Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Love Letter to the 60s


The plot in Kearns Goodwin’s newest book, An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960s, is simple. She and her husband, Richard Goodwin, first meet in 1972, are married in 1975, and settle in Concord, Massachusetts, where they raise their children and write their books. 

Goodwin had brought to their household some 300 boxes of materials from his years working as a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Robert F. Kennedy, and these boxes sit untouched for years. Near the end of Goodwin’s life, they begin going through the archives. The exploration comes to an end when Goodwin passes away, and Kearns commences the writing of this account as an act of loving memory.

The result of her efforts is a great gift to historians. It is by turns inspiring, instructive, revealing, astonishing, shocking, and—when considered in contrast with present-day politics—almost unbearably depressing. The 1960s was arguably the last decade when productive idealists in the White House held sway over Congress. Politics since that time has been in an almost relentless decline, beginning with the three assassinations during the ’60s that brought an end to a time when tremendous progress—greatness—seemed in the country’s grasp.

Small wonder that Kearns’s efforts to get Goodwin to start going through this material with her were unsuccessful for years. It was as if Goodwin was suffering from PTSD. He was reluctant to revisit so many painful memories, including the assassinations of both Kennedys to whom he was extremely close, and was working for each of them when they were killed, and was a particularly close friend of Jackie Kennedy’s.

He was further devastated by the assassination of Martin Luther King, who was close to Johnson during the time Goodwin worked for him. Finally, the terribly fraught end of his relationship with Johnson—Goodwin couldn’t abide his Vietnam policy, and Johnson always believed that Goodwin was secretly allied against him with his fellow Ivy Leaguers. 

Goodwin also feared that the exploration would trigger intense arguments with his wife over the relative merits of JFK and LBJ. Doris, in her twenties, had gone to work for Johnson three years after Goodwin had left, and she worked closely with him until his death. Goodwin was thoroughly devoted to the Kennedys, and Kearns was devoted to Johnson and convinced that history had badly misjudged him. 

But eventually they start going through the material together, with Kearns drawing fascinating stories and memories out of Goodwin as she reads letters, drafts of speeches, transcripts of telephone conversations, and other materials in her husband’s archive. As their story unfolds, and as the focus turns ever more Johnson-ward, she contributes her own revealing memories from her years with him.

Kearns Goodwin’s title refers not only to her 40-year marriage, but also to her love for the 1960s and the immense promise that decade held in the form of historic legislation forced through Congress by Johnson: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and a hefty portion of his “Great Society” program, which ultimately fell victim to Johnson’s tragic absorption in—and destruction by—the Vietnam War. 

“By the time the first session of the 89th Congress ended,” she writes, “eighty-four major administration bills had become law, a number that after more than half a century still staggers the mind.” Among innumerable other progressive changes wrought by all this legislation: Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, the end of segregation in hospitals, and “landmark immigration reform ending a discriminatory quota system that favored European whites, opening immigration access to people from Latin America, Asia, and Africa.” 

Virtually all of the memorable speeches and unforgettable presidential phrasings from the 1960s (uttered by both Kennedy brothers and by Johnson) were written by Goodwin. He coined the term “Great Society,” among other iconic turns of phrase. One of the most memorable of his writings is Johnson’s celebrated June 4, 1965, Howard University speech, of which Martin Luther King wrote, “Never before has a President articulated the depths and dimensions of racial injustice more eloquently and more profoundly.”

Revisiting this speech was one of the very few happy moments for Goodwin. Asked why, he said, “Because then we still had a conviction that sweeping change was possible. If we could describe the problem, we could do something about it. We felt that the world ahead not only could be but would be different and better than the society in which we lived.”

Small wonder that it was so hard for him to revisit this material. You could argue that our nation hasn’t been the same since that hope-filled decade. As Kearns Goodwin notes, not all the reaction to the speech was positive at the time, and the negative response from conservative whites proved both telling and enduring. “[S]hot through the overwhelmingly positive reactions were warning signs of a backlash that would reverberate far, far into the future.” 

To the present day and beyond, as it turns out. Fifty-nine years later, our Supreme Court is enthusiastically dismantling the Voting Rights Act, along with a slew of other progressive initiatives that have their roots in the Johnson Administration.

Ultimately, what is most moving and most unforgettable about this book is its loving yet clear-eyed portrait of Johnson, who may be the most psychologically and emotionally complicated person ever to occupy the Oval Office. An Unfinished Love Story is replete with telling, evocative episodes that highlight Johnson’s genius, his character flaws, his eccentricities, his astonishing power over people, and his tragic failings. It is a brilliant, loving, thorough, and fascinating portrait. 

To a degree, the Johnson material in her book reads like a corrective to Johnson’s own memoir, the writing of which Kearns Goodwin regards as a tremendous lost opportunity. One anecdote in particular has me yearning for the uncensored memoir the young Kearns Goodwin tried to get him to write when she was working on it with him. “If only he had trusted his own marvelous range of conversation and humor we later savored in his tapes, instead of insisting on the ‘dignified’ presidential image he felt he must project, he might have written a unique and extraordinary memoir,” she writes poignantly. 

For example: “Pointing to my inclusion of his barbed comment about the powerful House chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Wilbur Mills, that he was so concerned with saving face that someday he would lose his ass, Johnson said, ‘I can’t say this. Get it out right now, why he may be Speaker of the House someday. And for Christ’s sake, get that vulgar language of mine out of there. It’s a presidential memoir, damn it, and I’ve got to come out looking like a statesman, not some backwoods politician.”

One passage in particular highlights the deft touch that Kearns Goodwin brings to her writing. It concerns Johnson’s reaction to Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and its aftermath, and in particular a statement by Bill Moyers, who had been part of Johnson’s speechwriting team with Goodwin, and who was well aware of Johnson’s remarkable accomplishments. Kearns Goodwin simply recounts the episode without adding any judgment of her own—it is up to her readers to bring their own interpretations to it:

At 5:01 a.m. on June 6, 1968, National Security Adviser Walt Rostow called Lyndon Johnson. “Mr. President, it has just been announced that Senator Kennedy is dead.”

When I spoke with the president two days later, I had never seen him so withdrawn, downcast, overtly emotional. He explained that he had just heard that Bill Moyers had said that with Bobby’s death, the Blacks had lost the best friend they ever had. “Nothing has hurt me so much,” Johnson said to me.

There is so much packed into this little vignette that it amounts to a kind of prose haiku—one of many in this remarkable book. 

It is not only Goodwin, or the 1960s, that are the subjects of Kearns Goodwin’s “unfinished love story,” but also—and most centrally—Johnson, who emerges as the most thoroughly depicted, most maddening, and most sympathetic figure in this deeply personal history. 

Fred Moody
Fred Moody
Fred Moody, who wrote articles for Seattle Weekly and other publications as well as books, now lives on Bainbridge Island.


  1. Thank you, Fred, forthis perceptive review of Doris book. It sounds likea real treasure trove of history. I look forward to an informative read.

  2. I read Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Johnson, and have her more recent book on leadership focusing on Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and LBJ (on civil rights, not Vietnam) on my bookshelf. Very good history writer.

  3. I join with Jean G in thinking you for your review. I have the book and am settling in to read it if after scanning the photos!!!


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