John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy; drawing by David Levine


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.’ ”

After leaving Johnson, Goodwin joined Eugene McCarthy’s campaign in New Hampshire, where he found his candidate “compelled to battle with an inward self-hatred.” When Robert Kennedy joined the campaign, Goodwin, flighty as ever, walked from one office over to another, and was with Robert when he was killed. Since then Goodwin has spent the last two decades in Concord having ideas (“Essentially I am not a word man—but an idea man—and one who wants to put those ideas into action”). All the shortcuts imagined, all the schemes, have resulted only in a book that scolds old enemies and sighs over old myths. The man perpetually absent without leave cannot, now, make himself present by anyone’s leave. It is the whiz kid’s story of going too far too fast and ending up with nowhere to go—not so different, in fact, from the tale of Charles Van Doren. No wonder he felt regret and a little guilt at having to destroy someone so like himself as his first step toward fame.

Goodwin tells us, in his book, that his feeling for Robert Kennedy was “the closest personal friendship I ever experienced in politics, indeed, a friendship as important to me as any I ever had.” The intensity was apparently not reciprocated. In the oral history tapes released as Robert Kennedy In His Own Words, interviewer John Bartlow Martin, a friend of Goodwin’s, asks why he was given such a lowly job at the State Department, where the bureaucrats could give him “a terrible beating.” RFK answered:

Well, I wouldn’t have made Dick Goodwin Assistant Secretary of State, I’ll tell you that. I mean, I like Dick Goodwin, but I wouldn’t have made him Assistant Secretary of State. I’m sure he might have thought he was going to do that, but certainly the President never indicated to him he was going to make him Assistant Secretary of State…. It was awfully tough for the President to try to follow up, with all the other problems he had, to make sure that Dick Goodwin was being treated properly.

Goodwin is treated mildly by Kennedy standards. These interviews, done for the Kennedy library in 1964, 1965, and 1967, reveal the low esteem the Kennedys had for many in their own administration and for other leaders. “He [JFK] really hated Nehru…. He didn’t like Adenauer very much.” Adlai Stevenson was “an old woman,” the “Second Coming” for liberals. Chester Bowles “was so interested in himself” (for criticizing the Bay of Pigs operation). Vice President Johnson “was incapable of telling the truth.” Dean Rusk was a weakling. “The President didn’t like Paul Nitze at the end.” Harris Wofford was “in some areas a slight madman.”

Even though Henry Luce was a friend of Joseph Kennedy, and there were sycophantic Time-Life photographers and writers glorifying the Kennedys at every stage of their career,2 any criticism from Time magazine was an affront to be punished: “Henry Luce knocked [JFK’s] brains out every week and then invited him to their dinner. He refused to go to that.” The man given the most fawning press treatment of any modern president was—well—paranoid about the slightest criticism from journalists. Robert Kennedy somehow finds it courageous of his brother publicly to have canceled his subscription to the New York Herald Tribune and refused to read it afterward:

He did it deliberately and was glad. He was happy that he did it afterward. And he didn’t cut off and sneak off, sneak away somewhere and read it. He just wouldn’t read it—nobody in the White House would.

The Times was not much better than the Herald Tribune:

Once every four days there was a voice on the other end of the phone: “Did you read what those pricks said today?” We’d all know who “they” were: The New York Times editorial writers.

And not only the editorial writers: “He grew to dislike Arthur Krock, grew to not have as much respect for Scotty Reston…” Ticking off other journalists the President didn’t like, Robert includes Chalmers Roberts, Al Friendly, Marguerite Higgins, Betty Beale.

Since RFK so obviously puts loyalty to the Kennedys at the top of his values, the interviewers are careful to mix praise in with their questions, which fairly beg Robert Kennedy to canonize his brother. Arthur Schlesinger comes off with most honor in this respect, but the other two interlocutors make the reader wince at their cringing. John Bartlow Martin, who had been JFK’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic, asks about the difference between Kennedy’s first days in office and Johnson’s in this “question”: “The President came into office after eight years of Eisenhower—when everything had been postponed for eight years—and he had it all fall in his lap. Johnson came into office when nothing had been postponed. Everything had been acted on. Is this the difference?”

But the chief truckler here is Anthony Lewis, who questions RFK mainly about the civil rights actions of the Kennedy administration, for which he makes larger claims than RFK himself is willing to. He says, for instance, that the Kennedys deserve credit for initiating a civil rights bill when “it was not something that had been demanded of you, that was being called for by groups” (a laughable contention): “And to me, at least, it was a helluva long step. What about that?” Kennedy answers soberly that the problem had to be addressed, and that protection of rights was a more moderate position than addressing racism directly. Lewis will not let him get off so modestly: “Of course. What I was suggesting by my question was that if some other administration had been in office, there might have been the third choice of not doing anything.”

