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Lbj’s Alter Ego

May 2024
5min read

Memoirs,” Justice Felix Frank-furter once told young Richard Goodwin, “are the most unreliable source of historical evidence. Events are always distorted by refraction through the writer’s ego.” Sage advice, duly reported but not systematically applied in its recipient’s own memoir, Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties (Little, Brown and Company, $19.95). Richard Goodwin’s ego suffuses his otherwise admirable book, which combines a persuasive and moving account of what it was like to serve two of the most interesting Presidents of the century with an eloquent reminder that beneath the turbulence of the sixties breathed a humane, hopeful spirit that we dismiss at our peril.

A brilliant, driven Boston boy whose family had survived hard times in the Depression, Goodwin sped to the top of his class at Harvard Law, served as clerk to Justice Frankfurter, helped lay bare the quiz-show scandals of 1959 as a congressional investigator, and joined Sen. John F. Kennedy’s staff—all by the age of twenty-seven.

Time and sentiment have softened our memories of JFK, and Goodwin’s crisp account of the 1960 race reminds us again what a bemused but hard-eyed campaigner his man was. When Goodwin prepared an assault on the Republicans for having “lost” Cuba to the Soviets, JFK read it through. “Of course, we don’t say how we would have saved Cuba,” he said, but “what the hell, they never told us how they would have saved China.” And Goodwin gives the lie to the retrospective legend of the well-oiled Kennedy machine with a portrait of the furious candidate, clad only in his undershorts, stomping through his suite past a distinguished group of New York campaign contributors and party leaders that included Eleanor Roosevelt to berate a hapless driver who had got his motorcade lost in the Bronx.

Goodwin’s principal role was as a speech writer. According to William Safire’s The New Language of Politics , presidential speech writing began at the beginning, with George Washington’s request that Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison help him with his Farewell Address. “My wish,” he told them, “is that the whole may appear in a plain stile; and be handed to the public in an honest, unaffected, simple garb.” That sort of tailoring was only intermittently required by Washington’s successors until this century, and the tailors themselves were expected to remain anonymous when discreetly called upon. Franklin Roosevelt’s insistence that those who served him display what one of them called a “passion for anonymity,” for example, reached well beyond the grave: Samuel Rosenman and Robert E. Sherwood both managed to write important books touching upon their years at the presidential typewriter that only rarely reveal just which words were theirs and which their employers.

Richard Goodwin has different passions, and the least interesting parts of his book are those in which he first describes the very great effort he poured into hammering out speeches, then reproduces sizable gobbets of the speeches themselves, followed by fulsome excerpts from the congratulatory letters, telegrams, and newspaper articles they elicited. More embarrassing still are scattered, elliptical passages, apparently intended to let us know that the author is no sissified littérateur: he “enjoyed the girls of Ipanema” while visiting Rio, he assures us; a conversation with Robert Kennedy was interrupted because “Bobby and I were introduced to two very beautiful Latin ladies.” Even after an unforgettable evocation of the scene at Robert Kennedy’s deathbed in Los Angeles, he feels compelled to add that after returning to his own hotel, “I made love. Then I slept.”

Goodwin sought to make policy as well as make it palatable, and during Kennedy’s Thousand Days his restless, combative mind was usefully applied to everything from rescuing Egyptian antiquities to the launching the Alliance for Progress. (His account of that program’s untimely death at the hands of a smothering bureaucracy is especially dispiriting in the light of all that has happened since in Latin America.)

After Dallas he stayed on to serve as Lyndon Johnson’s chief speech writer from 1963 to mid-1965. He drafted all the President’s major addresses, including those that championed civil rights and set forth the Great Society, and earned Johnson’s praise as “my alter ego, my voice”—no mean feat for a man who was not only a “Harvard” but a Harvard appointed by Kennedy and who refused to relinquish his friendship with Kennedy’s hated brother Robert.

