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Culture

Richard Goodwin, Speechwriter For LBJ, JFK and RFK, Dies At 86

Richard Goodwin, who died in Massachusetts on May 20 at age 86, was more than just a distinguished speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Robert F. Kennedy. Goodwin furthered social progress with his brilliantly crafted words, coining the phrase “Great Society” to describe the Johnson’s government’s efforts to battle poverty and racial injustice, made possible in 1965 when more progressives were elected to the House of Representatives than had been seated since the Great Depression.

Goodwin’s talent was never more evident than in an historic speech delivered by LBJ to Congress in March 1965, after civil rights demonstrators were brutally attacked by law enforcement officers in Selma, Alabama. Having the Texas president reiterate the title of the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” the words plainly and convincingly pronounced by Johnson likened the historic battles of Lexington and Concord and Appomattox with latter-day violence at Selma. LBJ stated, “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” adding that in the human search for freedom, the “real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this nation… What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to accrue for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Even jaded politicians were moved to applause. No less influential on an international scale was the anti-apartheid speech Goodwin wrote in 1966 for Senator Robert F. Kennedy to give at the University of Cape Town, South Africa:

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

This visionary eloquence and compassion for the sufferings of minorities surely derived from Goodwin’s Jewish roots. His family had emigrated from Vilna, Lithuania to America in the 1890s. Goodwin claimed to be uncertain about specific details, but told a journalist for New York Magazine in August 1975 that his father’s real name was “Naradovitch or some complicated Lithuanian variation of that.” U.S. Immigration officials had changed the family name to Ginsberg, which it remained until Goodwin was a senior in high school, at which point his father chose a more assimilated-sounding name starting with the letter G from the Boston telephone directory. Vagueness in nomenclature continued with Goodwin’s middle name, listed as Naradof in most obituaries. However, in the JFK and LBJ Presidential libraries, based on his White House service in the early 1960s, it was written as Naradhoff.

By any other name, Goodwin was a Boston-born East Coast intellectual who had graduated first in his class at Harvard Law School. That was enough to please JFK, who would delight in assigning Goodwin tasks involved with exceedingly rural farming issues which impacted America’s heartland. JFK was tickled to do the same with another political aide, Philadelphia-born Myer Feldman, known as Mike, (1914–2007) who was likewise given responsibilities for agricultural issues, so that Kennedy could greet him with delight, asking “Mike, how are the crops?”

LBJ appreciated Goodwin’s identity more seriously. Some of the president’s peremptory speech-writing assignments to Goodwin may be heard online at the University of Virginia website on LBJ’s long-secret tapes. According to the 1975 New York Magazine profile, the speech about Selma, Alabama had first been assigned to a Texan crony of the President’s, whereupon LBJ exclaimed, “You [expletive]! Don’t you know that an Eastern Jew has the pulsebeat of America in his blood and you ask a Texas banker to write this speech? Get Goodwin to write it.”

Indeed Goodwin, who had endured beatings by anti-Semitic children when he spent some time growing up in suburban Maryland, had a lasting sense of the nation’s “pulsebeat.” After law school, he clerked for Felix Frankfurter, one of the first Jewish Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. He also helped the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives to investigate the fixed TV quiz show “Twenty One.” The result, described in Goodwin’s memoir “Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties,” inspired the 1994 movie “Quiz Show” directed by Robert Redford.

When Goodwin married the historian Doris Kearns in 1975, the wedding guests included Norman Mailer, while the ecumenical ceremony was co-presided over by Rabbi Sumner Z. Kaplan a brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserves who organized Bostonians to march in pro-Israel demonstrations. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Goodwin termed him “my best and last friend in politics.” He would write Al Gore’s concession speech in the 2000 presidential election, citing without irony Senator Stephen Douglas’s admission to Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, “Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism,” as if Gore was ceding to an opponent of Lincolnesque stature instead of George W. Bush. Clearly something had shrunk in the American political landscape.

Lacking such outsized personalities as LBJ to write for, Goodwin next sought historical characters of some grandeur to put words in their mouths. He chose the astronomer Galileo Galilei and Pope Urban VIII, devising a play called “The Hinge of the World” when it premiered in England in 2003, later retitled “Two Men of Florence” for its U.S. premiere in 2009. The play received mixed reviews, with Variety claiming that the controversy over science versus church dogma “comes across as History Channel Plus… the production never rises much above Great Debate Theater.”

Continuing to write articles into his eighties, Goodwin published an opinion piece last year in the Boston Globe under the headline, “Democracy teeters on the income gap.” Still fighting the good fight for social equality against all odds, he concluded:

“Though recent statistics reveal an even greater hardening of class division and income inequality, I’d like to believe that… if we abandon the struggle for economic justice we will have abandoned our essential allegiance to the great experiment that is America.”

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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