Not Lincoln. Not Roosevelt. Dick and Doris.

Not Lincoln. Not Roosevelt. Dick and Doris.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of the great presidential biographers. I’ve read nearly all her books. She writes with a magisterial style, not so much formally as respectfully and precisely, with words and phrases that breathe and invite us in.

She also was a wife and mother, and, like many people with families, has been called upon to sort through boxes of papers and memorabilia. The difference is that in her case the boxes, more than three hundred of them, cracked open American history.

She was married to Richard Goodwin, one of John F. Kennedy’s inner circle and then, following the assassination, an indispensable member of Lyndon B. Johnson’s staff. She herself served as Johnson’s assistant, friend, and ultimately biographer

Which makes the task and writing style in her latest book—part memoir, part journal, part husband-and-wife conversation—quite different from her other work, and, to me, utterly fascinating.

We sit on the floor beside Dick and Doris in their Massachusetts home as together, near the end of his life, they go through the boxes—she asking questions, he answering, then the two of them stitching together insights and conclusions about some of the great events of the twentieth century.

When I first picked up the book, I assumed the title, An Unfinished Love Story, was about their relationship. It is, in part. But there is a deeper and more important meaning.

Dick and Doris were both in love, not romantically but emotionally and idealistically: he with JFK and she with LBJ. Part of what drives and animates their conversation over the boxes is the contrast of those feelings—love for two presidents who were not simply different but wildly and almost irreconcilably different.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of our finest writers. Over the course of this, perhaps her most unusual and engaging book, we learn that Dick too was one of our finest writers, in a very different way.

He created the name for LBJ’s programs and achievements: The Great Society.

As a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy and, later, Lyndon B. Johnson, he crafted the words for some of the great events and movements of the twentieth century. Listen:

Latin America (JFK)

Let us once again transform the American continent into a vast crucible of revolutionary ideas and effortsa tribute to the power of the creative energies of free men and women—an example to all the world that liberty and progress walk hand in hand.

War on Poverty (LBJ)

…I have called for a national war on poverty. Our objective: total victory. There are millions of Americans—one-fifth of our people—who have not shared in the abundance which has been granted to most of us and on whom the gates of opportunity have been closed.

Selma and the Voting Rights Act (LBJ)

There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem…. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote…. This time on this issue there must be no delay, no hesitation, no compromise with our purpose….



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