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Thursday, May 4, 2006 09:36 am

The tallest Elk in Springfield

John Kenneth Galbraith and the eggheads of 1952

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John Kenneth Galbraith was 43 years old and already had a national reputation when he arrived in Springfield in the summer of 1952 to work as a speechwriter for Gov. Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign. American Capitalism, his first book (of the 33 he would eventually write), had been published earlier that year and had become a huge success. Still, Galbraith was surprised when he received a call from his friend and Harvard colleague Arthur Schlesinger Jr., insisting that he stay in his hotel room and talk to no one. At a press conference a day before, he learned, Stevenson had been asked whether his campaign had been taken over by radicals. Stevenson didn’t want the press and public to learn that a certain famous Harvard economist was being recruited to write his speeches. Galbraith died April 28 in Cambridge, Mass., at the age of 97. Most obituary writers, struggling to contain the long and eventful life of this economist, author, adviser to presidents, and ambassador to India, ran out of room before getting around to the fact that Galbraith was a member of the famous Elks Club Group of Springfield, Ill. Once Schlesinger had liberated him from solitary confinement in his hotel room, Galbraith walked to the Elks Club building at 509 S. Sixth St., now the Bucari Commerce Building, where the Stevenson campaign had rented third-floor office space conveniently close to the governor’s mansion. There the campaign had assembled an illustrious “brain trust” of liberal intellectuals that included, besides Galbraith and Schlesinger, Willard Wirtz, a Northwestern University law professor who later became President John F. Kennedy’s secretary of labor; David Bell, an aide to President Harry S. Truman who would later be Kennedy’s budget director; and John Bartlow Martin, a Saturday Evening Post writer who would later become Stevenson’s biographer and one of my journalism professors. The idealistic Stevenson ghostwriters, who called themselves “the Elks,” convinced themselves that if they only worked hard enough, Stevenson could defeat Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. “There was little to do in Springfield,” Martin records in his Stevenson biography, so the Elks worked all the time, sometimes till 2 a.m. on nights before Stevenson left on a campaign trip. They would dine at out-of-the-way places to avoid the press, and sometimes at dinner they’d hatch policy. “It seems to me our farm policy is simple — the Democratic Party is the farmer’s friend,” Galbraith said one evening over a meal, according to Martin. “And we’re for price supports.” All agreed, and Galbraith drafted Stevenson’s major speech on agriculture. Stevenson met with Galbraith and others the evening he returned to Springfield after his first swing through the West in 1952. Stevenson said he was being pressed too far to the left by his staff; the time had come to get back squarely to the middle of the road. A staff member protested, “You had a great response to your speech at that rally in Los Angeles, Governor.” Stevenson surveyed the staffer sternly and replied, “That crowd would have applauded if I had advocated pissing on the floor.” Galbraith writes: “Then sensing, as only Stevenson could, that he might have bruised a man’s feelings, he quickly added, ‘But let’s consider that proposal, and get it into future speeches.’ ” Martin writes that the Elks would usually start work at 10 a.m., then walk downtown for lunch together about 2 p.m. On their way, they would stop at the Illinois State Register office (309 S. Sixth St.) and read the news bulletins written in crayon on newsprint and hung in the window. They’d walk past Coe’s bookstore (where Café Brio is now), looking for copies of their own books in the window but almost never seeing them. They would eat at The Sazarac, 229 S. Sixth St., where Springfield Novelties and Gifts is now. Martin says they also chose this “obscure saloon” to avoid the press (although it wouldn’t have taken much of an eagle eye for a reporter to spot the 6-foot-7 Galbraith walking through downtown Springfield). “The Sazarac was small and dingy, with a round table beside the jukebox,” Martin writes. “Once when somebody started to put a nickel in the jukebox, Galbraith said to him, ‘I’ll give you a dime if you don’t play it.’ ” It was about this time when Richard Nixon, the Republican vice presidential candidate, started calling Stevenson and his people “eggheads.” In September, Galbraith headed back to Harvard. He wasn’t here to watch Stevenson’s landslide defeat or to join the governor’s staff at the mansion when, over champagne, Stevenson told them he had no taste for wakes, “especially when I’m the corpse.” The election results threw Galbraith into a depression, but when he emerged from it he began to think of ways “to keep the Democratic Party intellectually alert during these years in the wilderness.” With Stevenson’s blessing, Galbraith launched a new brain trust to find fresh ideas for Stevenson to use in 1956. “As the party of the well-to-do, the Republicans do not hesitate to use their dough,” he reasoned. “As the party of the eggheads, we should similarly and proudly make use of our brains and experience.” For the next three years, the new group met every month or two in the private clubs of New York, Washington, and Cambridge — never, not even for old times’ sake, in the Elks Club of Springfield, Ill.