Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband Dick had front-row seats into America’s highest reaches of power during one of the most tumultuous decades in America’s history: the 1960s. Dick Goodwin worked closely with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House, and later with Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy on their presidential campaigns and initiatives. Doris began her career as a White House Fellow during the Johnson Administration and worked with him on his presidential memoirs, before launching her storied career as a presidential historian.

Her eighth book, An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960s, chronicles that extraordinary decade through the lens of what Dick and Doris witnessed and experienced. It weaves together biography, memoir and history, providing an unprecedented view into the pivotal people—JFK, LBJ, RFK and MLK—and events of that decade. HISTORY spoke with Goodwin about the book and what she learned in writing it.

HISTORY: How did you come to write An Unfinished Love Story?

DKG: It began with the 300 boxes my husband had saved from his time in public service in the 1960s when he worked with Jack and Jackie Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and with Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. For nearly half a century, Dick was not ready to delve into the contents—letters, diaries, memos to and from presidents, drafts of speeches, memorabilia from campaigns and much more. The decade of the 1960s had ended so sadly, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK, riots in cities and violence on campuses, that he didn’t want to look back, only ahead. But when he turned 80, he decided: It’s now or never.

When we began digging into the boxes, we realized we had a veritable time capsule of the major events and figures of the 1960s. Dick was thinking he would write a book about the findings and his reflections, and I would help him, but then he was diagnosed with cancer. Our project gave him a sense of purpose that kept him going during his last years, and I promised him I would finish it. It took me a while to find my way, but I did. And instead of making me miss him, I was able to keep Dick alive in my memory as I have spent the last five years since he died working on the book. It means more to me than anything I’ve ever written.

Dick worked for both JFK and LBJ, departing before you joined as a White House Fellow a few years later. How did your experiences shape the conversations you had about the presidents you observed and served?

While Dick was in his late 20s, after graduating first in his class in college and law school, he joined the small, intimate group surrounding JFK—first as a speechwriter on the campaign, and then as an aide and speechwriter in the White House. This was his introduction to world of politics, and he held a reverence for the Kennedy family for the rest of his life. He then went to work for LBJ, where he did the most important and fulfilling work of his public career, helping launch the Great Society initiative. But the impact of the Vietnam War on the country eclipsed those achievements and changed his feelings for LBJ.

In my 20s, I was chosen as a White House Fellow, and went to work in the Johnson administration. Later, I accompanied him to his ranch in Texas to help with his memoirs. The older I’ve gotten, the more I realize what a privilege it was to have spent so many hours with this aging lion of a man—a victor in a thousand contests, and yet roundly defeated in the end by the Vietnam war. That experience, which inspired my career as a presidential historian, left me with a loyalty to and an empathy for LBJ that has lasted my entire life.

So, we came into our marriage with distinct biases about JFK and LBJ, which beget ongoing disagreements. As we worked together on this project, however, we were able to reflect more deeply, and we came to a growing understanding as we reassessed the progress and unfinished promises that impacted us as well as the country we loved. My views broadened about JFK, and Dick’s softened toward LBJ.

The 1960s began with such optimism and promise—the best of times before becoming the worst of times. Can you share a few high points you focus on in the book?

Some events I found emblematic of the promise of the early 1960s were the birth of the Peace Corps, JFK’s inaugural address, the integration of the Coast Guard and the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Dick and I both attended the march, but we didn’t meet then. I guess it’s not surprising, since there were a quarter-million people there!

So much of what Dick did during his work for JFK and LBJ impacts our lives today. Tell us about his career and its ongoing relevance.

Dick was a Zelig-like figure in the 1960s, and even I was surprised to learn the astounding number of defining moments he participated in. He traveled with JFK and the small team on the Caroline, the little prop plane that became their home through months of campaigning for the presidency, and worked on speeches for Kennedy. He was in the White House when the president’s body arrived from Dallas, and oversaw securing the eternal flame for Jackie, with whom he worked on a number of initiatives. He drafted some of LBJ’s most important presidential speeches on civil rights and the Great Society, the landmark initiative Dick actually named. It encompassed nearly 200 pieces of legislation to improve Americans’ lives, including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the War on Poverty, Head Start, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Medicare, Medicaid, NPR, PBS, highway safety, the Clean Air Act and many more programs that altered and advanced the way of life in our country.

After chronicling the lives and legacies of some of America's greatest presidents, you used your last book to explore the qualities of effective leadership. What are some of those qualities, and how did JFK and LBJ embody them?

What I’ve learned from going deep with presidents like Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt is that character matters most. Presidents are most effective when they lead with empathy, humility, the ability to acknowledge errors, practice accountability, learn from their mistakes, demonstrate resilience. Great leaders have an ambition that goes beyond themselves, for a greater good for the country and its people.

This is an oversimplification, but in practical terms, JFK and LBJ were two sides of the same coin. JFK inspired a generation and set goals. He articulated that greater good in a way that inspired people to be optimistic about the future, and to think more collectively—and inclusively—about America. He instilled the idea that progress wasn’t just handed down from the halls of power, but something each citizen could take part in achieving. LBJ, with his political pragmatism, achieved many of Kennedy’s goals. He led with incredible empathy, rooted in some of his earliest professional experiences teaching Mexican American children in Texas. He understood power, timing, persuasion and how to bring people together for that greater good.

What issue from that era especially resonates for you today?

If I had to choose one, it would be voting rights. As LBJ said, it is the most basic right, without which others are meaningless. Voting in a democracy gives individuals the right to control their own destinies—to vote their leaders in or throw them out. The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—in the wake of the brutal attacks on peaceful protestors in Selma—remains one of most consequential moments in our country’s history. I remember watching LBJ’s Joint Session speech calling for voting rights with a group of graduate school friends. We all hugged each other and cried. Voting is a hard-won right that should never be taken for granted—and never be a partisan issue. If the vote is diminished for any group, it is diminished for us all.

What did you learn through the process of writing this book, and what do you hope readers will take away from reading it?

Many memories of the 1960s are dark: the Vietnam War, the loss of trust in government, the assassinations, violence against peaceful civil rights protestors, violence in the anti-war movement, riots and fires in our cities summer after summer.

And yet, too often these memories have obscured one of the era’s greatest legacies, which was the spark of communal idealism that kindled social justice and a love for a more inclusive vision of America. It was that impetus that led tens of thousands of young people to sign up for the Peace Corps, participate in sit-ins, freedom rides, marches against segregation, against voter repression, and launch the beginnings of the women’s movement and of the gay rights movement.

In a time of turmoil when Abraham Lincoln was 28 years old, he gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum. He was troubled by the temper of the country, the killing of abolitionists, lynching and a substitution of mob action for the rule of law. He feared that as the Revolutionary War generation was dying—the generation that had fought and died for the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—that the communal feeling necessary for a democracy was fading. He wanted mothers to read and reread books about the Revolution to their children.

So, too, as the ’60s generation is beginning to fade, I’d like to think this work might help restore a living history of the decade, sparking conversations between grandparents who lived through the ’60s, with their children and grandchildren. Maybe it can allow us to see the enormous progress made—and opportunities lost—to see what light might be cast on our own fractured time and what lessons we might learn. It is my fondest hope that today’s youth will carry forward this unfinished love story with America.

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