Then there is this exchange:

LEWIS: …I had the impression, from what Burke [Marshall] said, that the President tended to think of these racial matters not in terms of law, as some of us do. In fact, he may have been impatient with the limitations of the law. “Why were these things allowed to happen in Albany, Georgia? Why were people so cruel?” and so on. How did he think of it? Did he think of it in terms of children? In terms of the future? Where did he think we were going? Did he philosophize a bit?

KENNEDY: No, no.

LEWIS: Is that too vague? That’s too vague.

Whoops, Tony, you almost sinned against the Kennedy pose of practical tough-mindedness. “Vague, vague”—one hears the beatings on his breast.

On the desegregation of federally financed housing, which JFK promised to accomplish “with a stroke of the pen” in his 1960 campaign, and then put off for two years, RFK admits that his brother “didn’t want to do it” even then, for all the political problems it caused him. Burke Marshall, sitting in on this interview as counsel for the Justice Department, says the pen stroke did not accomplish much anyway, since it affected only new housing and alienated supporters of other measures.

LEWIS: In fact, following that, are you saying that if it had not been for the “stroke of the pen” discussion in the campaign, it might have been wiser not to issue any housing order?

MARSHALL: The housing order has not been very meaningful.

LEWIS: That is a fact. And it may have just frightened people more than anything else.

Breast-beating time again.

To the evident disappointment of Mr. Lewis, RFK is candid about the Kennedy administration’s reluctance to pursue a civil rights program. In an attempt to placate the Southerners who were disturbed by John Kennedy’s telephone call to Mrs. King during the campaign—a call that changed the black vote from 60–40 against the Democrats in 1956 to 70–30 for them in 1960—Kennedy appointed segregationist judges in the South (a point on which Mr. Lewis treads lightly), putting on the bench men who would overrule the Justice Department’s own initiatives when RFK was forced to protect endangered civil rights workers after the sit-ins. The Kennedy attitude toward the freedom rides was that they were unnecessarily provocative, and undertaken by people who wanted celebrity or death, one at the price of the other:

Everybody, then, was trying to get into the act for publicity and attention, and I thought that they should stay out of there and stay home…. He [JFK] was fed up with the Freedom Riders who went down there afterwards when it didn’t do any good to go down there.

On the one hand, RFK thought the liberals trying to push civil rights “were in love with death.” On the other hand, he implied that Dr. King was more interested in saving his own life than in the broader concerns RFK felt.

Martin Luther King was concerned about whether he was going to live. I was concerned about whether the place [First Baptist Church in Montgomery] was going to be burned down…. He rather berated me for what was happening to him at the time…. I don’t remember why he was so mad at me. He was exercised, anyway, about whether he was going to live, I guess.

It is saddening to read this contemptuous remark about one victim of assassination tossed off before either man was killed. But attempts had already been made on King’s life at the time Kennedy spoke.

Robert Kennedy was dragged unwillingly into the civil rights movement, as he honestly admits to the denying Lewis. RFK had to protect James Meredith when Meredith made it clear he was going to enroll at the University of Mississippi despite the administration’s effort to discourage him. But Kennedy says Meredith was “a real character,” who wanted to drive his gold Thunder-bird onto the campus till they got Dick Gregory to discourage him. “Dick Gregory is somewhat nutty, but he’s not that nutty.” RFK tried to protect Meredith against angry crowds with unarmed marshals, since JFK had criticized Eisenhower for sending troops into Little Rock to integrate the schools. The Kennedys, who believed in James Bond counterinsurgents (“It’s incredible what just a few people can do,” RFK tells John Martin when talking about propping up Latin American regimes), called for a football coach (Johnny Vaught) to solve the problems at Ole Miss. (They would later send the West Point football coach Earl Blaik to be the peacemaker in Birmingham. When he reported back to the White House, JFK talked football with him.) Only after two people had been killed at Ole Miss, and many wounded, did the Kennedys, by a late mobilization, overwhelm the town of Oxford with 23,000 soldiers, three times its population. (Five hundred would still be on hand when Meredith graduated.) The Kennedys made sure none of the soldiers was black.

The main lesson Robert Kennedy seems to have learned from the Mississippi incident was that black protest had to be stopped—which he labored to accomplish as the movement went to Birmingham and on to the Washington march. Of Birmingham he said, “There was a lot of feeling that the Negroes didn’t know exactly what they wanted and that they were not very well led in certain cases.”3 The case he is talking about was led by Dr. King. “Martin Luther King and I didn’t see eye to eye on some of these matters.” This is because RFK believed, or had to accept, J. Edgar Hoover’s assertion that King was being directed by “a person who is elected to the Executive Board of the Communist party”—a description of Stanley Levison the FBI never substantiated, even to its superiors in the Justice Department, pleading that the knowledge was too confidential to be imparted to the attorney general, who accepted the judgment and, acting on it, joined Hoover’s war on King.


