Dick Goodwin, the Kennedy-LBJ Speechwriter Who Changed the ’60s—and the Country
For Jack, Bobby, and Lyndon, he wrote some of the most eloquent words they ever spoke and was one of the most important figures of his year.
In the summer of 1954, Richard Goodwin walked into the Harvard Law School library, ready to begin his first day as a member of the Harvard Law Review; a position all but guaranteeing a path to a life of privilege and prestige. For the son of lower middle-class Jews, it was the reward for years of intense study, with summers working as a fry cook at Revere Beach, supplementing a full scholarship to Harvard Law.
But as he prepared for the dreary work of checking footnotes from a law review article, something snapped. It was as if, he wrote years later, that he was in a prison. So he turned on his heel, drove back to Brookline, waived his student deferment, and joined the army. After his service, he went back to Harvard Law, where he finished first in his class, was president of the Law Review, and won a clerkship from Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
Fourteen years later, 2 miles east of Harvard Law, Goodwin sat in his office at MIT, where he held a cushy faculty position. It was early 1968, and Goodwin was increasingly despairing of a Vietnam War that had lost all purpose, and a nation seized by racial and generational tumult. His close friend Robert Kennedy had refused to challenge President Johnson for the Democratic nomination, but Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy was embarked on that quixotic effort in New Hampshire.
So Goodwin quit his post, jumped into his car, and at midnight, arrived at the Perkins Motel in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he rousted McCarthy’s press secretary, Sy Hersh, walked him to his car, pointed to his typewriter and said, “You, me and this typewriter, Sy; together we’re going to overthrow the president of the United States.”
A month later, McCarthy won 42 percent of the primary vote—a stunning, unexpected achievement; four days later, Robert Kennedy entered the race, and two weeks after that, Johnson announced he would not run for another term.
These two anecdotes say much about who Dick Goodwin was: the blend of determination, ability, and, yes, a touch of arrogance; but more than that— they point to what made Goodwin so compelling a figure. The last of the New Frontiersmen—when he died Sunday at 85, he was the last surviving member of President John Kennedy’s 1960 campaign team—he embodied one of Kennedy’s favorite observations, from fellow New Englander Emerson: that “a man must share the actions and passions of his time on peril of being judged not to have lived.” Goodwin didn’t just “share” the actions and passions of his time—he threw himself into them, and in so doing, put his mark on those times.
Goodwin is best known as a speechwriter, who wrote perhaps the single greatest presidential oration of the post-FDR era: Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 speech on the Voting Rights Act (video here), which proclaimed that “it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
He was also a principal author, along with Adam Walinsky, of Robert Kennedy’s 1966 “Day of Affirmation” speech in South Africa (video here), which declared: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
But his influence extended beyond rhetoric; he was, in a way, an embodiment of at least one part of the ’60s; an era that began with the rise of a younger generation to power, armed with the conviction—which a times shaded into hubris—that it could move mountains, and that ended with an assassin’s bullet in a kitchen pantry in a Los Angeles hotel.
In his late twenties, Goodwin was a lawyer for a House Committee that investigated the enormously popular TV quiz shows of the late 1950s. It was Goodwin, the scholarship kid from a Jewish neighborhood in Boston, who confronted and revealed the fraud behind the performance of Charles Van Doren, the epitome of WASP elitism. (The movie Quiz Show tells the story.)
It was Goodwin who, at age 29, became Ted Sorensen’s deputy speechwriter in JFK’s 1960 campaign. It was Goodwin who, not yet 30, became the deputy assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs and caused a political firestorm by meeting secretly with Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara in Uruguay. (The meeting led to no diplomatic breakthrough, but Guevara did gift Goodwin with a box of fine Havanas, which appealed mightily to the cigar-loving Goodwin.)
By his mid-thirties, he was a close friend of Robert Kennedy, accompanying him on tumultuous trip through South America, where they were harassed by Communist students and swam in piranha-infested waters. It was that friendship that ultimately drew him to leave Gene McCarthy’s campaign and join RFK’s effort, where he worked with director John Frankenheimer on the television ads that helped win primaries in Indiana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and California, where Sirhan Sirhan was waiting in that hotel kitchen.
That, in shorthand, describes what Dick Goodwin did in that decade. But it doesn’t really capture who he was. For one thing, Goodwin shared with Robert Kennedy a mordant sense of humor; a puckish delight in upending the pieties of politics. In his memoir Remembering America, Goodwin describes a memo from a White House aide warning him that a file cabinet of his had been found open at 12:45 a.m. In response, Goodwin sent a memo to the aide, explaining that the aide had just blown up “the most skillful espionage operation in the history of the American government.” The cabinet, he wrote, was filled with deliberately false information.
“Then I usually invite someone from the Russian embassy over for a nightcap. At the appropriate moment (around 12:45 am) I say I have to go over to the mansion and leave”—thus leaving the Soviet agent in possession of totally misleading data.
Goodwin’s political disappointments in the years after Robert Kennedy’s death were leavened by the arrival in his life of Doris Kearns, with whom he shared more than four decades of marriage. What he—and she—brought to that union was a zest for life that could have powered a medium-sized city. When I traveled to Concord, Massachusetts, to interview them for various books I was writing, dinner at the local inn was endlessly interrupted by a parade of locals from all walks of life—cops, firefighters, lawyers, business folks, politicians, all wanting to trade a quip, or share a conversation with them. (It made the interview tougher, but it made the memory of the dinners indelible.)
Goodwin was a less visible presence in the last decades of his life; he wrote for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and other venues, as well as a play about Galileo, but he took the most satisfaction from helping Doris Kearns Goodwin with her succession of best-selling histories.
In his 2014 introduction to the e-book version of Remembering America, Goodwin wrote that “the memory of the Sixties remains fresh in my mind This is not simply the nostalgia of a man in his eighties. The decade of the Sixties was one of those special moments in our history, when important public issues animated our citizens, when large achievement seemed a realistic possibility; and when the American faith was charged with a determination equal to the needs and the promise of the nation.”
This is, of course, a romantic version of that time, one that is rejected and even scorned by a significant segment of the American populace. And Dick’s words have an almost quaint ring in our current political climate. But it’s worth remembering that when Dick Goodwin and his colleagues entered the White House in 1961, no black or woman or Italian had ever sat on the Supreme Court; no African-American had ever been a member of the Cabinet, or led a Fortune 500 company; that from Capitol Hill to Wall Street to the powerhouse law firms and ad agencies, to the executive offices of newspapers, magazines, and broadcasting, your skin color, religion, gender, and family background imposed sharp limits on what you could do and what you could be. Goodwin was part of a movement that changed that bleak reality for good.
You can look back on Dick Goodwin’s life and work and see him as a key player in a time, and a politics burdened by its fair share of illusion and overreach. What I see is someone armed with an incandescent intellect, a razor-sharp wit and a fragrant Havana, who put his gifts in the service of causes that changed the lives of millions for the better. John and Robert Kennedy often liked to cited a Greek definition of happiness: “the full use of your powers, along lines of excellence in a life affording scope.” By that definition Dick Goodwin was among the happiest people of his time.