Once a White House insider under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, later an influential outsider and critic of the war in Vietnam, Richard Goodwin has written a flawed but fascinating kind of political Bildungsroman . Opening with an account of the rising optimism of liberals in the late '50s and ending with the death of Robert Kennedy in 1968, the book is part memoir, part political meditation--and in part an exhortation to "dream the impossible dream" of expansive '60s idealism.
Perhaps its most interesting element is its overarching theme: the author's growing awareness of the corruptions of political power.
As one of the bright young aides in the Kennedy White House, Goodwin for several years had ready access to the power of the presidency. At first, this power left him reeling with delight. He recalls bumping into Kennedy on his first day in office as the President's assistant special counsel. The President asked him to look into the lack of black faces in a Coast Guard unit he had seen during the inauguration. As Goodwin began to imagine the power he could wield, he was struck by a "swift, accelerating elation." He would pick up the phone and order the Coast Guard to integrate! He was going to change America!
"It was the meaning, the essence of that abstraction--power," writes Goodwin: "For a moment, it seemed as if the entire country, the whole spinning globe, rested, malleable and receptive, in our beneficent hands."
Four years later, John Kennedy was dead, and Goodwin was working for his successor, Lyndon Johnson, whose domestic programs he would immortalize in a speech declaring "the Great Society." Goodwin recalls a "historic swim" with Bill Moyers and Johnson in April, 1964. "I never thought I'd have the power," L. B. J. said to his aides as they paddled around the White House pool naked. ("It's like going swimming with a polar bear," Moyers whispered to Goodwin.) "Now, some men," continued Johnson, "want power so they can strut around to 'Hail to the Chief'; some . . . want it to make money; I wanted power to use it. And I'm going to use it. And use it right if you boys'll help me."
Goodwin recalls a brief moment of hesitation--and then, again, a surge of elation at the prospect of "limitless possibilities--for me, for Johnson, for the America that had lifted me . . . to such dizzying heights."
His sentence captures perfectly the illusion that personal, presidential and national power might all somehow miraculously merge in some providential program for progressive, benign executive action. It was an illusion that flourished in the hothouse atmosphere of the Johnson White House--the same atmosphere that helped to nurture the calamitous war in Vietnam.
In the most controversial part of his memoir, Goodwin goes further, arguing that the growing war was the product, in part, of a presidential descent into madness. Johnson, he suggests, was clinically paranoid. The evidence is spotty, however. The dark rantings he describes might also be seen simply as expressions of a bilious and difficult personality.
The escalation of the Vietnam War sounded a death knell for liberal reforms. It also marked the end of Goodwin's access to power. He resigned from the Johnson Administration in 1965. Three years later, he worked for the protest candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy and seems briefly to have entertained hopes for a new liberal crusade. Only after Robert Kennedy's assassination did he end his "search for heroes--that deep-grained, erroneous American belief that a single leader might redeem, transform, the course of an entire nation. Still"--and here is one place where Goodwin's ambivalence about power becomes palpable--"there was something to it."
It is natural that Goodwin, like many of us, wonders what might have happened had Robert Kennedy survived, or Martin Luther King, or John Kennedy. Hero worship dies hard, particularly for someone like Goodwin, who spent much of the '60s loyally serving men of power.
But as Goodwin ultimately had to acknowledge, the driving force behind the decade's vaunted idealism came not from Presidents and not from the political professionals in Washington. It came rather from ordinary people and the movements that they imbued with passion and fervor. When social change did come, it was generally in response to demands driven home by the civil rights movement, the student movement and, later, the anti-war movement. "Without this ferment," admits Goodwin, the liberal initiatives of the era "would not have been possible, not even conceivable."