Richard Goodwin’s Account of a ‘Paranoid’ L.B.J. Riles Some Ex-Colleagues
Richard N. Goodwin has grown bored with the questions about why he wrote such mean things about Lyndon Baines Johnson.
“I’m not saying anything mean about Johnson,” Goodwin said in an interview in his living room here. His voice was less testy than resigned; this was not the first time he had been asked about his iconoclasm, and he was not the first person to write that Johnson was difficult or that he sometimes received guests while seated on the toilet.
“All I’m giving,” he said, “is a nice, accurate account of what I and other people in the White House said at the time.”
But in asserting in “Remembering America, a Voice From the Sixties” (Little, Brown: $19.95) that “Lyndon Johnson had become a very dangerous man” because his “paranoid and irrational” behavior was affecting his decision-making abilities, Goodwin made himself the target of angry criticism from others who served in the Johnson Administration.
Heated Response From Valenti
Former Johnson White House aide Jack Valenti, for example, now head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, responded heatedly to Goodwin’s request for an advance comment on the book.
Valenti, said Goodwin, fired off an angry five-page letter warning that if Goodwin published the sections about Johnson’s mental condition, Valenti “would take a spear” to him.
In a telephone interview from his office in Washington, Valenti called Goodwin “an itinerant prose slinger” to whom Johnson gave “political resuscitation.” Goodwin’s book, Valenti said, is “a loose amalgam of Judas and Benedict Arnold rolled into one.”
Goodwin praised Johnson and pledged “undying loyalty” at the time he resigned, Valenti said, “and mind you, this is written to a man Dick Goodwin now says is mad.” The section on Johnson’s mental stability was included, “he knows it, and I know it, to jack up sales of the book,” Valenti said.
Dean Rusk, Johnson’s secretary of state, called Goodwin’s suppositions “nonsense.”
Journalist Bill Moyers, like Goodwin a White House aide in the Johnson Administration, has refused to confirm or deny Goodwin’s contention that the two presidential assistants separately sought opinions from psychiatrists on the President’s “mental disequilibrium.”
Just as quickly, however, others lauded Goodwin for taking on an Emperor’s-new-clothes kind of issue.
Hugh Sidey, the Time magazine journalist who, Goodwin said, approached him during the Johnson era and said “What’s wrong with the President?” praised Goodwin in a recent column for probing “a dim corner of Washington history.”
Privately, Goodwin said other veterans of the Johnson years in Washington concurred with his position that Johnson’s “mental disintegration” led to the buildup, and finally to America’s defeat, in Vietnam.
“If the consequences of Johnson’s mental condition had been some snafu in the Department of Agriculture, you could have said the hell with it,” Goodwin said. “But this was the biggest disaster in United States military history. Fifty thousand Americans died; millions of Asians died. It produced a kind of wound that we have never recovered from.”
Still, Goodwin insisted that the flap over his writing came as a big surprise.
“The Johnson thing is 30 to 35 pages out of a 500-page book,” he said. “I didn’t anticipate this at all.”
Besides, Goodwin added, his view of Johnson’s mental condition had been expressed 10 years earlier in “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream,” written by his wife, Doris Kearns Goodwin, also a former aide to Johnson, and “nobody paid any attention.”
Digging for Recollections
But in the ensuing decade, the ‘60s have become a grand archeological digging site for journalists, historians, political theorists, novelists, musicians. The collective nostalgia fuels curiosity about the recollections of this veteran of John F. Kennedy’s campaign staff, one of the few who moved from Kennedy’s inner circle to Johnson’s after the Kennedy assassination in 1963.
At a recent lecture at a local public library, Goodwin said he was besieged with questions about the political idealism of the ‘60s. Not one person, he said, inquired about Goodwin’s theory that Johnson had lost the ability to separate delusion from reality.
Suffering from mild battle fatigue in the fallout of the “Was Johnson paranoid?” debate, Goodwin prefers to focus on this period when “most Americans felt the future could be bent to their will.”
