Richard Goodwin, Presidential Speechwriter and Author, Dies at 86

Richard Goodwin - Getty - H 2018
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His work on a Congressional subcommittee inspired the Robert Redford-directed movie 'Quiz Show.'

Richard N. Goodwin, the author, playwright, political adviser and presidential speechwriter whose role in the Congressional quiz show investigation of the late 1950s inspired the Oscar-nominated movie Quiz Show, died peacefully May 20 after a brief bout with cancer at his home in Concord, Massachusetts. He was 86.

Goodwin first worked at the White House at age 29 as an aide to President John F. Kennedy, on whose campaign he’d worked as a speechwriter. He served as Assistant Special Counsel to the President and as a key specialist on the Task Force on Latin-American affairs. He also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, and was Secretary-General of the International Peace Corps. After Kennedy’s assassination, Goodwin became Special Assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, formulating the concept of the Great Society and drafting many of Johnson’s major civil rights addresses. 

As a speechwriter, Goodwin also authored Kennedy’s Latin American speeches, Sen. Robert Kennedy’s “ripple of hope” speech in South Africa in 1966 and, most famously, Johnson’s 1965 civil rights speech, which came to be known as the “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered on March 15, 1965, to a joint session of Congress. That speech led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Johnson signed five months later. 

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger described Goodwin as an “archetypal New Frontiersman” in his book A Thousand Days, writing, “Goodwin was the supreme generalist who could turn from Latin America to saving the Nile Monuments, from civil rights to planning a White House dinner for the Nobel Prize winners, from composing a parody of Norman Mailer to drafting a piece of legislation, from lunching with a Supreme Court Justice to dining with [actress] Jean Seberg — and at the same time retain an unquenchable spirit of sardonic liberalism and unceasing drive to get things done.”

Resigning from the White House in 1966 to join the anti-war movement, Goodwin briefly directed Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign in New Hampshire and Wisconsin and wrote speeches for presidential candidate Edmund S. Muskie before joining Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and he was with Kennedy in Los Angeles when Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. 

Goodwin was the author of four books including The American ConditionPromises to Keep: A Call for a New American Revolution and his memoir, Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties, which was rereleased in e-book format in July 2014. 

In Remembering America, Goodwin recounted his experience as special counsel to the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, during which he conducted the now well-known investigation of the Twenty One quiz show scandal. His story was the basis for Robert Redford’s 1994 film, Quiz Show, in which Goodwin was portrayed by actor Rob Morrow. The film itself was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture.

Goodwin’s play The Hinge of the World, a drama about the confrontation between Galileo Galilei and Pope Urban VIII, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux, has been performed at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, England, and at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, where it was retitled Two Men of Florence. The play has been adapted by screenwriter Alyssa Hill for a feature film now in development at Warner Bros.-based Gulfstream Pictures.

Goodwin, who graduated summa cum laude from Tufts University and from Harvard Law School, served as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter before being appointed as special counsel to the congressional subcommittee on which he worked. His many awards and honors include the John F. Kennedy Library Distinguished American honor, the Aspen Institute’s Public Leadership Award and honorary degrees from Tufts, UMass Lowell and Hebrew Union College.

Goodwin is survived by the Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, his wife of 42 years; their sons Michael and Joseph; his son Richard from a previous marriage; and two granddaughters, Willa and Lena.

A memorial will be held June 15 at the First Parish in Concord. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in Goodwin’s name to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to support head and neck research and care, 10 Brookline Place West, 6th Floor, Brookline, MA 02445 or online at danafarbergiving.org