Richard Goodwin, Who Wrote Johnson's 'Great Society' Speech Dies At 86

May 22, 2018
Originally published on May 22, 2018 7:27 pm
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If you know this phrase, the Great Society, you know the words of Richard Goodwin. He was the speechwriter who helped President Lyndon Johnson communicate his vision of ending poverty and racial injustice. Johnson delivered that Great Society speech at the University of Michigan 54 years ago today. Goodwin died Sunday. He was 86. NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving has this appreciation.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Goodwin came of age in the 1950s as a Harvard law student and Supreme Court clerk, then as a Senate staffer investigating the rigged TV quiz shows of that era. Still not yet 30, he worked for President John F. Kennedy, remaining after Kennedy's assassination to serve as speechwriter to Lyndon Johnson. The 1964 speech at Michigan introduced the ambitious Great Society program that would become Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education and a host of other undertakings. The following year after civil rights marchers were beaten in Selma, Ala., Goodwin translated the horrors of Bloody Sunday into an impassioned plea that Johnson delivered to a joint session of Congress - a plea that would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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LYNDON B JOHNSON: Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

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ELVING: Goodwin later broke with LBJ over the Vietnam War and wrote some of the soaring rhetoric that transformed the national image of New York Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of President Kennedy.

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ROBERT KENNEDY: Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

ELVING: In 1968, Robert Kennedy was gunned down as he was seeking the Democratic nomination for president. Goodwin carried on with the antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy, but the nomination was out of reach. Goodwin devoted his writing talent thereafter to books and magazine articles, called out of retirement on occasion. He wrote the speech by which Democratic nominee Al Gore conceded the disputed presidential election of 2000. But Goodwin always called himself a voice of the '60s. And it is hard to imagine that decade without the speeches for which he provided the words. Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.