The "Challenge Constantly Renewed": The Life of Richard N. Goodwin

Richard N. Goodwin has been a major presence over the past four decades as a relentless and probing commentator on American society and the challenges of liberal democracy. Susan Jenks in Biography News characterized him as “a gifted wordsmith with far-reaching intellectual talents who helped to shape policies and attitudes in the governing process.” Prominent in the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Goodwin was, in the words of The Washington Post writer Jim Naughton, “adviser and speech writer for our last generation of charismatic liberal leaders.”

Born December 7, 1931, in Boston, he attended Brookline High School and Tufts University, graduating first in his class from Harvard Law School in 1958, and serving as president of the Harvard Law Review.

Early is his career, Goodwin became special counsel to the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, which led to his involvement in the 1959 “Twenty One” quiz show scandal. This early television game show had a huge impact on American society, and its recurring champion Charles van Doren, the charismatic scion of a leading literary family, attained astonishing celebrity. When the show was accused of fraud, Goodwin helped lead the Congressional investigation. He uncovered a system in which the show’s producers would pay challengers to take a dive and let van Doren win, and even went so far as to tell van Doren in advance what questions he would be asked. The revelation of the scandal marked a turning point in an American society increasingly driven by television and the media, and trading on insidious notions of heroism and triumph.

Goodwin remained at the historical center of his era. The “Twenty One” scandal brought him to the attention of Senator John F. Kennedy, who hired him as speechwriter for his Presidential campaign. Goodwin served in a number of posts in Kennedy’s administration, then, following Kennedy’s assassination, became a special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson launched an epochal set of domestic policy initiatives combating poverty and racial inequality, which Goodwin is credited as naming the “Great Society” program. In a historic 1964 address at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Johnson used the term to capture the hopes of the era:

    The Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.

Despite the hope of the Great Society, Goodwin left the White House in 1965 out of disillusionment with Johnson’s promotion of the Vietnam War. He later served as speechwriter for the presidential campaigns of Robert F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and Edmund Muskie, and bore witness at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when the younger Kennedy was assassinated during his 1968 presidential campaign.

Goodwin had already begun publishing political commentary, and now retired from politics to pursue writing full time. His treatise The American Condition (1974) offered a stark view of an American society suffering from a “pathology” of bureaucracies. In his review for the The Washington Post Book World, Joseph Duffy highlighted the complexity and passion of Goodwin’s work, explaining that that “Richard Goodwin offers no heroic call for a new exertion of the will or program for a ‘rebirth of the nation.’ His understanding is far more realistic and his analysis too careful and honest for that kind of conclusion.”

In Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties (1988), one of his most discussed books, Goodwin reflects on his tenure as speechwriter for Kennedy and Johnson. He offers a cautionary tale about arrogance, hero worship, and the heady world of high office, and calls for a return to the lost ideals of the 1960s. One of the chapters from Remembering America describes Goodwin’s involvement in the “Twenty One” game show investigation, and became the basis for Robert Redford’s 1994 film Quiz Show, which Goodwin co-produced and which prominently featured him as a character, played by actor Rob Morrow. The movie won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Film, and was nominated for numerous others, including the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Promises to Keep: A Call for a New American Revolution (1992) is a sweeping survey of the challenges facing contemporary American society, along with Goodwin’s proposals for addressing them. Former governor of California Jerry Brown read an advanced copy of the book and it significantly influenced his platform in his 1992 presidential campaign. Goodwin’s other work includes regular contributions to Rolling Stone and The New Yorker; The Sower’s Seed: A Tribute to Adlai Stevenson (1965); Triumph or Tragedy: Reflections on Vietnam (1966); and A History of the United States (1984), co-authored with Gerald J. Goodwin.

Two Men of Florence is Goodwin’s first play, and received its world premiere under the title The Hinge of the World at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, England, with Edward Hall directing. Hall has had his own starry career; he is son of famed director Sir Peter Hall, and is artistic director of the award-winning Propeller Theatre — an allmale Shakepeare company that tackles the Bard in imaginatively experimental ways. “People come to the theatre to be excited and uplifted,” Hall notes, “I want to inspire my audience” — when Hall paired with Goodwin for the premiere of Two Men of Florence, the critics concurred with Hall’s aims. The Wokingham Times described it as “theatre entertainment at its best” and praised Goodwin’s “crackling script.” The Surrey Mirror described the play as “terrifyingly realistic,” and the West Sussex Gazette described it as “a feast for the mind, one that is bound to set you thinking. This isn’t dry historical drama. It’s a moment in history brought to life in its full passion and power.” Goodwin and Hall re-team for the Huntington’s production this season for the play’s American premiere.

- Scott Horstein


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