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  • Reverend James Squire

An Unfinished Love Story


Photo by Daniel Klafke

 

An Unfinished Love Story is a recent book and personal history of the 1960s by Doris Kearns Goodwin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and one of my favorite historians. As described in the book’s description, “Goodwin weaves together biography, memoir, and history. She takes you along on the emotional journey she and her husband Dick Goodwin embarked upon in the last years of his life.”

 

Dick and Doris Goodwin were married for forty- two years. Dick was a brilliant young man who received a law degree from Harvard but chose to spend his life supporting politicians as a thought leader, speech writer, and someone who understood the world of politics. Doris was brilliant as well and received her PH.D. in history from Harvard. The couple met because they worked in the same building at Harvard. Later they both worked on behalf of Lydon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Eugene McCarthy.

 

In their later years together Doris and Dick gathered over three hundred boxes of letters, diaries, documents, and memorabilia and set to work on this book. She pulled their work altogether to write this book.

 

I loved the book. Perhaps it was because it reminded me of my time with Dr. Edward Rochie Hardy at Berkeley at Yale who was the first bonified genius that I had encountered in my academic life. He graduated from Columbia as a young teenager and received his first Ph.D. when he was in his early twenties. He was fluent in many languages. He taught by assuming that we knew the history of what was to be covered in the course so as he put it “my lectures (without a note) will be about everything that you won’t learn in a book.” Doris and Dick’s book does that for the 60s. I found myself feeling like a detective given privy to some of the evidence of what created the history of the sixties.

 

I found that I relearned something that you would think that I would know by now through my life, but I need a reminder ever so often so that I don’t forget something that I know to be true that no one lives this life without tragedy having a box seat in our lives. It is already there as opposed to a ticket that some get, and others don’t. It is the reality of the injustice of it all as Job proclaimed, “I demand to reason with you, God, for all these bad things that have occurred in my life.” The good die young and those with whom the world would be better off without are still around.

 

I have been a student enlightened by reading so many of Goodwin’s books, so I assumed, for no reason at all, that her life had to be the proverbial “bowl of cherries.” I knew nothing about her, only her academic background, but since this current book is so personal she helped me to relearn The Tragic Sense of Life, a book by Miquel Unamuno. Her mother died when she was fifteen and her father died a month earlier. Her husband Dick had been married before to Sandra, who was mentally ill, and took her life after one of her stays in a mental institution.  Sandra and Dick had a young son, Richard, who both Doris and Dick raised. The not-so-subtle message to us is always move forward, lean into life. We are all in this together. Why do I have to relearn that so often when I spend a good bit of my time with people who are broken or that life has tried to break.

 

At the end of the book when Goodwin is discussing the end of the Vietnam War President Johnson had reached a new level of unpopularity for him. Something happened to President Johnson that gives hope to Biden in the present political nightmare in which we are living. It became Johnson’s War. Only 26% supported his handling of the war. People forgot his work on civil rights and the beginning of the work on the Great Society. Dick and Gail Goodwin witnessed the “We Shall Overcome” speech that accelerated the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Head Start, NPR, PBS, immigration reform and so much more.

 

Johnson saw what was needed at that time. He went on national television, did an about face and said, “Tonight I want to speak to you about peace in Vietnam.” He stopped the unilateral bombing of North Vietnam. He stood ready to send any representatives at any time or to any place to end this war. Johnson received a bulletin from Reuters that “Hanoi was willing to talk.” Historians realized the full size of Lyndon’s achievements. Johnson’s poll numbers did a reversal flipping from 57 percent disapproval to a 57 percent approval rating. In all that he did he focused on what was best for the nation over any pressures from many different sides to benefit himself.

 

I obviously see all the good that Biden has done in his presidency and trust that history may provide him with an opportunity to have people like Dick and Doris Goodwin’s political savvy to turn things around as he is tied in the polls with someone who embodies the worst in humankind. If he did as Lyndon Johnson did and keeps his focus on good works done and still to be done, perhaps justice will prevail. Wars can take different forms. This next election will be about the War for Decency. Pray that word enters the soul of the voters.

 

Finally, Doris Goodwin in her epilogue gets deeply personal. If you read my last blog, Never Forget, she mentions something she has learned that is true, a final observation from deep within her psyche and soul. We try to outrun tragedy by immersing ourselves with the business of busyness. Future President Teddy Roosevelt’s wife and mother died, only hours apart on February 14, 1884. Only two days before her death, Alice Lee, his wife had given birth to the couple’s daughter, Alice. Teddy Roosevelt went to a ranch in the Dakotas where he filled his days with unrelenting physical activity. Goodwin did the same thing when she was fifteen throwing herself into her schoolwork after the deaths of her parents. After Dick’s death, Gail threw herself into non-stop activity promoting her book on leadership. Dick had a rich life and died at age eighty-six. It was still tragic for her. Perhaps the most important learning that I can vouch for in her book is that “we all try to outrun tragedy. But it never works.” That is probably her message to us all that is just as important as her being in the Pantheon of Great Historians. That is what her history, personal and otherwise, has taught her.

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