Remembering America: Richard Goodwin, Salisbury steak, Che Guevara, LBJ and RFK

It is a shame that a brilliant public servant would drop out after less than a decade in Washington to pursue his dream of being a writer in New England.  That was my conclusion after finishing Remembering America:  A Voice from the Sixties by Richard N. Goodwin from Open Road Integrated Media.

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Now in his 80’s, Goodwin was President Kennedy’s top White House advisor on Latin America and President Johnson’s top speechwriter.  He is married to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. 

His memoire, written in 1988, is the rich story of his life and the exciting 1960’s, where JFK’s “new generation” believed that social change—here and abroad—was attainable.

After graduating from Harvard Law School—he never wanted to practice law—Goodwin served as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.   Appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a liberal, Frankfurter ended his long tenure as a conservative.   He taught Goodwin the necessity of judicial restraint—letting the legislative and executive branches do their job—even if a Justice personally disagreed with a policy or program.  Frankfurter explained that memoires make bad history, because the writer’s ego gets in the way and distorts reality.

After is clerkship, Goodwin joined the staff of the House of Representatives and investigated the rigging of quiz shows.  He fleshes out the personas of the perpetrators and the victims of the scandals involving shows like The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question and Twenty-one.  How could anyone have believed that these contests were not rigged?

Goodwin moved to the staff of Senator John F. Kennedy and got involved in his presidential campaign.  Today, using legislative staff for campaign work may be illegal.  In 2012 a Pennsylvania state senator was sent to jail for what JFK did in 1960 as accepted use of government staff.    

Detailing the campaign, Goodwin springs the best line of the book.  He recounts a meal in a cafeteria at the University of Michigan.  “I had just passed from the overdone Salisbury steak to a soggy piece of lemon meringue pie” when a member of the press sat down at his table said that JFK had proposed the Peace Corps.   How could anyone—let alone a Harvard Law graduate—expect Salisbury steak (hamburger covered with gravy) to be anything but terrible.

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Richard N.Goodwin

After Kennedy was elected, Goodwin joined the White House staff and though he was barely thirty, became the President’s chief assistant on Latin America.   He gives a chilling inside story of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.  He accounts his role in launching the Alliance for Progress, a 10 year plan to relive poverty, bring social reform, and discourage Communism in Latin America.

At this point, Goodwin tells the best story of the book.  In August 1961, a few months after the Bay of Pigs, a meeting of Latin American leaders was staged at Punta del Este, Uruguay concerning the Alliance for Progress.  Che Guevara, minister for the Cuban economy, was there with the Cuban delegation.  Che sent out feelers to Goodwin for a meeting.  They met clandestinely.  Che suggested an accommodation with the United States.  Basically, if the United States would agree not to invade Cuba, Cuba would maintain a neutral course in world politics and hold back its support of revolutionary movements in Latin America.  Cuba would not return expropriated American property, but would give compensation through Cuban government bonds.  The American trade embargo would have to be limited.

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Che Guevara

Goodwin passed Che’s suggestion to JFK, but nothing happened.   French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called Che “the most complete man in history."  Had JFK responded to Che’s overture, Soviet missiles may never have been installed in Cuba, and the United States and the Soviet Union would never have been brought to the brink of nuclear war in October 1962 with the Cuban missile crisis.

After the assassination of JFK, President Johnson asked Goodwin to be his principle speechwriter.  Goodwin describes the thrill and the impact of the speeches he wrote on civil rights and The Great Society.

Goodwin describes his intimate relationship with President Johnson.  As President Johnson initiated direct combat operations by U.S. troops in Vietnam, Goodwin noted a change in LBJ’s personality, and his reliance on an ever narrowing circle of advisors who never dissented from LBJ’s views.   In this disturbing part of the book, Goodwin concluded that Johnson was suffering from a mental illness.  He consulted with a psychiatrist who told him that LBJ’s behavior was consistent with paranoia, which could get worse, get better or remain stable. 

Goodwin confided his concern with Bill Moyers, one of LBJ’s closest staff members, who responded that he had consulted two psychiatrists who gave the same opinion.

Disgusted with the escalation of the war in Vietnan, Goodwin left the White House staff at the end of 1965, and moved to New England to teach and write.

In 1968, after Senator Robert F. Kennedy declined to run for President as an anti-war candidate, Goodwin plunged into the campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary, as a writer and policy advisor.  

After McCarthy won 42 per cent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, Senator Kennedy announced for the Presidency.  

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Senator Robert F. Kennedy

Goodwin switched to the Kennedy campaign.  He reports on the frenetic campaign, climaxing with the victory over McCarthy in the California primary. 

RFK was fatally shot as he claimed victory at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. 

Goodwin was in the hospital room, when in the presence of the Kennedy family, doctors disconnected the Senator from life support.

Goodwin and RFK were family to each other.  After RFK died, Goodwin was done with Washington politics.  

The nation was deprived of a stellar public servant when Goodwin dropped out.

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