02 May 2024

Looking back at 1968, with the help of Doris Kearns Goodwin


For the last three or four days, I've been captivated by Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960's. "Captivated" isn't too strong a word for my reading; I've resented nearly every interruption.

The book is structured around an intellectual and emotional adventure that historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband Richard Goodwin undertook together: systematically exploring the 300 cartons containing documents and memorabilia of Richard's participation in the election campaigns of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Eugene McCarthy, and Robert F. Kennedy, and his speechwriting for presidents Kennedy and Johnson. 

Among the fascinating episodes (described by quotations from the documents and the lively conversations between husband and wife) are Dick's involvement in the creation of the Peace Corps, the shaping of Johnson's civil rights campaigns and the War on Poverty, and the painful end of their powerful alliance when Dick rejected Johnson's Viet Nam policies. Not only did Dick have to turn his back on Johnson after devotedly serving Johnson's "Great Society" vision with all his heart, soul, and superlative communication skills (Jack Valenti called him "the most skilled living practitioner of an arcane and dying artform, the political speech"), but then he also had to abandon presidential primary candidate Eugene McCarthy, whom he greatly admired and whose youthful campaigners he adored, when his personal friend Bobby Kennedy entered the 1968 primary race.

All of this drama might make for absorbing reading in the hands of any competent historian. But Doris and her husband had deep emotional stakes in retelling these stories for each other—and now Doris for us. They were eleven years apart in age, and at times their disagreements reflected their deepest political and personal allegiances—Richard to the Kennedy family, for example, although the example is an oversimplification; and Doris to LBJ. Many times they had different recollections or interpretations of important events, and their conversations seeking a fuller understanding are part of the sweet essence of the book. They recreate a half-generation of American politics where passionate advocacy for economic and social justice (despite all the hardball political maneuverings they recall together) was worth putting one's whole career on the line. Equally challenging for both of them were the times they had to insist on saying goodbye to a titanic political figure simply in order to reclaim one's own life.

I've read about 70% of the book, so I shouldn't give any sort of final assessment. However, I've just made it through the chapter devoted to 1968. I'm ten years younger than Doris Kearns Goodwin, so at the time she was working in the Johnson administration (first as an intern, a member of a year-long program called the White House Fellows), I was just beginning high school. My diary, which I started on January 1, 1968, recorded my first awareness of the events of that year—events that filled many of those 300 boxes Dick and Doris were exploring together.

Honestly, I have fewer than 10 boxes, just a file cabinet of correspondence from back in the times of paper letters, and these 55 diaries, most of which are locked up in a bank. Even so, it's interesting to me to take my 1968 diary and correlate the echoes I received as a fifteen year old high school student with the great events that these authors witnessed or participated in. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, threw President Johnson into one of his episodes of despair and depression, no doubt made worse by the fires of Washington, DC's riots. When Johnson recovered, he decided to seize the crisis to push housing legislation through Congress to honor Dr. King. My diary recorded the assassination and my own family's crisis at that time, but didn't make the connection with Johnson's legislative response.

A few events made it into my diary that weren't mentioned in Doris Kearns Goodwin's book: the loss of the submarine USS Scorpion, for example, the suppression of the Prague Spring, the flights of Apollo 7 and 8, and the North Koreans' seizure of the USS Pueblo. Their inclusion in my diary reflected my own increasing interest in the Cold War (an interest that actually started with the Cuban Missile Crisis when I was nine years old) and space exploration. The Goodwin selection process for their joint exploration of the documents, and for this book, reflected their personal involvements, and the memories called up by their joint exploration of Dick's archives.

The overarching theme of those involvements, and those memories, was a yearning on both their parts and among their colleagues during that era, to rebuild a politics of justice and fairness. It's a theme reflected in Bobby Kennedy's aspirational speech in the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, on the night he won the California primary. It was a speech he gave a few short minutes before he was fatally wounded. Dick Goodwin had never heard the speech until he and Doris played the recording together, fifty years later:

I think we can end the divisions in the United States ... the violence, the disenchantment with our society; the division, whether it's between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, between age groups, or the war in Vietnam.

Suddenly Dick rose from our couch. "I can't watch this anymore," he said. And with that, he quickly left the room. I stayed on to listen to a voice that did indeed seem capable of bringing us together.

We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running...

Thank you for indulging me in these reminiscences from 1968 with the help of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book. I've mentioned my diaries in other posts, including: Diaries. Radio shorts. Amtrak to Washington, DC: October 1973.

Do you also keep a diary? If you're from this same era, what are your memories of 1968?

Many Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter this coming Sunday. Here are a couple of articles on the dating of Easter: Preparing the Orthodox for the Date of PaschaSome Common Misperceptions about the Date of Pascha/Easter.

Walid S. Mosarsaa: What does it mean to say Jesus is Palestinian, and why do some object?

Who Is Afraid of Degrowth? Visit this page to download Celine Keller's graphic treatment of the idea of degrowth, and how its critics misunderstand it.

Nancy Thomas has also been looking through old journals.

Mike Farley on the contemplative journal and the human condition.

... Explanations and arguments appropriate to the rational, discursive mind so often skip over the surface of our deep selves, over the waves of grief and longing, the currents of desire, like stones over the sea; it is only when they have worn themselves out with bouncing that they will sink out of sight.

Remembering Lazy Lester ... with guitarist Eve Monsees at Antone's Records.


  1. Daniel WilcoxMay 07, 2024

    Thanks for taking us way back there. I also have kept a journal for many years--since 1963.
    So I got out several of those old ledger journals and started reading:-)

    In 1968, I was serving my conscientious objector status near Philadelphia, working at a mental hospital with emotionally disturbed kids, after being drafted in 1967.

    Keeping this brief:-)--one significant memory: After being evicted from my apartment for anti-war signs on my Chevy van, I was camping in it on an island near Newtown, and fording the stream to go to work on my 10-day shift. The night of the Democratic Convention, me hoping for Eugene McCarthy's win. But it didn't happen; I got very upset, and forgot I was listening on my van's car radio. I woke to a dead battery and was late to work.

    At the time, I was going to a young adult Friends meeting in Philadelphia on my 2 weekends off work a month.

  2. Daniel Wilcox: Please don't keep it brief! This is a really fascinating story. I'd love to hear more such stories from your writings of 1963 (!) and later.

  3. Thanks, Johan. Maybe another 60's spiritual story later; in 1966, I was between transferring from the U. of Nebraska to Long Beach State in California, when I spent the summer doing mission work on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation near the Little Big Horn Battlefield in Montana for the Mennonite Church;
    and hanging out with the cute daughter of the Quaker representative on the Reservation:-) We Friends had in past years constructed the community center hall for the Cheyenne.
    Right now my wife and I are grankkid-sitting our 3 gks in L.A.:-)

    And thanks for referring to the insightful interview from SOPHIA with Eli Chacour, the powerful, Jesus-centered Palestinian-Israeli leader and educator who has worked for peace and justice and education in Palestine-Israel for 50 years.