Even Robert Kennedy, whose feelings for Johnson were no warmer than the President’s for him, had to admit that LBJ was “the most formidable human being I’ve ever met,” and Goodwin vividly describes what it was like to work under this hugely gifted, hugely flawed Texan, so unpersuasive in public despite Goodwin’s genuine eloquence, so irresistible on his own behind closed doors. “Now listen, George,” Johnson boomed, looming over the diminutive Governor Wallace of Alabama, “don’t think about 1968; you think about 1988. . . . What do you want left after you when you die? Do you want a Great … Big … Marble monument that reads, ‘George Wallace—He Built’? … Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board … that reads, ‘George Wallace—He Hated’?”

But Johnson hated, too, and as the months went by and the Vietnam War continued to grow and the public remained stubbornly besotted by the memory of his martyred predecessor, his hatreds seemed to consume him. Goodwin began seriously to believe the President was exhibiting signs of paranoia. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Kennedy hireling paid to “rile up the Negroes,” LBJ told his aides. American ambassadors appointed by Kennedy were plotting against him overseas. The Soviet ambassador was colluding with his enemies in Washington. “The communists already control the three major networks and the forty major outlets of communication,” he confided to a poolside gathering in Texas. “You know, Dick, the communists are taking over the country,” the President told Goodwin. “Look here.” He waved a manila folder. “It’s Teddy White’s FBI file. He’s a Communist sympathizer.” Goodwin also says Johnson informed Bill Moyers that Vice-President Hubert Humphrey himself was suspect.

Goodwin grew so concerned that he consulted psychiatrists, who only confirmed his fears: the President seemed to be undergoing “paranoid disintegration.” Goodwin resolved to return to private life but to keep his concerns about the President’s sanity to himself. No one would have believed him at the time, he writes, and had he revealed them later, after he had broken with his former chief over Vietnam, such talk would have seemed only politically motivated slander. “Still, to this day,” he adds, “I have never completely overcome the suspicion that my secrecy may have been a very large mistake of judgment or timidity.”

In reluctantly accepting Goodwin’s resignation, Johnson was lavish in his praise: “I know that the unique opportunity to serve your country during these years has been a blessing to you, for it has given you the means of applying your brilliant talents to the problems that beset your fellow men. It has also been a blessing for the country—for within the high councils of government you have articulated with great force and persuasion man’s hunger for justice and his hopes for a better life.” “It was the most extravagant and eloquent tribute I ever received,” Goodwin notes, “before or since.” He has every right to be proud of this encomium, signed by the demanding President for whom he labored so effectively, but the reader can’t help wondering if LBJ actually wrote it.

Goodwin consulted psychiatrists, who confirmed his fears: the President was undergoing “paranoid disintegration.”

Certainly it did not reflect his feelings for long. After Goodwin denounced the war in 1966, Johnson saw to it that his contract for editing a volume of presidential speeches was canceled even though the books had been printed, and when LBJ published his own massive memoir, The Vantage Point , in 1971, he mentioned his former “alter ego” precisely once, in a footnote that lists him as one of twenty-three people who attended a 1965 meeting of the National Security Council.

In 1968 the antiwar movement brought Goodwin back into politics. He joined Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, bringing to the “Clean for Gene” campaign some much-needed Kennedy-style realism. When an earnest young volunteer told him that two different voters had said of McCarthy, “I liked his brother Joe, and I’m going to vote for him,” and asked him what he should say if it happened again, Goodwin answered, “Tell them you appreciate their support and move on.”

He and his cohorts did move on, RFK entered the race, and Johnson announced he would not run for reelection. Goodwin’s own reaction to the news was “muted,” he writes, remembering that LBJ had “not long [before] been the formidable, courageous leader of the most progressive forces of the decade: dragon and St. George fused in one tormented flesh.”

If Goodwin has kissed and told in this memoir—his assertion that Johnson was emotionally disturbed has elicited indignant denials from LBJ loyalists who argue that Goodwin never understood Johnson’s melodramatic style, and his sketches of some of those with whom he once battled (McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk) are brutally dismissive—he has not done so out of simple spite. Despite the decade’s awful denouement—the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the dissolution of the Great Society, and the concomitant obsession with Vietnam—Goodwin concludes that those years demonstrated that “men and women can live as if their world was malleable to their grasp; and that, true or false, to live in this belief is to be the most authentically alive.”

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