If you want to discover a person’s politics, I know no better, no quicker way, a Rorschach test of sorts, than to ask what he thinks of the 1960s. If he looks back on it as a time of great freedom and hope, idealism taken to the streets, he is doubtless a man of the left. If he views those years as the onset of the great divisiveness that has ever since plagued our country, he is more likely to be a conservative. Other possibilities fall in between. The literary critic Irving Howe, for example, though a lifelong socialist, viewed with dismay the student protests of the 1960s as well as the politicalization of literature in the classroom that began in the 1960s.

As represented by student protest, the drug culture, draft-card burning, and the rest, the ’60s began in earnest in 1964, with what was then known as the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley. Its sad end came in 1968 with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the election to the presidency of Richard Nixon. Oddly, the 1960s student-protest movement came at a time after significant liberal and leftist social changes had been brought about under the administration of Lyndon Johnson, among them two significant civil-rights acts, the establishment of Medicare, NPR, PBS, Head Start, and more. When it was reported to Lenin that they were killing workers in Germany, he is supposed to have said, “Good. Worse is better [for the revolution].” The protest movement of the 1960s reversed this, with better becoming, in the view of the protesters, worse.

In 1960, I was 23 and eligible to vote in my first presidential election. I liked neither of the candidates. Apart from his innate charmlessness, Richard Nixon had risen to power through the McCarthyite tactics of attacking his opponents for congressional and senatorial seats for their would-be Communism. John F. Kennedy seemed to me just another rich boy but one who came of an especially dubious father, Joe Kennedy, known for his anti-Semitism, his financial finagling, and his yearning to live the WASP life. When asked whether he thought Kennedy’s Catholicism was likely to detract from his candidacy for president, Harry Truman said, “It’s not the Pope I’m worried about, it’s the pop.” I voted without enthusiasm for Kennedy, if only because voting for Nixon seemed unthinkable. 

I thought of myself in the early 1960s as an independent and a radical, with the added (self-congratulatory) notion that “radical” meant going to the root of things. As for the ’60s student-protest movement, I was emotionally disqualified from enlisting in it because by 1965 not only was I married but I had the care of four children, two sons of my own and two teenage stepsons from my then-wife’s first marriage. Despite its professed political idealism, the ’60s, with its heavy drug use and easy sex (thank you birth-control pills) were very much a single person’s affair. With teenage sons, drugs were for me never enticing but always worrisome. I am in the minority of those Americans my age who have never smoked marijuana.

After the free-speech movement turned into an anti–Vietnam War movement—a time when Joan Baez posed for a photograph with her two sisters over a caption that read, “GIRLS SAY YES to boys who say NO”—draft-card burning began. As a man who had already served his two years as an enlisted draftee, I didn’t much cotton to that either. Once the draft was eliminated, many of the most vociferous student protesters, their lives no longer endangered by having to fight in Vietnam, dropped away. So much for their pacifism and idealism. 

For a more roseate view of the decade, you could try Doris Kearns Goodwin’s An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960s.1 At the base of the dust jacket of Mrs. Goodwin’s book it notes that she is “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.” She won it for No Ordinary Time, her book about the marriage of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II. I’ve not read it, but long ago I wrote, in the Times Literary Supplement, that Pulitzer Prizes tend to go to two kinds of writers: those who don’t deserve them and those who don’t need them. They also tend to go to writers who are irredeemably stamped with the deadening mark of the middlebrow mind, and here Doris Kearns Goodwin qualifies nicely. 

An Unfinished Love Story is about her and her husband, the political speechwriter Richard Goodwin, and their relationships with the John F. Kennedy and the Lyndon Johnson administrations. The book is organized around the 300-odd boxes of notes, diaries, speeches, and other materials that Dick kept from his years in politics in the 1960s, when he worked for JFK, then LBJ, briefly for the presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy, and even more briefly for that of Robert F. Kennedy. During these same years, Doris Kearns Goodwin worked for Lyndon Johnson, first as a 24-year-old White House fellow and then later and more closely when she helped write his memoirs. As the Goodwins work their way through these boxes, they recall the days of both administrations and their roles in each.

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Kennedy and Johnson felt chiefly contempt for each other. Johnson felt himself the odd man out during the Kennedy years. He had been taken on as vice president in the hope of bringing in the Southern vote, which he seems to have done. But he was never allowed in the inner circle of what were then known as the “New Frontiersmen.” He rightly resented that, a resentment he carried over to Robert Kennedy, whom he neither trusted nor liked. The gravamen of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s argument in My Unfinished Love is to make the case for Lyndon Johnson’s being a more interesting, astute, and accomplished political figure than he is generally credited with being. 

As for Dick Goodwin, to whom she was married for 42 years—he died of cancer in 2018—he was born Jewish in Boston in 1931, went to Tufts, then served two years in the peacetime Army, then on to Harvard Law School, where he graduated top of his class and was president of the Harvard Law Review, after which he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Soon thereafter, as counsel to the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Goodwin was a leading figure in exposing Charles Van Doren and the men behind the television quiz-show scandal of the 1950s, a flashy (and ludicrous) assignment that put him in the public eye.

