Richard N. Goodwin, White House speech writer, dead at 86
NEW YORK — Richard N. Goodwin, an aide, speechwriter and liberal force for the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson who helped craft such historic addresses as Robert Kennedy’s “ripples of hope” and LBJ’s speeches on civil rights and “The Great Society,” died Sunday evening. He was 86.
Goodwin, the husband of Pulitzer Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, died at his home in Concord, Massachusetts. According to his wife, he died after a brief bout with cancer.
He was among the youngest members of John F. Kennedy’s inner circle and among the last survivors. Brilliant and contentious, with thick eyebrows and a mess of wavy-curly hair, the cigar-smoking Goodwin rose from a working class background to the Kennedy White House before he had turned 30. He was a Boston native and Harvard Law graduate who specialized in broad, inspirational rhetoric — top JFK speechwriter Theodore Sorensen was a mentor — that “would move men to action or alliance.”
Thriving during an era when few feared to be called “liberal,” Goodwin also worked on some of Lyndon Johnson’s most memorable domestic policy initiatives, including his celebrated “We Shall Overcome” speech. But he differed with the president about Vietnam, left the administration after 1965 and would later contend — to much debate — that Johnson may have been clinically paranoid. Increasingly impassioned through the latter half of the ’60s, he co-wrote what many regard as then- Sen. Robert Kennedy’s greatest speech, his address in South Africa in 1966. Kennedy bluntly attacked the racist apartheid system, praised protest movements worldwide and said those who speak and act against injustice send “forth a tiny ripple of hope.”
Goodwin’s opposition to the Vietnam conflict led him to write speeches in 1968 for Kennedy and to manage the presidential campaign for anti-war candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy. But McCarthy faded, Kennedy (“My best and last friend in politics,” Goodwin wrote) was assassinated and Republican Richard Nixon was elected president. Goodwin never worked for another administration, although he and his wife were fixtures in the Democratic Party and he continued to comment on current affairs for Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and other publications. In 2000, he was called upon for one of the least glamorous jobs in speechwriting history: Al Gore’s concession to George W. Bush after a deadlocked race that ended with a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Bush’s favor.
Goodwin was admired for his rare blend of poetry and political savvy, and criticized for being all too aware of his talents. Even one of his supporters, historian and fellow Kennedy insider Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., would say that he “probably lacked tact and finesse.” But Schlesinger also regarded Goodwin as the “archetypal New Frontiersman” of JFK’s brief presidency.
“Goodwin was the supreme generalist,” Schlesinger wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Thousand Days,” published in 1965, “who could turn from Latin America to saving the Nile Monuments, from civil rights to planning a White House dinner for the Nobel Prize winners, from composing a parody of Norman Mailer to drafting a piece of legislation, from lunching with a Supreme Court Justice to dining with Jean Seberg — and at the same time retain an unquenchable spirit of sardonic liberalism and unceasing drive to get things done.”
Richard Naradof Goodwin was born in Boston on Dec. 7, 1931, but spent part of his childhood in suburban Maryland, where he would recall being harassed and beaten because he was Jewish. His enemies only inspired him. He graduated summa cum laude from Tufts University, at the top his class from Harvard Law School, then clerked for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, the first of a series of powerful men Goodwin worked under.
His road to Kennedy’s “Camelot” began not with an election, but with the corruption of TV game shows. He was an investigator in the late ’50s for the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, which helped reveal that the popular “Twenty One” program was rigged. Goodwin’s recollections were adapted into the 1994 film “Quiz Show,” directed by Robert Redford and featuring Rob Morrow as Goodwin, who was one of the producers. The film received four Academy Award nominations, including for best picture, but was criticized for inflating Goodwin’s role in uncovering the scandal.
His efforts were noticed by Kennedy, then a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and aspiring presidential candidate. Goodwin was hired to write speeches for the 1960 race, advised Kennedy for his landmark television debates with Nixon and held a number of positions in the administration, from assistant special counsel in the White House to an adviser on Latin America. After Kennedy’s assassination, in 1963, Goodwin was urged — implored — to stay on by the new president: “You’re going to be my voice, my alter ego,” Goodwin remembered Lyndon Johnson saying. There was constant tension between Johnson, a Texan, and the “Harvards” around Kennedy, but Goodwin initially had strong influence. He was assigned key policy speeches, including the 1964 address at the University of Michigan, when Johnson outlined his domestic vision of a “Great Society.” Johnson’s 1965 civil rights speech to a joint session of Congress, written by Goodwin on less than a day’s notice and in the wake of the bloody marches in Selma, Alabama, ended with an exhortation that drew upon the language of the protest movement and reportedly left the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in tears.
“Their cause must be our cause too,” Johnson said. “Because it is not just Negroes, but all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”