An Unfinished Love Story

by Kitty Kelley

The Bible’s “Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30) instructs on how to live a worthwhile life. In that story, a master leaves his mansion to take a long trip and entrusts his silver to his servants in accord with their talents. To one, he gives five bags, to another, two bags, and to the last servant, one bag.

Many months later, the master returns and asks for an accounting. The servant given five bags has invested wisely and doubled his silver, as has the second servant. The master is pleased and praises each fulsomely. The third servant says he was afraid of losing his bag, so he buried it in the ground. The master becomes irate and chastises him as wicked and lazy: “To those who use well what they are given they will have abundance in life. For those who do not, the little they have will be taken away, and they will be thrown into darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Such a master would embrace Doris Kearns Goodwin, for she has used well what she’s been given. Gathering her late husband’s manifold talents, she’s added her own, and burnished both, to write a glorious new memoir, An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960s.

Richard Goodwin (1931-2018) and Doris Kearns married in 1975 in a wedding the New York Times described as blessed with “New Yorkian style, Washington power and Boston brains.” Each had established strong political allegiances beforehand, which, she admits, frequently caused marital combustion, particularly when they began working on this book, which started out being Richard’s life story. He’d decided, at the age of 80, that he was ready to tackle the 350 boxes of speeches, articles, journals, letters, and diaries he’d saved and start writing.

He asked his wife for help — “jog my memory, ask me questions” — so they hired a researcher and began what Goodwin calls their last great adventure together, which lasted until Richard, suffering from cancer, clasped her hand, declared her “a wonder,” and passed into a new frontier. After his death, she spent many years conjoining his story with her own to produce this rich and riveting chronicle of the turbulent 1960s.

Long before they wed, Richard was a wunderkind — a prodigy who coined memorable phrases that included the legendary title of Lyndon Johnson’s legislative agenda, “The Great Society.” However, before he accepted the job in the LBJ White House, Richard sought permission from Robert F. Kennedy, and then wrote a “Dear Jackie” letter, assuring JFK’s widow, “We will all always be Kennedy men.” He remained totally committed to the Kennedys, having crafted speeches for the president and both of his politician brothers, weaving words of poetry into policy.

Goodwin, on the other hand, was fiercely loyal to President Johnson, having worked closely with him in the White House and, later, on his memoir. She admits being troubled by many passages in her husband’s diaries, particularly those dealing with Bobby Kennedy’s animosity toward Johnson and his insensitivity to “the mammoth problems that beset the new president and the country at large.” She became irate when she found a memo her husband had written quoting RFK about the choice of a running mate on LBJ’s 1964 presidential ticket: “When the time comes we’ll tell him who we want for vice-president.”

“Who does he think he is?” she asked her husband, who explained Kennedy was simply venting grief over his brother’s assassination. “It’s the arrogance of ‘we’ll tell him who we want’ that sticks in my craw.”

The couple’s clash of political loyalties continued “provoking tension,” as Goodwin insisted that civil rights, medical care for the aged, federal aid for education, and an overhaul of immigration only became law under President Johnson, while Richard countered that President Kennedy’s leadership set the tone and spirit of the decade. “Both of us looked back upon these years with a decided bias,” she writes. “And our biases were not in harmony.”

Ironically, it was the subject of the Kennedys that would lead to Goodwin’s first and worst scandal. Eight years prior to winning the Pulitzer Prize for History for No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, she published The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga. In 2002, the Weekly Standard determined that she had plagiarized from several other Kennedy books to write her own, and she publicly admitted she’d “failed to provide quotation marks for phrases that I had taken verbatim.”

Goodwin subsequently paid a “substantial” sum in damages, was forced to resign from the Pulitzer Prize Board, and stepped down as a regular guest on “PBS NewsHour.” She was also dropped from the advisory board of Biographers International Organization and “disinvited” from giving a commencement speech at the University of Delaware.

Most historians could never have survived such public humiliation but, as Goodwin writes in this winning memoir, “I’ve been born with an irrepressible and optimistic temperament.” She charms when she talks about the books she’s written on “my guys” — Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Johnson — and delights as she holds forth on “my Brooklyn Dodgers.” This memoir presents Goodwin’s deepest love as she writes about her husband and the commitment they shared to an era that has yet to fulfill its promise.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

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