, and greedily go back for more.
What struck me most about that evening, dominated in equal parts by his inexhaustible fund of knowledge and insight and his legendary wit, was his passion for India, even three decades after having quit New Delhi.
There was nothing clichéd about that passion, nothing phony.
Despite being aware that he was in the presence of a bunch of Indophiles, he had no qualms about pillorying New Delhi and Washington for the now up, now down state of relations between the two countries. And typical of the man, every criticism he made was followed in close order by a solution -- some interesting, some insightful, some quixotic.
Outside of those meetings, my knowledge of him has been secondhand.
We used to meet at Janki's at least once a month, snatching time from our crazy schedules to shoot the breeze. And often Peter Galbraith, the great man's son and then a South Asia staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee working directly under Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, would join us.
Peter had inherited his father's passion for India; I remember how eager he seemed to be the first to clinch the first Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs position. The post finally went to Robin Raphel, to the chagrin of everybody from the State Department to the Ministry of External Affairs and the pro-India lobby to the author of the legislation himself, former New York Congressman and another Janki's regular, Stephen J Solarz.
When Janki passed away, I called Professor Galbraith in Cambridge for a reaction -- and the sincerity in his voice and words left no doubt that he felt the deep sense of bereavement in an almost familial way.
I never really got to know in any kind of depth what his tenure in Delhi was like, except of course that he made sure the US was in India's corner during the Sino-Indian war.
On hearing of his death, I called people who had served with him during those times, or covered his doings. And what I found was an equal measure of praise and brickbats for his stint in New Delhi. It was even suggested that for all Galbraith's high profile, Chester Bowles (twice ambassador to India, 1951 to 1953, and Galbraith's successor, 1963 to 1969) probably made a better US ambassador to India in that era.
"Galbraith's major asset in India was his closeness to the Kennedy White House. He had been an adviser to Kennedy when he was a presidential aspirant, and he made no secret of his access to the president. And, of course, the Indians welcomed this," says Howard Schaffer, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs and currently professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University -- who was a political officer in the American embassy in New Delhi throughout Galbraith's ambassadorship.
"To their way of thinking, the best American ambassadors were those who were close to the corridors of power in Washington and would argue India's case there, and Galbraith fit this bill well," Howie told me.
"I believe that his successful effort to persuade Jackie Kennedy to visit India, in the spring of 1962, and the dominant role he played in drawing up and implementing her travel plans in India were designed at least in part to demonstrate to the Indians how close he was to her and her husband."
He recalled how, before the Chinese attack on India, Galbraith would spend much of his time not in Delhi but in Washington, "where he made himself available for advice on a wide range of issues, especially economic ones, and these often prolonged absences from post were unusual for an American ambassador.
"But he wanted to maintain his contacts, perhaps with the idea of moving on from India to a key policymaking position. (But) The Sino-Indian border war put an end to this practice."
The war, Howie felt, was Galbraith's finest hour in New Delhi.
Galbraith kisses the hand of Marian Wright Edelman, president, Children's Defense Fund, after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest American civilian award, in the East Room of the White House August 9, 2000. Photograph: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
"Washington was preoccupied at the time with the Cuban missile crisis, and Galbraith largely drove US policymaking in the absence of any sustained attention from home. It is fair to say that without his presence in New Delhi and his willingness, indeed eagerness, to take over the reins of US policymaking and its implementation in those very difficult times, the Kennedy administration would not have been able to respond as promptly and effectively as it did to the Chinese threat and the perils and opportunities that threat conveyed."
Author and former diplomat Dennis Kux, who was a consul in Madras at the time and who later wrote the highly-acclaimed United States and India: Estranged Democracies, echoed these sentiments. Galbraith was "always a strong force for better (US-India) relations over the years, and yes, he was an effective ambassador at a difficult time when the Chinese invasion took place.
"He was quite a force, yes, but he squabbled a lot with Dean Rusk (then secretary of state) and that somewhat diminished his effectiveness out there. But he was a real titan, a real power --
Dennis also recalled how Galbraith was enamored with Jawaharlal Nehru. Earlier, during the years Galbraith spent in India during the 1950s before returning as US ambassador, he was known to describe derogatorily socialism in India as 'post-office socialism.' As envoy to New Delhi, however, "he made a great effort to improve and expand the US aid programme to India.
"They were good friends -- very good friends (Galbraith and Nehru)", Kux said, adding that each seemed to enjoy the other's company, finding common ground in intellect and a ribald wit.
During this period, New Delhi and Washington weren't estranged democracies "and there was considerable improvement in relations and besides, Kennedy was interested in it. But Kennedy's dying made things difficult and the military aid the US was about to provide India got put off, and other things too got put off for quite a while under (President Lyndon B) Johnson."
Mining his personal recollections, Dennis spoke of how Galbraith "came down to Madras and talked to the staff, and I remember him talking about Kennedy as if he was like the tutor or the senior person, the housemaster, for Kennedy. He talked of Kennedy as sort of this young kid, which struck me because this guy was the president.
