The Last New Frontiersman

Richard Goodwin

Richard Goodwin, who may have been the last surviving New Frontiersman, and who was actually a good deal better than that, died Sunday at 86.

As a young man, Goodwin checked every meritocratic box there was to check, including valedictorian at Harvard Law, clerk to Felix Frankfurter, and congressional investigator who helped expose the rigged TV game shows of the 1950s. In 1960, he joined Ted Sorensen to write John Kennedy’s campaign speeches, and then shaped U.S. policy toward Latin America in Kennedy’s administration. With Goodwin’s death, virtually every significant figure who worked with Kennedy is now gone.

But Goodwin didn’t go—didn’t leave the administration—when Kennedy was killed. Lyndon Johnson asked him to join Bill Moyers to write his speeches, and Goodwin did, in the process authoring what is clearly the greatest single presidential speech of the second half of the 20th century. In the spring of 1965, as Martin Luther King Jr. led demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, and television news showed the marchers savagely assaulted by local police, Johnson made an impassioned address to a joint session of Congress, imploring, demanding, with all the rhetorical force Goodwin could put on the page and Johnson could speak to the nation, that Congress enact the Voting Rights Act. Which, shortly thereafter, Congress did.

But the speech was about more than the bill, more even than voting rights. It labeled white racism as America’s abiding curse, and invoked both the best of our values and the lessons of Johnson’s youth, teaching impoverished Latino schoolchildren, to make the case why America had to “overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” To which Johnson then famously added, “And we shall overcome.”

Here’s the speech.

Later that year, dead set against Johnson’s war in Vietnam, Goodwin left, making a different case, this one opposing the war, in articles and a book, and in 1968 writing speeches for Gene McCarthy, then Robert Kennedy once Kennedy entered the race, then McCarthy again after Kennedy was killed. As an 18-year-old working on the McCarthy campaign, I saw Goodwin a couple of times, most memorably when, on the final night of the tumultuous and horrific Chicago convention, the Chicago cops, having run out of people to club on the by-then-deserted streets, ascended to the 15th floor of the Conrad Hilton Hotel around 2 a.m. to clear out McCarthy’s junior staff, who were domiciled there. (I was ushered into a down-elevator by a nightstick to the chest from one of Chicago’s finest.) When we tumbled out of the elevators into the lobby, there was Goodwin, awaiting and greeting and comforting us, also plainly furious at the cops, at our treatment, at the fate of the policies, and the nation, that he had worked to shape in his decade near the center of power, which were being swept away in a wave of violence, both abroad and at home.

But not all of it was swept away. The core of the Great Society endures. The Voting Rights Act has been shorn of most of its power, but it remains on the books for future Supreme Court justices to re-enforce its purpose. And Dick Goodwin’s words remain, a standard that future presidents who fight for justice, and the women and men who write the words with which those presidents will wage that fight, will have to match.

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