Richard N. Goodwin, an author and political aide who as a presidential speechwriter and policy strategist gave voice and vision to Democratic Party leaders and administrations during the 1960s, died Sunday at his Concord home.
His death at age 86 from cancer was disclosed by his wife, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who said in a statement, “It was the adventure of a lifetime to be married for 42 years to this incredible force of nature — the smartest, most interesting, most loving person I have ever known.’’
Dick Goodwin, as he was widely known, was among the last living links to the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson — one of the “best and brightest” who wielded enormous influence on American politics and diplomacy during the post-World War II era.
Mr. Goodwin was often a key witness to, and occasional engineer of, epochal events at home and abroad.
After Kennedy’s death, it was Mr. Goodwin who arranged for an eternal flame to be lit at the presidential burial site in Arlington National Cemetery.
Splitting with Johnson over the Vietnam War, it was Mr. Goodwin who helped manage Senator Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 New Hampshire primary campaign, an intra-party insurgency that led to Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection.
Later that year, when Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down while campaigning in Los Angeles, it was Mr. Goodwin, by then Kennedy’s media adviser and trusted strategist, who joined a small contingent of family members and aides maintaining a bedside vigil until Kennedy was pronounced dead.
‘‘Dick Goodwin was a citizen in the truest sense of the word — someone who, with joy and purpose, joined all who came before in that long march to make America a freer, more equal, more just, more caring, and prosperous place for all who came after,’’ former president Barack Obama said in a statement.
Outside the political arena, Mr. Goodwin wrote numerous books and articles and a critically acclaimed play, and he taught at Wesleyan University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was as a speechwriter, though, that he made his first and most enduring mark on national politics.
The most memorable speeches on which he served as either principal author or collaborator include John Kennedy’s first major address on Latin American affairs, known as the Alliance for Progress speech; two by Lyndon Johnson, one to Congress championing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the other outlining his Great Society legislative program; Robert Kennedy’s 1966 “ripple of hope” anti-apartheid speech in South Africa; and Al Gore’s concession speech after losing the disputed 2000 election, which the Supreme Court had decided in George W. Bush’s favor.
In each case, Mr. Goodwin brought his deep knowledge of social and geopolitical history to bear upon the mood of the moment, tailoring his words to serve the speechmaker’s skills.
“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,” Robert Kennedy said in his speech to anti-apartheid student activists in Cape Town. Multiplied a million times, he added with a flourish, these ripples “build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Johnson’s speech on civil rights was no less lofty or impassioned. Delivered in March 1965, it rallied a nation behind a movement taking on a mounting sense of urgency.
“At times, history and fate meet at a single time, in a single place, to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom,” said Johnson, drawing a direct American lineage from Lexington and Concord to Appomattox and Selma.
“The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro,” he declared. “His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this nation.”
And yet, Johnson said, his voice rising, “It’s all of us who must overcome this crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
Historian Mark Updegrove calls it “the best presidential speech of my lifetime,” one that both stirred listeners’ emotions and spurred swift legislative action.
Not only the best of its kind, he asserts, but also the most underrated, because Johnson was seldom regarded as the speech-making equal of a John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan.
Watching Johnson from Alabama were Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis. It marked the first time Lewis had seen King cry, recalls Updegrove, who runs the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas.
With renewed hope the Voting Rights Act would pass, the two men continued planning the second Selma march, a turning point in US history. (The act did pass and was signed into law that August.)
“Dick entered public service and politics at a time when Washington was a different place,’’ Doris Kearns Goodwin told The Boston Globe Monday evening. “It was a time when words mattered and language like ‘We Shall Overcome’ inspired people to mobilize for social justice and lawmakers to unite for the good of the country. The two parties reached across the aisle to pass Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, PBS, NPR, Head Start, immigration reform, fair housing, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“As a son of immigrants and a child of the Depression, Dick never lost faith that even in our troubled times the people of our country would eventually remember the ideals that underlay our democracy.”
Updegrove said Mr. Goodwin’s imprint on mid-20th century American politics was immense.
“No living American contributed more to the post-war progressive movement than Dick Goodwin did,” Updegrove said. “Not only as a witness to history but as an active participant. In many of the truly significant moments in post-war American history, Dick was at the very center of things.”
Richard Naradof Goodwin was born Dec. 7, 1931, in Boston, the son of Joseph Goodwin, an engineer and insurance salesman, and Belle (Fisher) Goodwin.
A voracious reader, he grew up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood and later in Brookline, after his family had spent time in the Washington, D.C., area.
After attending Brookline High School, he graduated summa cum laude from Tufts University. In 1954, Mr. Goodwin enlisted in the Army. As a private, he spent 18 months in postwar France before returning and attending Harvard Law School.
