The Kennedys in the King Years

Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties

by Richard N. Goodwin
Little, Brown, 552 pp., $19.95

Theodore Sorensen’s collected works make it clear that the gift (a genuine one) for speechwriting does not necessarily make for mastery in other forms of literary composition. Ditto Pat Buchanan. Peggy Noonan will, presumably, be tested in time. But the jury is surely in on Richard Goodwin. He told a Washington Post interviewer, about Remembering America, that “I’ve sometimes driven past the entrance to my own house five times, missed it because I’m writing sentences in my head.” He should have driven by a sixth time before committing a sentence like this: “Nixon, like some infertile bride, had to rely on Eisenhower’s teeming allurements to nurture his own fortunes into flower.” He has the orator’s proneness to edema:

Mr. President.” What grandeur in the phrase, how lovingly it passed my lips. If there was such swollen warmth in saying it, what must it be like to hear?

The [quiz show] deception violated our misplaced trust in the guardians of the swelling electronic media, and mocked our libidinous urge to believe in their newly revealed breed of intellectual heroes.

To Kennedy, as to the swollen, bellicose Castro, Latin America was destined to be a principal battleground between systems of government.

Finally, spurred by a self-indulgent pride which was swollen by fatigue, in a brief thrust of grotesquely exaggerated rhetoric, I wrote…

Like the Prologue to Henry V, Goodwin summons us “to behold the swelling scene.”

Goodwin takes Theodore White’s approach to the 1960 campaign of John Kennedy. That is, he fancies he is Homer—which leads to a meteorological form of reporting. When the campaign team works till dawn, “Day was nullified by night and then restored as we labored.” When President Kennedy wants Goodwin out of the White House, he (the President) decides “to author my separation from the luminous center.” Yet, for all his epic tone, he contradicts one of the gullible White’s tales about the brilliance of Kennedy’s young staffers. Goodwin played word games with Ted Sorensen and Mike Feldman:

Teddy White would later immortalize this game, citing as illustrations [sic] of our youthful brilliance an exchange in which the answer was Nine W; the correct question, “Do you spell your name with a V, Professor Wagner?” (Nein! W—get it?) Unfortunately for historical accuracy, although the “answer” was proposed, none of us could guess the question. On several occasions during the quarter century that followed I have been asked, admiringly, to verify White’s account. And I always complied. No one wishes to destroy a legend, especially when he is part of it. But the hell with it.

It is hard to tell which urge is more typical of Goodwin, who indulged both so often—the wish to be known as a whiz kid, or the impish desire to upset the apple cart. He had that curse of the brilliant, irresponsibility. A top student in his Harvard Law School class and editor of the Law Review, he took …

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Letters

Civil Rights & the Kennedys February 2, 1989