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Doris Kearns Goodwin shares her late husband's contributions to history

The cover of "An Unfinished Love Story" and author Doris Kearns Goodwin. (Courtesy)
The cover of "An Unfinished Love Story" and author Doris Kearns Goodwin. (Courtesy)

HistorianDoris Kearns Goodwin has written best-selling books about former Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson, and late attorney John F. Kennedy Jr.

In her most recent work, she profiles another impactful  American: her late husband, presidential speechwriter Richard Goodwin.

Dick Goodwin was a self-described Jewish kid from Brookline, Massachusetts, whose family struggled financially. He sold Fuller Brush Co. proDuctsdoor-to-door and worked as a fry cook on Revere Beach to pay for college at Tufts University and Harvard Law School. He went on to write speeches for influential politicians committed to addressing racism and poverty.

Throughout his life, he filled 300 boxes with letters, tapes and photos documenting his work. He planned to write a book, but died in 2018 before he could. Through her grief, Doris Kearns Goodwin turned those boxes into a biography of Dick Goodwin called “An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960s.”

Dick Goodwin and Doris Kearns Goodwin are married in front of 170 guests—family, friends, and colleagues — on Dec. 14, 1975. (Marc Peloquin/Courtesy of Doris Kearns Goodwin)

Questions with Doris Kearns Goodwin

What did you find when you finally opened those boxes?

“When we went through these 300 boxes — he was afraid of opening them because the decade had ended so badly. It was really a time capsule of the ‘60s.

“When he turned 80, he came down the stairs one day — he’s singing from ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,’ still having shaving cream on his ear typically. And he said, ‘Ok, I’m going toopen the boxes. It’s now or never.’

“We spent the last years of his life reliving the 1960s through the boxes from beginning to end. So we suspended our knowledge of what would happen later. That’s how you have to do it as a historian. Barbara Tuchman said, ‘Even if you’re writing about a war, don’t know how that war ended.’

“He was like ‘Zelig’ in the 1960s. He just seems to be everywhere where you’d want somebody to be.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson presents a signing pen from the Voting Rights Act to Dick. August 6, 1965. (Yoichi Okamoto/Courtesy of LBJ Library)

You found a picture of his class at Harvard Law School. Who else is in that picture?

“He’s in the middle holding the baton. 60 guys on the law review and two women. If you look on one side, it is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and on the other side is a woman named Nancy Boxley.

“I found this picture right after I had read a letter that he had written to his friend George saying that the law firms all over the country are competing for him: ‘It’s a real burden of choice.’

“I went running into him when I found this [and I said] ‘What, this is maddening. Ruth Bader Ginsburg couldn’t even get an interview for a law job and you are having a burden of choice.’ And he said, ‘It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault.’”

The assembled members of the Harvard Law Review of 1957–58. Dick is in the center, holding the baton as president. On the far right is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On the far left, Nancy Boxley, the only two women among the sixty members. (Alfred Brown/Courtesy of Harvard Law School Library, Historical & Special Collections)

When Dick Goodwin went to check out his office in former President John F. Kennedy’s White House, what did Kennedy say to him?

“[Kennedy] says, ‘Did you see the Coast Guard contingent in the inaugural parade? There wasn’t a Black face among them. We must do something about that.’

“That was Dick’s first assignment.”

Dick Goodwin leans over the desk as President John F. Kennedy works with him on a speech draft. (Jacques Lowe/Courtesy of the Jacques Lowe Estate)

How did he respond to the tension between Kennedy and his successor, former President Lyndon B. Johnson?

“One of the conversations was recorded with Bill Moyers, LBJ’s aide. Johnson says, ‘I need a new speechwriter here. Somebody who can put sex into my speeches. Somebody who can use great Churchillian phrases.’ And Moyer says, ‘Well, the only one I know is Goodwin, but he’s not one of us because he was a Kennedy.’ But LBJ brings him over.

“Moyer says to him one day, the president wants us to talk to him about his vision for the Johnson program.

“Dick said, ‘So we’re going to the Oval?’

“He said, ‘No, we’re going to the White House Pool.” And there is Johnson, swimming up and down naked in the pool, and he says, ‘Come on in boys.” So they strip on the spot and now three guys are nakedly swimming in the pool.

Dick Goodwin and White House aide Bill Moyers peering over President Lyndon B. Johnson’s desk in the Oval Office to see the edits the president is making on a speech draft. In the second picture, Johnson is handing the pages back when the edits were completed, May 4, 1965. (Yoichi Okamoto/Courtesy of LBJ Library)

“Finally they stop and Johnson then gives his vision of America Medicare, Medicaid, aid to education, Civil Rights voting rights, NPR, PBS. It’s amazing. And then they have to decide what to call it.

“Somebody in the White House wanted to call it ‘A Better Deal’ instead of A New Deal. Someone else wanted ‘A Glorious Society.’ But Dick tried out ‘The Great Society’ in a number of small speeches and it caught on, and ‘The Great Society’ lives everywhere around us still today.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin with LBJ in the Oval Office on Nov. 15, 1968.

(Yoichi Okamoto/Courtesy of LBJ Library)


Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Catherine Welch adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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