In Brief

Richard Goodwin, A53, H95, Speechwriter for Presidents, Dies

Working for JFK and LBJ, Goodwin crafted a legacy in words that defined the values of his times
Richard Goodwin with LBJ and two other White House staffers in early 1966
Richard Goodwin, left, with Jack Valenti, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Joseph A. Califano, Jr., as they draft the State of the Union address at the White House on January 12, 1966. Photo: AP Photo/White House
May 29, 2018

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Richard N. Goodwin, A53, H95, who wrote landmark speeches for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, died on May 20.  He was eighty-six. Goodwin, the husband of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, H95, died at his home in Concord, Massachusetts, after a brief bout with cancer.

A Boston native, Goodwin graduated from Tufts summa cum laude in 1953. He was an editor at the Tufts Weekly and at university’s humor magazine, The Jumble. Active in collegiate life, he took part in the debating team, Alpha Epsilon Pi, the student council, the Liberal Union, and Sword & Shield (the sophomore class society), even serving as announcer for Tufts’ home basketball games.

He went on to Harvard Law School, where he took two years off from his studies to serve in the Army and returned to become president of the Law Review and to graduate summa cum laude.

After clerking for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, he investigated television quiz shows for the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. His successes included revealing that the game show Twenty One was rigged, a story adapted into the 1994 film Quiz Show

In 1959, Goodwin was recruited to work on John F. Kennedy’s campaign. With Theodore Sorenson, he wrote the speeches that helped Kennedy win the 1960 election. He was subsequently named assistant special counsel focusing on Latin American affairs, and then deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, when he was just twenty-nine years old.

He joined the Johnson administration as a speechwriter, rising to become special assistant to the president. He was at the center of the civil rights movement, and illuminated its complex issues with grace and power, as in Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech on voting rights before a joint session of Congress.

That speech on March 15, 1965, came just a week after deadly racial violence had erupted in Selma, Alabama, as African Americans were attacked by police while preparing to march to Montgomery to protest voting rights discrimination.

Goodwin had only eight hours to compose the speech, but drew on his own ideals and his experiences of anti-Semitism to convey an essentially American moral stance. “With incandescent language and the goal of moving men to action at long last, Goodwin linked the marchers in Selma to the Minutemen of 1775 at the rude bridge in Concord down the road from where he now lives,” a reporter for WBUR noted in 2014 on the forty-ninth anniversary of the speech. “He connected them to veterans who fought for the cause of freedom in Korea and World War II.”  

Johnson delivered the most famous line at the end of the speech. “This great rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all—all, black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too—poverty, disease and ignorance—we shall overcome.”

Goodwin also illuminated America at a pivotal, moral crossroads in the “Great Society” speech he wrote for Johnson in 1964, which set forth ambitious social policies to end poverty and racial justice.

“Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?” Johnson asked. “There are those timid souls who say this battle cannot be won; that we are condemned to a soulless wealth. I do not agree. We have the power to shape the civilization that we want. But we need your will, your labor, your hearts, if we are to build that kind of society.”

Goodwin left the White House in 1965 to accept a fellowship at Wesleyan University’s Center for Advanced Studies. During the 1968 presidential race, he helped define the progressive message of Eugene McCarthy’s campaign, then handled television strategy and produced films for Robert Kennedy until Kennedy’s assassination in June 1968.

For a time Goodwin served as Washington editor of Rolling Stone, and continued to practice law. His books on American political history include Triumph or Tragedy: Reflections on Vietnam; The American Condition, and Remembering America. Tufts awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by Tufts in 1995, and he gave the commencement speech at the university that May.  

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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