WASHINGTON -- John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist who died last week in his 98th year, has been justly celebrated for his wit, fluency, public-spiritedness and public service, which extended from New Deal Washington to India, where he served as U.S. ambassador. Like two Harvard colleagues -- historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Sen. Pat Moynihan, another ambassador to India -- Galbraith was among liberalism's leading public intellectuals, yet he was a friend and skiing partner of William F. Buckley. After one slalom down a Swiss mountain, inelegantly executed by the 6-foot-8 Galbraith, Buckley asked how long Galbraith had been skiing. Thirty years, he said. Buckley mischievously replied: About as long as you have been an economist.
Galbraith was an adviser to presidents (John Kennedy, a former student, and Lyndon Johnson) and presidential aspirants (Adlai Stevenson and Eugene McCarthy). His book "The Affluent Society," published in 1958, was a milestone on liberalism's transformation into a doctrine of condescension. And into a minority persuasion.
In the 1950s, liberals were disconsolate. Voters twice rejected the intelligentsia's pinup, Stevenson, in favor of Dwight Eisenhower, who elicited a new strain in liberalism -- disdain for average Americans. Liberals dismissed the Eisenhower administration as "the bland leading the bland." They said New Dealers had been supplanted by car dealers. How to explain the electorate's dereliction of taste? Easy. The masses, in their bovine simplicity, had been manipulated, mostly by advertising, particularly on television, which by 1958 had become the masses' entertainment.
Intellectuals, that herd of independent minds, were, as usual, in lock step as they deplored "conformity." Fear of that had begun when the decade did, with David Riesman's "The Lonely Crowd" (1950), which was followed by C. Wright Mills' "White Collar" (1951), Sloan Wilson's novel "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" (1955), William Whyte's "The Organization Man" (1956) and Vance Packard's "The Hidden Persuaders" (1957).
Galbraith brought to the anti-conformity chorus a special verve in depicting Americans as pathetic, passive lumps, as manipulable as clay. Americans were what modern liberalism relishes -- victims, to be treated as wards of a government run by liberals. It never seemed to occur to Galbraith and like-minded liberals that ordinary Americans might resent that depiction and might express their resentment with their votes.