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    Friday, June 21, 2024

    Doris Kearns Goodwin’s up-close view of JFK and LBJ

    We live in dangerous times. But nothing we’re feeling can rival the convulsions of the years between 1961 and 1969.

    For a brief moment when everything seemed possible but only some of it was, Americans of all colors fought and bled and died to redeem the promise of emancipation that remained massively unfulfilled 100 years after the official end of the Civil War. No one was more important to those battles, or to America’s imagination, than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Each of them inspired the greatest possible hope, and then the worst imaginable despair.

    The Kennedys and King were assassinated. The end of Johnson’s public life was closer to suicide. Using what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin calls “a formidable combination of will, conviction, and energy” to produce “an unnerving force field of persuasive power,” famously known as “the treatment,” Johnson relentlessly hammered members of Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, immigration reform, Medicare, Medicaid and the first federally funded aid program for higher education. Then he laid waste to the rest of his presidency by deepening America’s efforts in the Vietnam War.

    There are hundreds of books about the politics of this period, including several by writers blessed with (and tilted by) special access to their subjects: Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President 1960,” Theodore Sorensen’s and Arthur Schlesinger’s accounts of Kennedy’s New Frontier, and, especially, Lady Bird Johnson’s tremendous “White House Diary.”

    But despite so many predecessors, Goodwin’s new book, “An Unfinished Love Story,” manages to be different than anything that has come before. Goodwin and her husband, Richard, were both extremely close to the Kennedys and Johnson, and each of them held on to their fierce and competing loyalties to the presidents through four decades of marriage.

    Richard Goodwin was the Zelig of Democratic politics in the 1950s and ’60s. After serving as president of the Harvard Law Review and clerk to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, he led the congressional investigation that revealed Charles Van Doren had won $129,000 on the quiz show “Twenty-One” by being fed all of the answers by the show’s producers. The next year, 1960, Goodwin became deputy speechwriter for John Kennedy’s presidential campaign (and his constant companion on the plane), and later a White House aide and speechwriter, deputy assistant secretary of state, and director of the International Peace Corps.

    Goodwin, who died in 2018 at 86, had 300 boxes full of documents from his life with the Kennedys and Johnson. The boxes had remained untouched until 2011, when Goodwin turned 80 and told his wife that it was time for them to mine the archives together. This book is the product of that mining.

    In 1968, Goodwin became even closer to Bobby Kennedy than he had been to Jack, when he joined the younger Kennedy’s campaign for president. He was with the senator in the Ambassador Hotel when he was murdered.

    But after Jack and before Bobby, Goodwin returned to the White House to write many of Johnson’s greatest speeches, including his vision for a new “Great Society” and the “We Shall Overcome” address, delivered eight days after Alabama police brutally beat 67 marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

    A taped conversation between Johnson and his aide Bill Moyers captures the moment when the new president decided to ask Goodwin back to write for him. Moyers told Johnson that Goodwin was the only one who could provide the “rhythm” Johnson wanted for his first major speech about the War on Poverty. The speech, delivered at the University of Michigan’s commencement in 1964, was filled with peak ’60s idealism. It presented the Great Society as “a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.”

    After the triumph of the speech, Johnson showed its writer more warmth than Goodwin had ever felt from Kennedy. “You’re going to be my voice, my alter ego,” Johnson told him.

    Barely a month later, Goodwin was treated to Johnson’s much less pleasant side. The president became enraged when a Time magazine reporter learned that Goodwin had coined the phrase Great Society. “As far as I know, he had nothing to do with the Ann Arbor speech,” Johnson told the baffled journalist.

    In the fall, Johnson was reelected in a landslide, carrying 44 states, and Democrats won supermajorities in the House and Senate. But just 10 months later, Johnson’s growing escalation of the war in Vietnam led Goodwin to leave the White House. By 1967, he was writing pseudonymous pieces attacking the president in the New Yorker.

    It was also in 1967 that a 24-year-old Doris Kearns applied to be a fellow in Johnson’s White House. Though she did not yet know her future husband (they wouldn’t meet until 1972), she shared his opposition to the war in Vietnam. In May of that year, she learned she had been picked for the fellowship and attended a celebration at the White House where Johnson danced with the three women among the 16 new fellows. “He whirled me with surprising grace around the floor,” Goodwin writes.

    The following week, her name was one of two bylines on a piece for the New Republic titled “How to Remove LBJ in 1968,” which argued that a new third party could prevent Johnson’s reelection. She was certain her fellowship would be rescinded. But the president was apparently as impressed with her dance moves as she was with his. After demanding to see her FBI file, Johnson stunned his aides by telling them she could keep her new job. “Bring her down here for a year, and if I can’t win her over, no one can,” he said.

    This was the beginning of a friendship that continued after Johnson left the White House, when Kearns agreed to visit him regularly at his Texas ranch to help him write his memoir. There they were in such close proximity - she used to “sit in a chair in his walk-in closet” during his afternoon nap, in case he needed anything - that a “suggestive” magazine piece eventually appeared questioning her frequent visits to Texas. Johnson told her “not to give such chattering nonsense a second thought.” And Lady Bird either believed her to be innocent or was supernaturally forgiving. “You give comfort to my husband,” Lady Bird told her, “and that is all that matters.”

    Kearns gives us hundreds of interesting vignettes about the time she and her husband spent with these historic characters. But the spine of the book is the eternal debate about who deserved more credit for the landmark legislative accomplishments of the ’60s - JFK or LBJ.

    Doris argued that nearly all of Kennedy’s domestic promises were realized only by Johnson, while Dick would counter by starting to conjecture about how Vietnam would have turned out had Kennedy lived. But he would stop himself and say, “Who knows?” Goodwin writes that “tremors from this division” continued throughout their marriage.

    The truth is that Johnson masterfully catalyzed the country’s grief after Kennedy’s assassination to accomplish more than any other president since Franklin Roosevelt. In his first speech to Congress, five days after Kennedy was killed, Johnson declared that “no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”

    In the end, the Goodwins decided that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was possible only because of Kennedy’s inspiration and Johnson’s execution. But Doris correctly identifies “the most profound force” behind the bill as the grass-roots movement itself: “By touching the conscience of the country, the Civil Rights Movement transformed public sentiment and drove Congress to act.” That’s the noblest ’60s legacy of all.

    An Unfinished Love Story

    A Personal History of the 1960s

    By Doris Kearns Goodwin

    467 pp. Simon & Schuster. $35

    If you go

    Who: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin

    What: Discussing “An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960s” with Gov. Ned Lamont

    When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

    Where: Mark Twain House & Museum, Hartford

    Tickets: $40, which include a copy of ht ebook

    Visit: marktwainhouse.org

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