Presidential History

Ways to Be Wrong

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Name-Dropping: From FDR On, by John Kenneth Galbraith, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 194 pages, $26.00

When Government Was Good: Memories of a Life in Politics, by Henry S. Reuss, Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 185 pages, $22.95

There's a right way to be wrong and a wrong way to be wrong. Some supporters of big, intrusive government manage to be witty, erudite, and tolerant of opposing views. If we must have statists, they're the ones to have. Alas, too many others are crabby, smug, and dogmatic–the kind who'd serve as the bad guys in an Ayn Rand novel.

John Kenneth Galbraith is of the first type, a sterling model of how to err in style. At the age of 91, he can look back on a rewarding life as a university professor, political adviser, ambassador to India, and debating partner of such conservatives as William F. Buckley Jr. Though he's seldom been right, he's always been a gentleman. And he has always been a graceful writer, as we see in Name-Dropping, a short, readable volume that offers personality sketches of FDR, JFK, and other famous figures he has known.

Galbraith has a sharp eye for the telling anecdote. As he reminds us here, Bill Clinton was not the first president who tried to be all things to all people. In separate meetings with FDR, two aides gave contradictory advice, and both times he replied, "You are perfectly right." When Eleanor objected that he could not possibly agree with such opposing arguments, he answered, "Eleanor, you are perfectly right."

Galbraith keeps the focus on his subjects, minimizing his own part in historical events. Here is his description of working on FDR's 1940 speechwriting team: "We found out how much of what we had written had survived when we heard the President speak on the radio. We listened with some attention." He is also refreshingly candid about his own failures. Looking back on campaign addresses he drafted for Adlai Stevenson, he now sees the fatal flaw: "I had written seeking the approval of the candidate, his campaign acolytes and myself, not that of the larger public, the electorate as a whole."

Name-Dropping, sad to say, is not really an original book. In his first chapter, Galbraith admits there is "an occasional event or personal encounter of which I have told before." That is an understatement: He has recycled a distressingly large portion of the material from his 1981 autobiography, A Life in Our Times. The earlier work supplies much more detail and documentation, so it is the place to look for historical reference.

Although Galbraith is wrong in the right way, he is still wrong. He acknowledges JFK's health problems and extramarital affairs but dismisses them as irrelevant to his presidency. Many historians would disagree. Before his 1961 summit with Khrushchev, JFK took medications that may have impaired his judgment. And his personal misbehavior constituted a wild security risk, exposing him to tacit blackmail by J. Edgar Hoover. He may have been just as charming as Galbraith describes, but charm is no excuse for recklessness.

There is a quaint frozen-in-time quality to Galbraith's thought–sort of Austin Powers without the bad teeth and mojo. Looking at Great Society welfare programs, he maintains that the solution to poverty is simply to give money to poor people, without necessarily expecting them to do work. In the decades since LBJ's War on Poverty, all but the staunchest statists have surrendered to reality and abandoned such notions. Oddly, Galbraith vents inordinate anger about America's effort to defeat Soviet communism in the Cold War. Austin–I mean, Mr. Galbraith…we won.

Galbraith provides the foreword to the autobiography of Henry S. Reuss, a liberal Democrat who represented Milwaukee in Congress from 1955 to 1983. Galbraith's contribution is pretty much the only good thing about this book, which unintentionally makes a splendid case for term limits.

Granted, you would expect a REASON reviewer to pan something titled When Government Was Good. But I opened the cover with hope. During his career, Reuss witnessed major events and served with great characters: Sam Rayburn, Bella Abzug, Tip O'Neill, and Melvin Laird, to name a few. Notwithstanding his love for the welfare state, he could have given us real insights into the personalities and private debates that shaped a critical period in congressional history.

He doesn't. Memoirs are supposed to have memories, but this book makes only passing reference to the big names and backstage debates. It's all Reuss all the time, bent on showing the wrong way to be wrong.

After an unenlightening account of Reuss' early years, the book treats his congressional career as a series of position papers, detailing why he sponsored this measure or opposed that one. Here's a sample: "After much study I drew up an amendment to the revenue-sharing legislation of 1970, conditioning it on a good-faith state effort to draw up a long-term modern governments plan. I set this forth at length in my 1970 book, Revenue-Sharing: Crutch or Catalyst for State-Local Government?"

Makes you want to read more, doesn't it? Seldom has a book this short been this tedious.

Despite its brevity, When Government Was Good shows blatant signs of padding. There are many lengthy block quotations from long-ago speeches and articles, along with the typical staged congressional photos (on numbered pages, not inserts). When Reuss runs out of old bills to talk about, he pontificates on current issues.

Reuss takes credit for many things, including terms in common usage. He recalls appearing before the Ways and Means Committee to talk about tax loopholes. He says he is still proud of his elaborate exhibit, "which I called my Flow Chart." Reading that line, I couldn't help picturing Dr. Evil doing two-finger quotation marks around "flow chart."

There are some items for which Reuss conveniently neglects to take credit. He devotes a chapter to the House Banking Committee, which he chaired from 1975 through 1980. (The part where he assumes the chairmanship is titled "The Banking Committee Reborn.") While mentioning the 1980 banking law, the chapter overlooks its key provision, which increased federal insurance on savings and loan accounts. By signaling the operators of shaky thrifts that taxpayers would bail them out from bad investments, the law triggered the S&L debacle of the 1980s.

Reuss tells how he led a minor investigation of Watergate but leaves out his major proposal for ending the controversy. On June 1, 1973, he wrote an article urging Nixon and Agnew both to resign so that Democratic House Speaker Carl Albert could become president. (Agnew's own ethics scandal had not yet come to light.) During the Lewinsky affair, Democrats accused the GOP of attempting a "coup," but never did Republicans dream of something as nakedly partisan as Reuss' proposal.

Reuss shows us just how mean-spirited a liberal can be. He applauds a 1998 stock market downturn because it may have cost the affluent "enough wealth and income to measurably decrease inequality." Apart from its sheer nastiness, that sentiment is also nonsensical. More than 40 percent of American households own stock, either directly or indirectly: Market crashes hurt the not-so-rich types whose pension funds lose value. Fortunately, stocks recovered after Reuss wrote that line.

One brief anecdote is revealing, about both Reuss and other politicians. An ardent supporter of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s, he was disgusted to learn at a field hearing that some of his constituents favored private-sector financing. He recalls approvingly that a Democratic colleague slipped him a note saying, "You're too good for these people!"

"Too good for these people": There's a sentiment that politicians often harbor but rarely utter. Elected officials contract arrogance the way coal miners get black lung disease: just by breathing the air for too long. Without meaning to, Reuss helps us understand how government goes bad.

Contributing Editor John J. Pitney (jpitney@mckenna.edu) is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. His Web page is faculty.mckenna.edu/jpitney.