Speechwriter’s fingerprints on country

Goodwin contributed for several presidents

BOSTON — Glasses were clinked, canapes were offered, the Kennedy mixture of mirth and myths was in the air.

But this year being the 50th anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, the conversation last Sunday night in the library commemorating the 35th president naturally turned to the second brother. And with the mere mention of the name “Bobby” — among this gathering of the faithful, no surname was necessary–these words burst from the lips of Adam Frankel:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

No one in that crowd needed to be reminded that Frankel was reciting — accurately, word for word — Sen. Kennedy’s 1966 speech in South Africa.

Even so, it was a remarkable performance, and I asked Frankel, who was Barack Obama’s speechwriter, how he was able to perform such a feat.

“When you’re a speechwriter, you know that speech by heart,” he said. “It may be the greatest American speech of the post-war era, a model for all of us.”

That speech, like so many that punctuated the post-World War II era, bears the unmistakable imprint of Richard Goodwin, who, it turns out, died at 86, only hours after Frankel’s tribute.

From John F. Kennedy’s outreach to the developing nations of Latin American all the way to the overtime-election concession of Albert Gore, Goodwin defined that period with words that he never spoke, giving voice not only to a pantheon of Democratic icons but also to an entire era, providing the verbal oxygen of liberal idealism.

He was, as Mark Updegrove, the former head of the Lyndon Johnson Library, put it in an interview, “the living embodiment of the age when the pen was mightier than the sword.”

Indeed, sitting alone at a manual typewriter, Goodwin made the case for affirmative action and invented the phrases “Great Society” and “the Alliance for Progress.” And though John Kennedy is remembered for his eloquence, Goodwin’s Johnson speeches have power and poetry all their own.

Years later, Johnson, through the words of Goodwin, responded to the beating of civil-rights activists in Selma, Ala.:

“I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” Johnson said as he opened a speech that Goodwin infused with poignance and power through an unforgettable homage to a civil-rights hymn that prompted the Rev. Martin Luther King to shed a tear. “Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Goodwin first won national attention as the congressional investigator who cracked the scandal of the 1950s quiz-show scandals, celebrated in a 1994 film where he is portrayed by Rob Morrow.

His last important speech came when Gore, heartbroken in defeat to George W. Bush, turned to him for a concession speech that captured his sorrow along with his abiding faith in American values.

“Above all he loved this country,” fellow RFK speechwriter Adam Walinsky said, “and never gave up his efforts to make it what he and his great colleagues hoped it would become, and gave all their lives to make it so.”

Goodwin lived to see his sons enter public service — one in education, one in the Army.

“How comforting it is to me,” Doris Kearns Goodwin, his wife of 42 years, told me, “to realize that the idealism that shaped Dick’s life and work will live on not only through the important speeches he crafted and the public policies he shaped, but through the lives of our children and grandchildren.”

Goodwin had a special gift and remarkable endurance as poet laureate for two Kennedys, Johnson, Eugene McCarthy and Gore.

But Goodwin’s genius was that he not only made history and captured the soundtrack of history, but also that he gave to history special resonance.

“JFK’s speeches sound like the early 1960s, itself an accomplishment because they defined that era,” Frankel said later, after Goodwin’s death. “Many of Dick’s speeches from later on seem almost timeless.”