In 1958 he married Sandra Leverant. She died in 1972. In 1975, Mr. Goodwin wed Kearns, then a Harvard history professor, in a ceremony held at the couple’s Lincoln home. Attendees included Senator Edward Kennedy, Boston Mayor Kevin White, and author Norman Mailer.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Goodwin leaves the couple’s two sons, Michael and Joseph; a third son, Richard, from his first marriage; and two grandchildren.
At Harvard, Mr. Goodwin was a clear talent, graduating first in his class. Yet he never practiced law, preferring the rough and tumble world of politics.
A clerkship with US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter led to Mr. Goodwin working with lawmakers investigating the 1950s television quiz show scandals.
In his 1988 memoir “Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties,” he wrote of serving as special counsel to the congressional committee investigating the show “Twenty-One,” which was under suspicion of being rigged to favor certain contestants.
One, Charles Van Doren, had become a pop culture celebrity. Under intense questioning, Van Doren eventually admitted to having been fed answers by the show’s producers.
Mr. Goodwin’s account of the scandal served as the narrative framework for the Oscar-nominated movie “Quiz Show .” The 1994 film, directed by Robert Redford, featured a young Dick Goodwin portrayed by Rob Morrow.
Recruited by Ted Sorensen to write speeches for John Kennedy during the 1959-60 presidential campaign, Mr. Goodwin subsequently joined the new administration.
Once inside the White House, Mr. Goodwin aspired to more than speechcraft. Assigned to head the administration’s Latin America task force, he became chief architect of the Alliance for Progress, an ambitious plan to promote political freedom and social reforms throughout the region.
Early on, tensions mounted between the United States and communist-controlled Cuba. In April 1961, Mr. Goodwin was among a small group counseling Kennedy against dispatching US-trained Cuban forces to invade their homeland at the Bay of Pigs. His view did not prevail, however, resulting in a military disaster for the emigres and a foreign policy debacle for the president.
Not long afterward, Mr. Goodwin attended an Alliance for Progress conference in Uruguay. A chance encounter with the revolutionary Che Guevara, ministry of industries for Cuba, led to a lengthy, unscripted discussion between the two about healing strained US-Cuba relations. Once made public, the meeting caused a minor political furor back home. Mr. Goodwin’s favored standing with the president did not suffer, however. (It may have helped that he brought Kennedy a box of Cuban cigars.)
Mr. Goodwin later served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs and secretary general for the International Peace Corps, a post he held until 1963.
His ready access to President Kennedy created a strong personal bond between the two Massachusetts natives. At one point, after Mr. Goodwin had handed Kennedy a major speech on farm policy, the president turned to his young aide and quipped, “Just think, Dick. Here we are, a couple of Brookline farmers, preparing policy for the entire country. Isn’t politics wonderful?”
In 1964, having been brought back into the Johnson White House, Mr. Goodwin worked on several key issues, both domestically and in Latin America. During the ’60s, he also played a pivotal role in moving and saving Egypt’s Abu Simbel temples, built in the time of the pharaohs, during the construction of the Aswan Dam.
“Dick was a brilliant, independent, creative person who spoke truth to power,” said businessman and former diplomat William vanden Heuvel, who also worked closely with Bobby Kennedy.
“In the Kennedy world, he’s fully acknowledged as being outstanding in several areas,” he added. “A man for all seasons. An incredible writer with a great imagination. A lot of fun to be around. Sui generis, he made his own political ambience wherever he went.”
In addition to “Remembering America,” Mr. Goodwin published two other nonfiction books, “The American Condition” and “Promises to Keep: A Call for a New American Revolution,” and one play, “The Hinge of the World.” He was working on another book at the time of his death.
His play dramatized the 17th-century conflict between astronomer Galileo Galilei and Pope Urban VIII.
Galileo’s contention that the Earth was not the center of the universe sparked an epic clash of reason versus religion, one that, in the pope’s view, threatened the underpinnings of the Catholic faith.
Doris Kearns Goodwin noted that her husband drew upon his own exposure to political disagreement — specifically, Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy butting heads over the Vietnam War — in dramatizing the centuries-old conflict.
The play debuted in England in 2001 to generally positive reviews. Revised and renamed “Two Men of Florence,” it had its US premiere in a 2009 Huntington Theatre Company production.
Among the many honors bestowed upon Mr. Goodwin were the Aspen Institute’s Public Leadership Award and the John F. Kennedy Library’s Distinguished American Award.
A memorial service will be held at noon June 15 in First Parish in Concord.
In “Remembering America,” the author reflected upon living through the ’60s “with the arrogant, restless, romantic energy of youth.” His arrogance may have softened over time, yet his faith in America’s fundamental decency remained firm.
“As the times have changed, so have the necessities and direction of public life,” Mr. Goodwin wrote.
“I return to the 1960s of my youth only in memory. It was a time, like a few other moments in America, when many believed that history itself could be bent to the just needs of humanity.
“I believe that still.”Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.