Book Retells our Lives with Love, Loss and Hope by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

An Unfinished Love Affair: a Personal History of the 1960’s by historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin is the book I have been waiting for, and it doesn’t disappoint. It is an intimately told, stunningly impactful history of the 1960’s told through the eyes of her husband, presidential speech writer and himself a shaper of history, Dick Goodwin. Full disclosure: Doris is a dear friend, a relationship spawned 45 years ago when she was a panelist on my Sunday morning political discussion program Five on Five. My husband, Jim Barron, and I hold dear the friendship we shared with both Doris and Dick.

Dick was, with Ted Sorenson, speech writer for JFK and had been one of the driving forces behind the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, the Peace Corps, the work with Jackie Kennedy on the arts that became the National Council on the Arts, and other New Frontier initiatives. After the Kennedy assassination, Dick stayed on with Lyndon Johnson, crafting the most memorable speeches of LBJ’s “Great Society” program, which term he coined, as well as history-making civil rights addresses.  (Doris met Dick in 1972 and married him in 1975, just after she had helped Johnson write his memoirs and just before she published her own Lyndon Johnson and The American Dream.)

For readers of a certain age, stories of the battle for civil rights, the challenge to LBJ’s war policy, the grassroots building of the anti-war movement, the spirited youthful campaign to back Gene McCarthy’s presidential bid will resonate. So, too, will Dick Goodwin’s anti-war passions taking him to support McCarthy when his friend Bobby Kennedy demurred, his moving to RFK when Kennedy finally got into the race, and, still grieving after the assassination, returning to McCarthy. Goodwin, a brilliant, intense personality often described as a loner or enfant terrible, would turn afterward to teaching and writing, including a play based on Gallileo’s challenge to the Pope about the solar system. Dick’s take on that epic battle between titanic powers was surely informed by Dick’s own experience among the most potent players in our country.

This book is an emotional trip down memory lane. What were you doing during this event or that? For those of us who took sides between JFK and LBJ, this book provides an opportunity to rethink our views of each.

Dick had saved everything – speeches, drafts of speeches, transcripts of conversations, tapes,memorabilia, letters, diaries – in hundreds of boxes stored in their Concord home, not even in chronological order. Doris, in her ‘70’s, and Dick, in his ‘80’s, together went through these materials in preparation for this new book, truly a product of her love of him and their shared love of history and politics. An Unfinished Love Affair includes their ongoing conversations over three years about the events of the sixties, and Doris’ ancillary research following up Dick’s unfinished stories. After Dick’s death in 2018 at the age of 86, she turned to writing this book, a triumphant history-infused, deeply personal memoir.

Dick’s writing remains powerful to this day.  His famous “We Shall Overcome” speech that LBJ delivered to a joint session of Congress to launch the push for the 1965 Civil Rights Act still brings tears to the eyes. Dick’s deep knowledge of the law (he was editor of the Harvard Law Review and clerked for Justice Felix Frankfurter), his memory for history, literature, including poetry, and his visionary dreams that America might one day fulfill the promise of its founding documents have stunning impact. His writings are stark reminders of the dearth of such lofty and inspirational writing today.  I didn’t start writing professionally until 50 years ago, and his writing is of a quality to which, even half a century later, I can only aspire.

The book is occasionally more dewy-eyed than a hard-hitting expose of the underbelly of the political world, and various events and people, of necessity, are omitted. Doris has done a remarkably deft job of weaving together history, her personal relationship with her beloved husband, their parallel lives at different stages, his singular writing and activism, her own political coming of age, and her rise to prominence as a notable historian and biographer. It is silken in its tapestry.

An Unfinished Love Affair” captures the spirit of the 1960’s, when, despite three shattering assassinations, urban riots, and the buildup of the war in Vietnam, people had hope and the will to push for fulfilling the promise of our national ideals. As Doris so eloquently puts it, the lasting gift of the sixties was not the violence and turmoil but “the spark of communal idealism and belief that kindled social justice and love for a more inclusive vision of America.” This reader wants to reach back, scoop it up and force-feed it to the so-called leaders of 2024. Better still, require it be read by the young adults among us, to quell their cynicism and inspire them that they have the capacity to bring about change for a better world.

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