Goodwin’s book and Robert Kennedy’s taped conversations make for unsettling reading in conjunction with Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963. Neither Goodwin nor Kennedy suspected they were living in the King years, and both would have been shocked at the idea. As RFK told Anthony Lewis, “President Kennedy and I, and the Department of Justice, were so reserved about him [King] during this period of time, which I’m sure he felt…. We never wanted to get very close to him.” It is symbolic of their relationship that Dr. King was not invited to any of the ceremonies around the burial of President Kennedy. He watched the casket go by, on the streets of Washington, standing alone and unnoticed in the crowd.

The way J. Edgar Hoover manipulated RFK against King has been amply documented by David J. Garrow in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. C. Vann Woodward, reviewing that book in these pages,4 regretted that Garrow did not put King in the larger context of the whole civil rights movement and its historical setting. Taylor Branch repairs that lack. He begins in the ambience of black preachers, and travels with King through the theological outposts where he tried to retain his father’s faith in a modern world with which he became all too familiar. There is a wrenching pathos in the fact that King and John Kennedy should have been de facto enemies when they were similar in so many ways. Both were charismatic figures somewhat dazzled by the cultural “charge” they transmitted without quite knowing why. Both became symbols of their religion. Each was raised in comparative privilege by an overbearing father. They were alike even in their frailties—in their womanizing, in their lies to cover up the fact that their first books were ghostwritten, in their touchy egos. But there were differences, as well. King was a guilty womanizer, agonizing over his own sin. He was serious about his religion, struggling to retain a faith that he was also continually questioning. He was a mobilizer of the powerless, not a commander of the powerful. His weapons were suasive, not military.

Above all, King knew he would be killed. The assassination of John Kennedy hit the nation like a bolt of the impossible—he seemed invulnerable, as powerful as America itself. The death of Dr. King was one in a long line of murders, rising out of a history of bullying, beatings, and lynchings few whites would advert to until sit-ins and freedom rides forced it to our consciousness. The people RFK dismissed as publicity seekers or “characters” were prepared to die rather than submit to the continued assault on their own and their loved ones’ dignity.

James Baldwin tried to tell Robert Kennedy about this other America at their famous lunch, but he and his friends simply impressed Kennedy as unpatriotic. When Jerome Smith, who had been beaten repeatedly in McComb, Mississippi, told Kennedy he would not fight for the country where such things were done, the break with Kennedy was final. Kennedys put war heroes at the top of their pantheon, followed closely by astronauts and football coaches. Blacks, Kennedy concluded, did not love their country.5 Even Bob Moses, the saintly nonviolent SNCC leader, was dismissed by RFK as simply “bitter.” When Anthony Lewis suggests that Moses’s wife might not be among Kennedy’s fans, Kennedy and Marshall responded this way:

MARSHALL: Bob Moses is a very radical and embittered young man.

LEWIS: Yes, that’s what I mean.

KENNEDY: Is he now?


KENNEDY: He always was?

MARSHALL: He’s gotten more so.

When John Kennedy wondered whether he should ask Dr. King if troops would be needed again in Mississippi, “Robert Kennedy warned that they could not put such questions to King, even confidentially, for fear that King would say publicly that the Administration had asked his opinion, in which case partisan wags might pillory the commanders of the free world for soliciting the advice of a nonviolent Negro on military decisions.”

The wonder is that King retained his faith in a country whose best leaders thwarted and plotted against him, while lower officials like Bull Connor threatened his life. Taylor Branch has traced King’s spiritual development with great delicacy and candor—the growth of the rather superficial young man into a leader who, afraid of death, knew he would have to die if he stuck to his course, and made that very realization the source of his strength. He was buffeted not only by white critics and enemies but by blacks who, in a campaign always on the verge of hysteria, took out their frustrations on each other in increasingly desperate ways.

Dr. King is not the only hero in Branch’s story, by any means; he followed as well as led, wondering at the courage of the young people who rose up in wave after miraculous wave of volunteers for the jails, the beatings, the ravenous dogs. This is only Branch’s first volume of a detailed study of each blow delivered in that dreadful war. He makes us ride in the freedom buses, he puts us inside that besieged church from which Dr. King called Robert Kennedy and dared to “berate” him as a mob tried to break in the doors. Already, in this chronicle, there is the material of Iliad after Iliad, far removed from the Homeric huffings and puffings of Theodore White and Richard Goodwin, far from the incense wafted toward “Camelot” by Anthony Lewis and John Bartlow Martin. Those were the King years, and there is no time in our history of which we can be more proud.

This Issue

November 10, 1988