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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.”1 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 this distinction to mean that rules did not apply to him. In the army, he boasts, he managed to be technically AWOL the entire eighteen months he spent in France. He shifted units, traveled, showed up here and there, always on a mission from somewhere else. His contempt for the army, he admits, “could have been transformed into something approaching enjoyment had I been promoted to general or, even better, commander of NATO.” But doing things the ordinary way was not for him, as his colleagues would find in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

After clerking for Felix Frankfurter—the established way to launch a soaring legal career—he became an investigator for the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, which took him to New York with subpoena power to investigate the quiz show scandals of 1959. He shows a deep regret at having had to trip up his fellow prodigy, Charles Van Doren, in the lies that television was dispensing to lesser mortals. It was the kind of “shortcut” Goodwin had taken with his army superiors. The Van Doren affair was wrapped up in time for Theodore Sorensen, talent scouting for the 1960 campaign, to hire Goodwin as an assistant speechwriter to Senator Kennedy.

In the White House, Goodwin refused to be Sorensen’s inferior, demanding a separate title and free-roaming jurisdiction over the pet project he invented while campaigning for Hispanic votes, the Alliance for Progress. This took him to Argentina where he broke protocol by meeting with Che Guevara.

Had I been wiser and more experienced, I would probably have left. But what the hell, I told myself in the highest tradition of Kennedy-style machismo [and of Goodwin’s own private military operations in France], an American didn’t have to run away just because Che Guevara had arrived.

This and other private initiatives gave Sorensen and other critics of Goodwin the excuse they needed to extrude him from “the luminous center” of the White House. He was sent over to the State Department, a particularly harsh form of exile, since the Kennedy brothers had a deep contempt for that department, which they were supplanting with the National Security Council, the future source of bombing plans for Vietnam, missiles for Iran, deviant cash for the contras, and all our woe.

Goodwin in a bureaucracy was inconceivable, at least to Goodwin, so he went AWOL again, just walking away from his job without telling anyone. He started hanging out at the Peace Corps, with his friend Bill Moyers. He kept on the move, though—fortunately for him, this was a time when people were always happy to see him come and happier to see him go. He was back in the White House, organizing an arts council, when the President was assassinated.

Unlike other Kennedy loyalists, Goodwin was quick to adjust to Johnson’s presidency, and he wrote his greatest speech for the “intruder” (as Robert Kennedy considered him), the “We Shall Overcome” address to Congress. He even went along with the escalations in Vietnam, for a while, offering various excuses—that Asia was not his specialty, he was kept out of the highest planning, a speechwriter just says what his principal tells him to, etc.

Those statements contained assertions of American interest and commitment stronger and more categorical than my own convictions. When drafting a speech, it was my job to give voice to the judgment of the president, not to substitute my views for those of the man elected to lead the nation. Writing a presidential speech is a political act, and like all politics involves the need for accommodation. Occasionally, the discrepancy between administration policy and personal convictions may become so large that the dissident staffer feels compelled to resign. But such occasions are rare. As long as one is in basic sympathy with the goals of presidential policy, it is possible to serve loyally, even enthusiastically, despite differences on particular matters. In 1965, although increasingly restive at the course of events in Vietnam, I was engaged in the formation of those Great Society programs in which I deeply believed, and which were then the centerpiece and overriding goal of the Johnson administration. Thus, acting at the direction of the president and those to whom he had delegated authority (McNamara, Bundy, Rusk), I incorporated rhetoric into Vietnam statements which I found excessively militant, extravagant in their assertions of the American interest.

This shows us the shortcut taker in the unaccustomed role of docile underling.

What disillusioned Goodwin about Vietnam was not only increasing evidence that our effort there was doomed, but the personal deterioration of Lyndon Johnson into what Goodwin describes as clinical paranoia. Johnson raved and ranted about all his enemies—the press was out to get him, the Kennedys were out to get him, so were the demonstrating kids, so were the Commies. Johnson’s mode of expression was, as ever, extreme; but some of those people were, in fact, out to get Johnson. Moreover, according to Goodwin, Johnson had three enemies closer to him, wanting to destroy his presidency for their own unfathomable reasons. At a time when Johnson had not decided on his course in Vietnam, three other men had:

Like the witches whose duplicitous ambiguity led Macbeth to his doom, McNamara, Rusk, and Bundy, their deliberations cloaked in secrecy, were concocting visionary projects to enlarge the war.

Rusk goes along with this conspiracy out of weakness, but the other two are presented as diabolic in their determinations to drive the country into war. McNamara is the greater villain:

America was not his business. Managing the machinery of war was his business. “Bob’s greatest concern at the beginning of 1965,” one of McNamara’s closest personal aides later told me, “was his fear that he might not be able to talk the president into the bombing. He spent all his time preparing arguments and lining up allies.”

But Goodwin reserves his own special hate for McGeorge Bundy. Describing the “elation” Bundy managed to express over the passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Goodwin writes:

Well, I thought, the old Harvard dean has finally got himself into the campaign. (Only much later did I realize that it wasn’t the campaign at all; he’d finally got himself his war.) My reaction may have been unfair. Perhaps the obvious contortions of his lips in order to maintain an expression of appropriate grimness were not a struggle to hide other feelings, but merely a reflection of his indigenous difficulty in openly revealing any emotion at all. The man was a Lowell, after all—on his mother’s side.

Though Goodwin liked to present himself in the Johnson administration as a Harvard product, when he looks up at Beacon Hill, he reverts to the kid from Brookline.

Goodwin quotes Elias Canetti on the paranoid’s “urge to unmask enemies.” He is himself so anxious to unmask the evil of McNamara and Bundy that he makes no effort to understand why they should have wanted a war so badly. In his account, they share a motiveless malignity. Their nature is so clearly evil that one of the few criticisms he makes of Robert Kennedy is that he lacked a “perception of McNamara’s duplicity.” Goodwin can find nothing to criticize (though later scholars have) in the text of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, though he faults its title. By the time the war was fully engaged—i.e., just after his own departure—all the best and the brightest, “that luminous group of intellectuals,” had, he assures us, left the White House. Yet John Kennedy, who intended to make McNamara secretary of state in his second administration, considered McNamara and Bundy his best and brightest.

Of Goodwin the President had a more modest opinion, according to his brother, who is quoted, in Robert Kennedy In His Own Words, as saying: “The President said afterward about the Nobel [Prize dinner at the White House], ‘You know, they can criticize Dick Goodwin, but he came up with two ideas: one, the Alliance for Progress, and the other one was this.’ ”

  1. 1

    Jim Naughton, “Richard Goodwin, Remembering,” The Washington Post, September 6, 1988.

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