"When I interviewed him to write the book, he told me how Nehru had described himself to him (Galbriath) as the 'Last Englishman to rule India,' and how they both broke into peals of laughter."
"For people of my generation, who did our schooling in the 1950s and 1960s, he was 'a towering giant,'" Steve Cohen said, even while pointing out that the phrase itself was an inadequate cliché to describe the man. "He was one of the great stars shining on us.
"His passion for India really comes out in his autobiography, which is really an amazing book in many ways. There is no doubt that he is one of the great figures in contributing to American understanding of India, and I believe he had an influence in India too."
According to Steve, "He was fascinated with Nehru's experiments, and I don't know whether he reinforced Indian opposition to markets and so forth, but clearly he was an agricultural economist -- he was a guy who was deeply rooted in practical economics."
Comparing Galbraith's relationship with Kennedy to (former US ambassador to India Robert) "Blackwill and Bush," he said: "Both went to India interested in India in their own right, but also both were representing a president who had a special interest in India. And clearly, this was one of Kennedy's really strong concerns and interests."
Both enjoyed direct access to the president at the time. "Quite different people, but both were academics, both were from Harvard, both were committed to India because their president was committed to India. And, of course, both had the ear of the president and that enabled them to do things over and around the bureaucracy.
"In Galbraith's case," Steve noted, "that meant going around and over or under (secretary of state) Dean Rusk, who was not terribly enamored with India."
Professor Ainslee Embree, who often met Galbraith, notes that "There is no question that he was the best known in India of all American ambassadors, and he courted publicity in India. No other American ambassador was as well-known among the Indian people. I have a feeling, however, that Nehru and some other high officials resented his lecturing them."
Embree wasn't sure how much of a difference Galbraith made on policy, but recalled asking the British high commissioner in Delhi at the time "what his reading was of Galbraith, and he said, 'No doubt he is the most brilliant, witty man I have ever met in the diplomatic world. But the problem as an ambassador was, one was never sure if he was the American ambassador to India or the Indian ambassador to the United States.'
"I think this was a reflection of the way Galbraith saw himself," Embree argued.
"If I had to rank the American ambassadors in terms of effectiveness in forming Indo-American relations and effecting policy, I am not sure I would place him very high. He was a star in his own right, and he played an important role in getting aid at the time of the war with China, but he does not seem to have contributed toward any resolution of the Kashmir dispute."
Embree's critique was endorsed by Warren Unna, former Washington Post bureau chief in New Delhi, who after retirement from the Post in the 1980s was correspondent for the Calcutta-based The Statesman in Washington. Warren now lives comfortably in a retirement community in Mitchellville in Maryland with the likes of Embree and several other ex-diplomats and academics, all of them India hands at one time or another.
Warren, who was my mentor when I started out doing the Washington beat in the mid-1980s, acknowledged that Galbraith "has always been marvelously witty and a delight. But frankly, his ambassadorship to India was not that great. I think he had been spoiled earlier by Nehru in making an address to Parliament on his cure-alls. And after Kennedy appointed him ambassador, he drove the State Department nuts by communicating directly with the president and pretty much ignoring the foreign service's input."
Warren said he believed that "the best the US ever sent was neither Bowles nor Galbraith, but Ellsworth Bunker -- and I have found many Indian officials who concur. Bunker had a marvelous blend of listening and an elder statesman/aristocratic bearing which appealed to the MEA (Indian ministry of external affairs)'s sense of propriety."
Another former diplomat, who served under Galbraith and did not wish to be named, said "Galbraith was not a popular ambassador. His arrogance disturbed, even terrified, many staffers. He was not interested in opinions that conflicted with his own views. Those who expressed them did so at their professional peril. He forced the transfer of several officers who had the temerity to disagree with him.
"His staff played it safe and often failed to offer him ideas and assessments they believed he did not want to hear. As a result, he was ill-served by a talented group of officers who could otherwise have been much more helpful to him."
Professor Manoranjan Dutta, still teaching at Rutgers even at 80-plus, was more charitable, lauding Galbraith as "an articulate voice against the failure of free market capitalist economy and argued for the countervailing power. He spoke out eloquently for socially directed, market economy, and for necessary government regulation.
"Left to itself, the market has been responsible for what we now call ENRONism, which has destroyed the soul of American capitalism. So, one way for us to pay tribute to Professor Galbraith is to vote for his economic philosophy of socially directed capitalist free economy," he said.
As ambassador to India, Galbraith "championed the cause of India's economic planning, based on its two-sector model -- one for the private entrepreneurs and another for the government-owned and -managed key industries. And, of course, the Himalayan adventure of China made Galbraith a resolute champion for India's democracy against Communist China's invasion."
The more people I spoke to, the more divergent views I got -- that divergence itself a tribute, perhaps, to the vastness of a man who, like John Donne once wrote, encompassed multitudes. And perhaps the tragedy is too near, too immediate, to permit lasting qualitative assessment.
Suffice to say that whether he was loved or loathed, he will be missed -- and by none more so than Peter, who idolised, loved, his old man.
My condolences, Peter -- I mourn your loss, and ours.