Richard N. Goodwin, Adviser to Democratic Presidents, Dies at 86
Posted May 21, 2018 7:18 p.m. EDT
Richard N. Goodwin, a senior adviser and speechwriter for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson whose later work as an author, journalist and political consultant reflected his unswerving liberal outlook, died on Sunday at his home in Concord, Massachusetts. He was 86.
Goodwin’s wife, Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian, said he died after a brief bout with cancer.
The author of books and articles on public policy and a play, Richard Goodwin was for years identified with the Kennedy clan and with leaders of the Democratic Party.
In 2000 he wrote the concession speech that Vice President Al Gore delivered after the Supreme Court halted the Florida recount in the presidential election, effectively handing the White House to George W. Bush. In 2004 he was a campaign consultant for the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and in 2008 Barack Obama consulted him in his presidential campaign.
Goodwin called himself a voice of the 1960s, and with justification. He had written many of the memorable campaign and Oval Office speeches of the period, capturing the soaring hopes and lost dreams of two Democratic presidents, two senators who ran for the presidency and a nation caught up in nuclear perils, civil rights struggles, assassinations and divisions over the war in Vietnam.
In the Kennedy White House from 1961 to 1963, he specialized in Latin American affairs and was instrumental in creating the Alliance for Progress, an economic cooperation initiative between North and South America, which he named. He was deputy assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs and directed the International Peace Corps, developing similar programs in other countries.
After Kennedy’s assassination, Goodwin joined the Johnson administration, advising the new president on domestic policies and writing many of his speeches, including one that outlined his signature legislative agenda, “the Great Society,” a phrase he coined, and an address to the nation that affirmed Johnson’s commitment to the civil rights movement and reiterated the words of its anthem, “We shall overcome.”
“Dick Goodwin was a lion of liberalism before it became a dirty word, crafting speeches for Democratic icons that define the politics and progressivism of the 21st Century,” Mark K. Updegrove, the president and chief executive of the LBJ Foundation, said in an email. “His ‘We Shall Overcome’ speech, LBJ’s plea for the Voting Rights Act in the wake of Selma’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ resulting in direct action from a formerly reluctant Congress, ranks as one of the most eloquent and effective presidential speeches in history.”
Goodwin helped draft the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed literacy tests and other discriminatory practices that had long disenfranchised black Americans. For a time, as Goodwin later recalled, he deeply believed in Johnson because of his work for civil rights and social reforms. But as the administration’s involvement in Vietnam grew, Goodwin left in 1965 and began to write and speak against the war. In 1968, after Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election, Goodwin became an adviser and speechwriter in the Democratic presidential campaigns of Sens. Robert F. Kennedy of New York and Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, both staunch opponents of the war.
Goodwin was with Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles when the senator, after winning the California primary, was fatally shot by an assassin. He was then McCarthy’s speechwriter, until the Democrats nominated Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey at a Chicago convention overshadowed by clashes between the police and anti-war protesters.
Brilliant, intense, sometimes abrasive, Goodwin had the look of a rumpled professor. He smoked big cigars, favored turtlenecks and corduroy jackets and had long, shaggy hair. His voice was gravelly and slightly slurred, his face craggy, with silver-gray eyebrows that jutted up devilishly.
He taught at Wesleyan University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and wrote for Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications. His books included “The Sower’s Seed: A Tribute to Adlai Stevenson” (1965), “Triumph or Tragedy: Reflections on Vietnam” (1966), “The American Condition” (1974) and “Promises to Keep: A Call for a New American Revolution” (1992).
His memoir, “Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties” (1988), stirred controversy with a portrayal of Johnson as erratic, isolated, even paranoid. Some who had known Johnson disputed Goodwin’s conclusions. Critics praised his passionate liberal assessment of the era, but said he ignored many scholarly and political re-evaluations of the 1960s.
Richard Naradof Goodwin was born in Boston on Dec. 7, 1931, one of two sons of Joseph and Belle Fisher Goodwin. Dick and his younger brother, Herbert, grew up in Brookline. Dick was first in his class at Tufts University, graduating in 1953, and in Harvard Law School’s class of 1958. He was a clerk for Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter of the Supreme Court for a year. His brother, a Massachusetts district court judge in Brookline for many years, died in 2015.
In 1958 he married Sandra Leverant, with whom he had a son, Richard. She died in 1972. He married Doris Kearns in 1975. They had two sons, Michael and Joseph. Besides his wife and sons, he is survived by two granddaughters.
In 1959, Goodwin joined the staff of a House subcommittee investigating rigged television quiz shows. Part of “Remembering America” focused on the scandals and was a basis for the 1994 film “Quiz Show,” which he helped produce. His work impressed Robert Kennedy, and he was enlisted for Sen. John Kennedy’s staff. He and Theodore C. Sorenson wrote most of Kennedy’s presidential campaign speeches.
Goodwin’s play, “The Hinge of the World,” on the struggle during the Inquisition between Pope Urban VIII and Galileo, who was accused of heresy for arguing that the Earth was not the center of the universe, had its premiere in Guildford, England, in 2003. It was produced in Boston in 2009 as “Two Men of Florence.” “Richard Goodwin’s talent as a playwright was unique,” Edward Hall, who directed both productions of the play, said in an email. “He had the rare ability to take huge ideas and render them into human drama. Being in a rehearsal room with Richard will remain a highlight of my career. His characters were enriched by an author who blended a lifetime’s experience of working close to power, with a deep understanding and care of humanity.”
Al Gore’s presidential concession speech in 2000, written by Goodwin, quoted Sen. Stephen Douglas’ concession to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election: “Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism.”
Gore’s speech went on: “Just as we fight hard when the stakes are high, we close ranks and come together when the contest is done. And while there will be time enough to debate our continuing differences, now is the time to recognize that that which unites us is greater than that which divides us. While we yet hold and do not yield our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party. This is America, and we put country before party; we will stand together behind our new president.”