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Galbraith's brilliance, keen wit recalled by friends, family, and politicians

WASHINGTON -- As an economist, John Kenneth Galbraith inspired generations of liberals and advised presidents for more than half a century. As a professor, he entertained countless Harvard students with his witty stories and insights. And as one of the leading public intellectuals of the past century, he bridged eras with a patrician confidence that did not fade with age.

From Boston to Washington and beyond, Galbraith -- who died Saturday at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge at age 97 -- was remembered yesterday as a legendary social scientist who brought flair and an outsized personality to a long career of service in politics and academia.

He was also mourned as one of the last links to the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Great Society of Lyndon B. Johnson, and -- most famously -- the New Frontier of John F. Kennedy in a presidency that drew a class of dashing Harvard-bred intellectuals into the highest echelons of government.

''He embodied the American liberal tradition," said presidential historian Robert Dallek, the author of books on Kennedy and Johnson. ''He was an extraordinary voice, a compelling voice for liberal precepts going back to the New Deal. He enjoyed a stature with everyone in the country, because he was a man of humor and charm."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy said his brother, President Kennedy, ''admired his genius, valued his friendship, and loved his extraordinary wit, and so did I."

''His powerful ideas helped shaped the nation's policy and politics for over half a century," said Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. ''Our affluent society is a fairer and more just society today because of Ken, and no one who knew him will ever forget him."

Galbraith died of complications of pneumonia. Services have not yet been scheduled.

In Cambridge, where Galbraith lived for much of the past seven decades, the Canadian native was an institution.

Shortly after he retired from teaching in 1975, the Harvard Lampoon named him ''Funniest Professor of the Century." Over the last few years, he would occasionally give lectures from his wheelchair, and he was a well-known figure in and around Harvard Square.

Andrew Feldman, a 32-year-old doctoral student studying poverty at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, remembered seeing Galbraith speak in 2004 at a dinner welcoming a new set of Galbraith Scholars, a scholarship program named in his honor.

''They wheeled him in, he leaned over the microphone, and was totally coherent," Feldman said. ''His body was hardly working, and he still had a sense of humor. It was amazing."

Galbraith's economic theories -- which suggested that an activist government was necessary to address public needs shortchanged by pure capitalism -- helped form an intellectual backbone for modern liberalism, and his impact transcended his chosen field.

Through a wide range of formal and informal roles, he advised every Democratic president from Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

Though many of his theories were shunned in an era of centrist Democrats and conservative preeminence, he remained a strong believer in his ideas -- Galbraith was considered to have a high opinion of himself -- and he developed into a liberal icon.

His career left a deep impression on the national and international political scenes as well as at Harvard, where he taught from 1934 to 1939 and returned a decade later. He would leave again only to serve as Kennedy's ambassador to India.

While Galbraith was stationed in New Delhi, Kennedy directed the State Department to immediately forward him all cables sent by the ambassador, said Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a historian who served as a special assistant to Kennedy.

Schlesinger said Kennedy adored Galbraith's wit, and felt it was important to hear his liberal voice on pressing policy matters, even if he didn't always take his advice.

''He took unpopular positions, and he triumphed because of his wit and phrase-making," Schlesinger said. ''I loved him. The world is impoverished without him."

Starting with his landmark 1958 book, ''The Affluent Society," Galbraith drew wide acclaim with his argument that the American economy did not adequately address public needs. The book argued for the government to help empower individuals, embracing a liberal activism for the common good.

Galbraith's biographer, Richard Parker, said that Galbraith's most enduring legacy will be his approach to economics.

He emphasized the humanity in economic theory, viewing it not as a set of rigid mathematic formulas but in a highly personal manner that fostered his abiding belief that government could and should solve social problems.

''He believes that economics is not a set of natural laws; it's an expression of human relations," said Parker, an economist and senior fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center who lives in Cambridge. ''He's the St. Paul to John Maynard Keynes's Jesus Christ."

Robert Shiller, chief economist at Macromarkets and a Yale University economics professor, said ''The Affluent Society" changed the way people think about economics and public policy. ''If we didn't have that book, we'd have more McMansions."

Paul Samuelson, a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a friend since the two professors met at Harvard in 1935, said Galbraith had ''a great reputation" among nontechnical economists.

''He was a maverick in terms of where the economy was going," Samuelson said. ''He was an important figure getting on the bandwagon of Keynesian economics. He did not choose to board the train of mainstream economics."

Galbraith's biggest public break with Democrats came over the Vietnam War, something he had warned Kennedy could become a quagmire as early as 1961.

In researching his biography, Parker came across a memo Galbraith sent to Johnson that he said was emblematic of his straight-talking style.

''Much official crap to the contrary, we are going to lose the war in Vietnam," the memo read.

Galbraith remained influential around the world long after the publication of ''The Affluent Society."

British Finance Minister Gordon Brown said that Galbraith advised him and other economic officials in recent years, providing fresh insights on modern problems.

''Even in recent years in his 90s, he was never slow to give me and others advice and he will be remembered for his erudition, his wit and eloquence, and particularly for his economic insights into our age," Brown said.

Derek Bok, a past president of Harvard University, said Galbraith was distinct from other economists because he wrote for a general audience, something that critics have cited as a weak spot.

''He used his wit . . . very tellingly to make points about society," Bok said. ''He was not one to express anger. But he was an expert in using his wit to attack [people he disagreed with] by making people laugh."

One of those people was Arthur Laffer, known for the Laffer curve, a tool he uses to support a supply-side economics model that suggests that, in some situations, tax cuts can pay for themselves.

During debates, Laffer and Galbraith were often pitted against each other; Galbraith was the far-left liberal and Laffer was the proponent of ''Reaganomics" and the trickle-down theory of economics.

''He was witty, he was charming. He had a turn of phrase that was unbelievable," Laffer said.

Galbraith poked fun at trickle-down economics this way: ''If you feed the horse enough oats, the sparrow will survive on the highway."

Galbraith was married in 1937 to Catherine Atwater, who survives him. They had three sons, Alan, Peter, and James.

''His mind was wonderful, right up until the end," Alan Galbraith said. ''He had a wonderful and full life."

Globe correspondent Alison Lobron contributed to this report from Cambridge and material from Globe news services was used. Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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