Instead of going for the dough by joining a profitable law firm, Dick Goodwin was swept up by the enthusiasm then prevailing for John F. Kennedy and his administration. He would later tell his wife that behind this enthusiasm he had “a young man’s hero worship for the man himself. . . . I guess it boils down to a kind of love.” He began as the Kennedy administration’s man on Latin America, when he worked on the Alliance for Progress. But he soon discovered that he had a talent for grandiloquence and became part of Ted Sorensen’s speech-writing team. (Harkening back to undeserved Pulitzer Prizes, before becoming president, John F. Kennedy won one in 1957 for Profiles in Courage, a book his father hired Sorensen to write for him.)  

An odd job, that of political speechwriter, the oral equivalent of the ghostwriter, finding a voice for politicians who don’t quite have sufficiently attractive voices of their own. Jack Valenti, one of Lyndon Johnson’s closest advisers, noted that in this realm Dick Goodwin could be “incandescent, a near genius . . . the most skilled living practitioner of an arcane and dying art form, the political speech.” In Goodwin’s own view, as recorded by his wife, “the speechwriter’s job was to clarify, heighten, and polish the speaker’s convictions in the speaker’s own language and natural rhythms.” Another way of putting this is that the speechwriter’s job is to make the politician seem better than he really is. 

Doris Kearns married Dick Goodwin in 1975. The two met when both were at the Harvard Institute of Politics. She was 12 years younger. He was widowered with a son. Their interest, one might say their addiction, to politics bound the two together. What is a touch unclear is whether the unfinished love of her title refers to her love for her deceased husband or for the United States. 

Marriages divided by politics are not all that uncommon. I had a politically conservative physician whose wife wrote checks for Barack Obama’s second presidential election campaign. The Goodwins were not so politically split. The division between them was over Dick’s unrelenting passion for John Kennedy and his wife’s strong feeling that Lyndon Johnson’s achievement was sadly underestimated and the complexity of the man himself never properly grasped. This division gives the book its argument, tension, organization.

On the subject of Kennedy-Johnson, Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes James Reston, the principal New York Times columnist of his day, on national politics after the death of Kennedy: “Washington is now a little girl settling down with the old boyfriend. The mad and wonderful infatuation with the handsome young stranger from Boston is over—somehow she knew it wouldn’t last—so she is adjusting to reality. Everything is less romantic and more practical, part regret and part relief, beer instead of champagne, not fancy but plain; and in many ways more natural and hopefully more durable. . . . The lovers of style are not too happy with the new Administration, but the lovers of substance are not complaining.” But for the revealed sexual dalliances of John F. Kennedy, the bad behavior of his brother Ted, and the obvious political opportunism of Robert (who at one point worked for Joseph McCarthy), the Kennedys for a time looked to become the nearest thing that Americans have ever had to a royal family.

Throughout the pages of Unfinished Love, the Goodwins go through Dick Goodwin’s various boxes, reliving, sometime rearguing, the political events of the 1960s. Among other things, we learn that a speechwriter can not only lend a politician tone but also, through the language of his speeches, help set policy. Dick Goodwin, for example, in writing a speech for LBJ, set Johnson out on his plans for the Great Society. 

The ’60s politicians were big on political promises, less effective in delivering on them. Who, for example, has noticed much progress in our alliance with Latin America, or that we seem to have lost the war on poverty—and I speak here as a former director of the anti-poverty program in Little Rock, Arkansas—or that the Great Society appears more and more diminished with each passing decade?

Yet much interesting material turns up in the Goodwins’ discussions. In an entry for September 7, 1964, for example, we get from Lyndon Johnson, himself a consummate politician, a useful working definition of the politician: “You have to realize that a politician—a good one—is a strange duck. Anyone who periodically has to get down on hands and knees to beg voters to prove they love him by giving him their vote is really sick. . . . Try to think of me as a seriously ill,  dear relative or friend who needs all the care, compassion, comfort, and love he can get to get well.” After citing this, Mrs. Goodwin quotes Johnson, on the night of his substantial presidential victory over Barry Goldwater, telling her: “Millions and millions of people, each one by marking my name on their ballot, each one wanting me as their president. For the first time in all my life, I truly felt loved by the American people.” 

Under the entry for January 30, 1968, we are introduced to Eugene McCarthy, who decides to run as the Democratic Party’s anti–Vietnam War candidate. “We connected,” Dick Goodwin tells his wife about his relations with McCarthy. “But I often had the feeling that he was more interested in ideas and words than in people. All in all, however, we worked well together. He had his own dark charisma. The most original mind I had ever known in politics.” Yet when Robert Kennedy, noting the progress McCarthy’s campaign seemed to be making, opportunistically got into the presidential race, Goodwin without hesitation abandoned McCarthy for the younger brother.