He wrote the book, he said, in large part to address “the emptiness and banality of today’s dialogue, which I find so dispiriting.”
Growth of Movements
For “people who lived through the ‘60s,” it was “a time at which they felt intensely involved in more than their own personal lives,” Goodwin said. The ‘60s saw the dawning of the women’s movement, the flowering of the civil rights movement, the growth of a consumer movement, Goodwin said.
“There was a sense of involvement, and I think what you’re seeing now is people mourning for their own lost idealism. That was the last time that large numbers in the country really felt it.”
Certainly Dick Goodwin was one who heeded the call of political participation.
He graduated first in his class from Harvard Law School, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and signed on with the Kennedy campaign at age 28. The young counselor to Kennedy who stayed on to work with Johnson is credited with writing the speech Johnson delivered to Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“Just keep giving me the music,” Goodwin said Johnson used to say to him.
But Goodwin grew disillusioned when United States involvement in Vietnam escalated. He left the Johnson White House in 1965 and two years later went to work on the presidential campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire.
In true ‘60s fashion, Goodwin dropped out after the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He moved to a farm in the tiny township of Freeman, Me., where he became that village’s only practicing attorney.
Now 56, Goodwin is still big and burly, with an unruly mane of gray-black hair and matching eyebrows. He and his wife live with their two sons, a massive golden retriever named Mugsy, a collection of books many small libraries would envy and a vintage pinball machine and jukebox in a comfortable barn of a house in this Revolutionary-era town outside Boston.
Recently, 12-year-old Michael Goodwin, their eldest boy, was chosen to portray the young Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. in the television miniseries of Doris Goodwin’s “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.”
“See, I don’t need to write books any more,” Mike’s father crowed. “I can go to Hollywood and he can support me.”
What Happened to the ‘60s
Puffing on a huge cigar and fielding an endless stream of phone calls from friends like Joseph P. Kennedy III, the young Boston-area congressman, Goodwin voiced his belief that “greed” and “self-interestedness” killed the idealism of the ‘60s.
“People began to withdraw, and they withdrew into themselves,” he said.
The ‘70s were unmemorable, he said: “I don’t remember them much myself. Do you?”
But increasingly, Goodwin said, “I have a sense that there is a kind of growing uneasiness and discontent in this country. People are unhappy, uneasy about the future.
“There is a generation growing up where young people wonder if they have a future.” And suddenly, Goodwin said, “it is not so fashionable to be a Yuppie anymore.”
The trend makes Goodwin optimistic.
“If our problems--economic decline, deterioration of the quality of life, unemployment--become acute enough, which I suspect they will, I think that kind of decline will precipitate change,” Goodwin said.
“I can’t believe that a kind of permanent imprisonment of 20 million people in central cities is not going to have some consequences. Someday, those people are going to cross the freeways.”
So in a sense, “Remembering America” is as much a memoir of “the heady days when we thought we were going to change the whole world” as it is a call to action.
“I hope so,” Goodwin said. “But you know, books have a limited impact in a semiliterate nation.”
There is a certain irony, Doris Goodwin pointed out, to the fact that her husband’s relatively short passages about Johnson’s mental condition have drawn so much attention.
“Just as Johnson dominated the decade, he has dominated this, too,” she said.
The Goodwins hope that those arguments will settle into their own quick history.
“Mad and tortured,” Johnson was also “larger than life, responsible for civil rights and all that, and in that sense, a kind of lovable guy,” Dick Goodwin said.
‘An Enormous Figure’
“He was an enormous figure. He wanted to out-Roosevelt Roosevelt, and he might have done it.
“There was this great figure with this tragic flaw, and then history comes along and hits him, like Julius Caesar deciding he would go to the Senate and deliver that speech on March 15.”
Goodwin’s first book, “The American Condition,” plunged into well-earned obscurity. Next he wrote a play, “Two Gentlemen of Florence,” about Galileo and Pope Urban VIII.
But enough about real life and real history, Richard Goodwin has decided. His next book, he said, will be a novel.