The title of Richard N. Goodwin’s Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties suggests the themes that pervade the book: The America of the 1960’s was the real America; moreover, Goodwin’s fate is inextricably bound to the ill-fated 1960’s, which he embodied; and, the “voice,” like Jeremiah’s, calls on a nation to reform, to return to its ideals, before it is “too late.” As he observes, the book is both a record and “an exhortation to remembrance, written in hope that by recollecting what we were, we may remember what we can be.” Implicit in the observation is a condemnation of what has transpired in the post-1960’s, a period in which presidential authority has increasingly ignored constitutional checks and balances.
In his “Prelude,” Goodwin not only reiterates the themes suggested by his title but also indicates his perspective on the 1960’s, which begin for him in 1955, when Rosa Parks challenged segregated busing, and end on June 6, 1968, with the death of Robert Kennedy. Goodwin writes that at President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration “it seemed as if the country and I were poised for a journey of limitless possibility.” Yet, the country’s “journey” was never completed, according to Goodwin, because Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam War destroyed Johnson’s Great Society, with the “ambiguous promise [of the 1960’s] soon yielding to the drab withdrawal of the decades to follow.”
Before proceeding to an account of his speechwriting activities with the Kennedys, Johnson, and Eugene McCarthy, Goodwin offers his reader a revealing chapter titled “Preparation,” in which his pre-1960’s background, an apprenticeship for public service, seems a page’s training for knighthood in the Camelot of the 1960’s. Though one of the “best and brightest”—he was first in a class of five hundred at Harvard Law School—Goodwin was also one of the brashest and most arrogant, early demonstrating the disdain for authority that made him somewhat suspect to those he later served: “In what then seemed a natural response to discontent, I began ... to find ways of evading military discipline.” “Technically AWOL during my entire overseas tour,” Goodwin regards his actions as “trifling with authority” and links his actions with Rosa Parks’s busing protest in Montgomery, Alabama. The implied comparison is at best strained.
While on his overseas tour, Goodwin also visited Stratford, England, a visit which prompts his allusion to “sad stories of the death of kings,” a quotation from William Shakespeare’s Richard II (c. 1595-1596) that also looks back to King Arthur’s death and ahead to the Kennedy assassinations in the second Camelot. Though Remembering America is rich in Arthurian references, as well as quixotic ones, Goodwin does not seem aware of the irony of comparing the fictional worlds of Thomas Malory and Miguel de Cervantes to the 1960’s, a decade which has become for liberal writers a legendary and “fictional” period in its own right.
It is in his discussion of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, for whom he clerked after graduating from law school, that Goodwin raises an issue that pervades his book, the seductive power that “resent[s] any impediments to its exercise.” Goodwin approvingly describes Frankfurter’s ideas of the Supreme Court as “the protector of democracy against itself, the guardian of the Constitution against the abuse, the overweening exercise of power by men and institutions that ignored the carefully constructed confinements of the Founding Fathers.” To this indictment of an “activist” Court and powerful politicians, Goodwin adds a warning about the “childish” American belief “that acts were to be judged by their consequences, that desirable results retroactively blessed the method of their accomplishment.” From this perspective, Goodwin condemns not only George Wallace but also Oliver North and notes that the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion and the ill-considered Vietnam War were the results of clandestine meetings and deliberate deception designed to circumvent constitutional limits and congressional authority. Both endeavors were conducted, according to Goodwin, in the expectation that the ends would justify the means, and perhaps both failed because of that circumvention.
In his review of Johnson’s “impossible war,” Goodwin states that all the powerful men he worked for were “convinced that their goals were righteous, that their sole objective was the public good; and they all resented obstacles to their will.” Even though he alludes to his own fascination with power, Goodwin does not, despite a few disclaimers, seem fully aware of the extent to which his own behavior—going AWOL from the army and from the State Department, meeting secretly with Che Guevara, pushing “his” Alliance for Progress, circumventing rewrites of his speeches—conforms to the pattern he describes. In fact, his hostility to the bureaucracy seems related to its interference with not only...
(The entire section is 2080 words.)