Too seldom in these pages are the veils slipped off political stereotypes. John F. Kennedy’s lapse in courage in achieving civil-rights legislation is scarcely mentioned. He is given a near pass on his innumerable adulteries. Kenneth Tynan tells the story of Kennedy indulging in a brief bonk upstairs in the White House with Marlene Dietrich—brief because she had to speak soon after at a B’nai Brith dinner—and asking her afterward if his father had got there (not, distinctly, at the dinner) first.

Which brings one to Jackie Kennedy. The language, alas, is deficient in not having a female equivalent for the word “cuckold”; if it had, Jackie Kennedy would be high on the list of most cuckolded of modern women. She didn’t seem overly to mind; certainly it didn’t distract her from putting in play the most elaborate plans for her husband’s funeral. But, then, the Bouvier girls, Jackie and her sister Lee (Radziwill), always went for the money, as witness Jackie after John Kennedy’s death becoming Mrs. Jacqueline Onassis, the wife of the richest man in the world at the time. In his journals, Leo Lerman, the journalist and editorial director of Condé Nast, notes that “Onassis was sleeping with Mrs. Onassis’s sister before Mrs. O. [Jackie] grabbed him.”  

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Unfinished Love does not dwell on the student-protest movement of the ’60s, touching on the protests chiefly insofar as they proved a discouragement to Lyndon Johnson, ending in his decision not to seek another term as president. But that movement, with its protest marches, is now up for discussion again, due to the chaos on college campuses this year. The movement in the 1960s ultimately changed the American university and made possible the hate-filled, anti-Jewish, pro-Palestine movement of the current day. 

When I began teaching in the English department at Northwestern University in 1972, the change in university life was already well underway. Many of the graduate-student protesters had joined the faculties of universities. The university I had known as a student in the 1950s, with its formality of dress and manner, was on its way out. Younger professors taught in jeans, called their students by their first names, with some among them inviting their students to do likewise to them. This same corps of younger professors welcomed the rise of feminism and black studies in American universities. (One radical woman professor at Northwestern was said to give all her black students automatic A’s, as part of her personal reparations program.) Traditional course offerings gave way to courses with more open political content, and in time, intellectual distinction eventually gave way to the emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. This vastly changed university looked up only to underdogs, cultivating and celebrating and promoting would-be victims in its own midst. The more elite the school, the more it was likely to stand against the intellectual elitism that once was at the heart of higher education.

Another casualty in university education since the 1960s has been the diminution in significance of university presidents. The time when most people with intellectual interests knew the names of the presidents of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Stanford, and Berkeley is now long past. University presidents of that day had the power both to form educational policy and govern student behavior, while current-day university presidents tend to be glorified public-relations men and women, with a crucial specialty in fundraising.

When, at the University of Chicago the protesting students took over the school’s admissions building in 1969, Edward Levi, the school’s president, ordered them out immediately with the threat of expulsion from the university. Most evacuated; those who remained were straightaway kicked out permanently. How different from today when university presidents “negotiate” with student protesters, ceding to them their own rights to set university policy. Michael Schill, president of Northwestern University, for example, is pleased by the arrangement he has come to with pro-Palestine protesters on his own campus.

Referring to three days of prolonged discussion with them, he noted that “ultimately, we came to an agreement that they would take down the tent encampment and bring the demonstration into compliance with our rules and regulations. We would permit peaceful demonstrations on Deering Meadow for roughly a month and provide greater information to students about our investments. . . . The university also committed to including Gaza in our Scholars at Risk program.” This was the white flag of surrender, all the more notable because Schill, himself Jewish, was happy to surrender.

Decadal thinking, or organizing history in 10-year increments, is not without its flaws. The 1950s, known as “the silent decade,” turn out not to have been as silent as all that. The 1970s, the so-called (by Tom Wolfe) me-decade, now seem no more self-regarding than any other decade in American life. But two decades of the past century that genuinely affected the way Americans thought and lived were the 1930s and the 1960s. The Depression brought on by the 1929 stock-market crash changed how people thought about money and how they acted in fundamental ways, among them living more cautious financially and having fewer children. Anyone who has had parents who lived through the 1930s knows that thinking acquired in that time continued on for decades afterward.

The 1960s fundamentally altered the view many Americans held about their own country. They no longer felt pride in it. Patriotism itself had for them become passé. We can also thank the 1960s for the gutting of traditional university studies in the humanities and social sciences, while the sciences and engineering chug along, grateful, no doubt, that there can be no black physics or feminist chemistry. With many 1960s student protesters now long ensconced in universities as professors or administrators, student protest itself has come to have a sanctified aura.

The one thing the extreme right and the extreme left when either is in power seem to agree upon is the need to eliminate the Jews: Consider Hitler, consider Stalin. The extreme left, as embodied in the pro-Palestine student movement and the Democratic Party’s ultra-progressives, is today making such a bid for power, leaving one to turn to the extreme right of the Republican Party, now under the control of Donald Trump. Extreme left or right, neither is good for the Jews. For the rise of both extremes in contemporary America I believe we can thank—yes, you will have guessed it—the Sixties. The sentimental nostalgia of the Goodwins for the decade is entirely undeserved.


1 Simon & Schuster, 480 pages

Photo: AP Photo

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