Of Richard Goodwin, Galileo and Social Theory

RICHARD GOODWIN IS writing a play. Every morning he drives from his house in the Concord woods to a quiet office near the middle of town. There, isolated from the annoyance of unexpected telephone calls and from the compelling distraction of his two younger sons, he writes about geometry and God.

Goodwin has always been a writer, although never before a dramatist. He has been a speechwriter. He has been a writer of political analysis, of government policy, of social theory. He has, at times, been a writer of history, and of biography; he has even tried his hand at literary criticism. But he has always been a writer.

At first the writing was more hectic, less reflective. No quiet Concord offices in 1960, for instance; just the grueling five-stops-daily schedule of the Kennedy campaign, and the four-hour shifts at the typewriter, spent churning out the next day's speeches.

Goodwin was young then--young, even for the Kennedy people. In 1958, after graduating first in his class from the Harvard Law School, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Felix M. Frankfurter. After working for a year on the House Commerce Commission's 1959 television quiz-show scandals, he joined the Kennedy Senate staff. By 1960 he and Theodore Sorenson were Kennedy's two chief speechwriters--indispensable to the campaign and to the formation of Kennedy's foreign and domestic policies. He was, in the words of Kennedy biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., "the archetypal New Frontiersman," a quick-witted generalist "able to take on any subject, however new and complicated, master its essentials with rapidity and precision and arrive at ideas for action."

Today Goodwin smiles at the assessment, calling Schlesinger "very kind."

After the campaign came years of White House advising--and more writing. Under Kennedy, Goodwin served as deputy assistant secretary for Inter-American affairs and played an important role in the formation of the Peace Corps. And he continued writing speeches--better debated, more thoroughly thought-out speeches than in the hectic days of the campaign. After Kennedy's assassination he helped form domestic policy for Johnson's administration--especially in civil rights. And the speechwriting did not end: "The Great Society" was his phrase.

Writing for the president was different then, Goodwin says. You were in on everything, went to the cabinet meetings and to the National Security Council meetings, helped make the decisions. Once, a speechwriter could bring an issue to the president's attention simply by including a paragraph on the issue in a draft. You didn't always get your way, of course; sometimes you had to write things you didn't agree with. But you were a part of the dynamic, you had a voice, you were chosen because the president trusted you to have a voice. Now, he says, since Nixon, speeches sound like memos. The writers sit in the West Wing and compose homogenized bureaucratic prose. Has there, he asks, been a single memorable speech since 1968?

Goodwin left the fray. It was Vietnam, mostly, that made him leave. For a while it seemed that Johnson's escalation had been a mistake, but that it was not an irreversible mistake. It was correctable.

But the war was claiming more and more of Johnson's attention. The domestic side, the civil rights side. Goodwin's side of the Johnson administration began to freeze." Goodwin left in 1965, convinced that Johnson had not yet taken the war beyond the point of no return, but objecting to the way it obsessed him. In his 1966 book, Vietnam--Triumph or Tragedy, Goodwin still held that the situation was curable--we just had to guard against taking it all too far. But soon he learned that in Johnson's mind, it had never been "correctable." Johnson was bent on winning the war. He felt that the escalation was not correctable, but correct. Goodwin, who had left the White House on good terms with Johnson, came out publicly against the war--even before Bobby Kennedy did. He did not see Johnson again.

There was more hectic writing in the subsequent years. He started out with Eugene McCarthy's campaign, but switched camps when Bobby Kennedy entered the race. It meant more campaign writing, a great deal of advising on Vietnam, recruiting supporters for a campaign that took time to get into full swing. And then there was another assassination.

BUT THAT WAS all old stuff, history. All within ten years of his leaving school. Nowadays, the writing is less hectic, more contemplative. Between then and now. Goodwin has done a lot of thinking, thinking about America, about politics, about social organization. The thought, the philosophy, he says, is based on his concrete experience; he has earned a right to it. Does he miss the action, the campaign pace, the Washington days? No, he says, I've done that, I did that already.

Goodwin has quite thoroughly outlined his personal philosophy. His The American Condition, a book he calls "particularly difficult to read," is a summary of politics, his magnum opus. First and foremost, he says, it is a work of social theory. No one is writing social theory anymore, he laments; no one has an overview, they're all bogged down in their narrow fields.

Goodwin's "overview" is not a bright one. There is none of the fresh radiance, none of the confident expectation he felt during the Kennedy administration. Everywhere he sees the systems on which American has depended failing. Everywhere he sees a refusal to recognize the failure, a refusal to replace dying ideologies with new ones.

Economics, especially, has failed. The Keynesian theories taught at Harvard are faulty tools, he says. They make the economist a technician, do not provide him with a moral frame of reference do not make him ask questions about society's basic goals. Marx, with his brilliant historical analysis and his sharp social perception, makes you ask those questions. But Marx is not taught at Harvard.

Harvard draws a lot of criticism from Goodwin. The good guys have left, he says. Galbraith. Arrow. The "Public Interest Magazine group"--Moynihan, Huntington--all they have done is tear up liberalism. They have offered nothing in its place. The students? Dead. Audiences used to be passionate, one way or another. For you or against you. Now they're polite. Why don't they get mad? They want to get a job now.

President Bok? "On the issue of the location of the JFK Library, Bok folded as he does on almost everything. He's the Abe Ribicoff of college presidents. Whichever way the wind blows, "Goodwin charges. And he concludes: "Outside of the sciences and the professional schools, there has been some serious deterioration. But it's rich and well-built. Probably be around forever."

RICHARD GOODWIN IS writing a play. It is a play about the clash of two great egos, of two great ideologies. Both Galileo and Pope had strong cases, Goodwin believes, and their philosophies were in fundamental conflict. Not the kind of conflict you get at Harvard, he says, where the debate is over whether you execute the criminal or merely castrate him.

Galileo's argument, says Goodwin, was essentially that the language of nature was mathematics, that God and man understood it in the same way. It was an argument for mysticism. It discounted the need for an intermediary between the individual and his source of inspiration, whether that be God or geometry. The Pope's argument was for obedience, for the secure establishment of an earthly source of moral authority. It is that sort of moral authority that Goodwin says is missing from the social and natural sciences; the modern mystics are Harvard genetic engineers, the creators of computerized intelligence and all of those who try to see and act on the world as God might. They use their newfound omniscience without allowing any moral authority to guide their acts. The result is social fragmentation, lack of direction and the absence of final ideal goals. One wonders to which of his protagonists Goodwin is more sympathetic.

"The Great Society asks not how much, but how good; not only how to create wealth, but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed." State of the Union   1965