Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
June is Men's Health Month!

A historian's view of 'an extraordinary time capsule of the '60s'

Doris Kearns Goodwin's late husband, Dick Goodwin, and Bill Moyers peering over President Johnson's desk in the Oval Office to see the edits the president is making on a speech draft in May, 1965.
LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto
Doris Kearns Goodwin's late husband, Dick Goodwin, and Bill Moyers peering over President Johnson's desk in the Oval Office to see the edits the president is making on a speech draft in May, 1965.

Updated April 19, 2024 at 09:10 AM ET

When acclaimed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin delved into 300 boxes of memorabilia preserved by her late husband Richard Goodwin, she got to relive with him his twenties. In real life, they first met when he was 40 years old and she was 29.

Items from Dick Goodwin's boxes. The author's late husband served as an advisor and speechwriter for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
/ Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.
/
Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.
Items from Dick Goodwin's boxes. The author's late husband served as an advisor and speechwriter for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 1972, he walked into her office at Harvard, where they both had office space, and the two bonded over shared interests. "So began a conversation about LBJ, the Sixties, writing, literature, philosophy, science, astronomy, sex, evolution, gossip, the Red Sox, and everything else under the sun," Kearns Goodwin writes in her new memoir, An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960s. It's an intimate account of her husband's experience in law, military service, and politics, capturing his pursuit of social justice in everything he did.

As a longtime political speechwriter and presidential adviser to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, he wanted his own history remembered, so he asked his wife to help him relive it and ultimately write it. That meant delving into dozens of letters and journals, a kind of time capsule of the 1960s. Their date nights involved watching old presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and incumbent Richard Nixon and critiquing their performances together.

"He would describe to me how he was preparing Kennedy for that," Doris Kearns Goodwin said in an interview on Morning Edition. "We'd go backward and forward. So it was really fun. I remember he said to me at the beginning, 'Are you nervous? Do you wonder who's going to win?'"

Richard Goodwin advised Kennedy in the White House, and after Kennedy's assassination, he stayed on with President Lyndon Johnson. In An Unfinished Love Story, Doris Kearns Goodwin celebrates the many historical moments of the 1960s that her husband had a large hand in defining, including the founding of the Peace Corps and helping to draft the lauded Voting Rights Act speech delivered by President Johnson.

Doris Kearns Goodwin came to our studio in Washington D.C., for a conversation with NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Steve Inskeep: The key line [in the Voting Rights Act Speech] – you called it the "We Shall Overcome" speech. This is a line from a spiritual that people sang as they were demonstrating for civil rights. Johnson just says it. What did it mean that Johnson just said that?

Kearns Goodwin: What it really meant was that's a moment when the person in the highest level of power is connecting to an outside group, the civil rights movement, who are pressuring the government to act. And that's when change takes place in our country.

SI: How do you think Richard was able to win the favor of and the trust of powerful men without losing himself, as some staffers do?

Dick Goodwin, President Kennedy, and David Dean Rusk, the president's secretary of state, in front of the U.S. Army helicopter on the White House South Lawn. Feb. 1, 1962.
/ Abbie Rowe, courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library
/
Abbie Rowe, courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library
Dick Goodwin, President Kennedy, and David Dean Rusk, the president's secretary of state, in front of the U.S. Army helicopter on the White House South Lawn. Feb. 1, 1962.

KG: It wasn't always easy. I think the fact that he had been with John Kennedy before Lyndon Johnson meant there was always a layer in Lyndon Johnson of not fully trusting him because he thought he was a Kennedy. You know, that was that fault line. You were either a Kennedy, or you were a Johnson. Even the first time when he calls Bill Moyers on the phone and there's this great tape where he's saying, "I need someone to be my speechwriter." This was only months after John Kennedy had died.

And he says to Moyers, "I need someone who can put sex in my speech, who can put rhythm in my speech, Churchillian phrases. Who could that be?" And Moyers says, "well, there's Dick Goodwin, but he's not one of us." And he knew then that that would always mean that he would always have a layer of not full trust.

SI: I feel that that relationship in microcosm is something that goes all the way through American life because this is a class difference along with everything else, right? Guy from Harvard versus the guy from a teacher's college in Texas.

KG: So true. I mean, one of the things Johnson used to say a lot was that his father always told him that if you brush up against the grindstone of life, you'll get more polished than anyone who went to Harvard or Yale ever did. But then he would add, but 'I never believed that.' I mean, there was always - and he was so much more brilliant than many people who go to Harvard or Yale. I mean, he used to call me Harvard half the time.

SI: When you met your husband, your future husband, in the early '70s, he's still a relatively young man but had had his greatest accomplishments. Would you say that that's true?

KG: I think that was the thing that was hard for him the rest of his life. I mean, he did do work after that. He wrote a play that was put on in London. He wrote columns. He wrote manifestos about America's revolution, the need for a new revolution. He got more radical as time went on. And he did work on Al Gore's concession speech.

SI: That's a gracious speech, Al Gore's concession in the 2000 election...?

KG: It was a lovely speech. Al Gore had called him and said that he wanted a victory speech or a concession speech. But Dick knew that the concession speech would be more important. And what a great, important memory is that right now that in that year of 2000, he was able to say, the law of the land is this. I don't agree with the decision, but I cherish this tradition and congratulate President Bush. We need that so badly right now.

SI: I'm struck by the idea that he thought people would not remember.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.