Power and passion. Goodwin's memoir of the Kennedy-Johnson era

Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties, by Richard N. Goodwin. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 552 pp. $19.95. This book is ... one gropes for the word ... canny. That's it, canny.

Whereas most political memoirists rush into print as soon as they are out of power, hoping to cash in on ephemeral fame, Richard Goodwin has waited 20 years to tell the story of his years as a speechwriter and braintruster for John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Robert Kennedy. It was a bit of a gamble, especially as he has little to add to the well-mined historical lode.

But Mr. Goodwin - the shrewd Mr. Goodwin - no doubt banked on two factors: First, there seems to be no statute of limitations on the Kennedy mystique; second, the American public may be more receptive now than at any other time during the last two decades to a romantic look at the drama and pathos of the 1960s.

Still, Goodwin kept an ace in the hole. In a book otherwise thin on new information or insights, he has claimed that President Johnson, in his prosecution of the Vietnam war, was not just mistaken, not even just obsessed, but was, in fact, gripped by paranoidal delusions. Now that oughtta sell books! (The New York Times Magazine and other news media have obligingly hyped Goodwin's psychoanalysis.)

If you liked Jack and Bobby Kennedy, you'll love this book. Here they are, yet again, in all their youthful vigor, jauntiness, and idealism, striving to live up to their father's ``most insightful political aphorism [you remember Joseph Kennedy, that venerable moralist], `When in doubt, do right.'''

Sure, JFK messed up at the Bay of Pigs, but no one's perfect. Otherwise, no Mafia-aided attempts to kill Fidel Castro, no promiscuous wiretaps, no romps with the likes of Judith Exner or Marilyn Monroe are allowed to mar the Kennedy image. Goodwin's adoring portrait is of the JFK who, in his first presidential act, ordered the immediate integration of the Coast Guard because no blacks marched in the service's inaugural-parade detachment.

But if Goodwin felt ``love'' and ``hero worship'' (his words) for the Kennedys, he is less generous to many of his former colleagues. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Bill Moyers, and Sargent Shriver were good guys, but others - especially those who had anything to do with Vietnam, including McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and Gen. William Westmoreland - are depicted as inept at best and, at worst, as duplicitous and cynical. In early 1966, just before the Johnson administration resumed the bombing of North Vietnam after a temporary halt, Defense Secretary McNamara told a stunned Goodwin that if the whole of Southeast Asia went communist, ``It wouldn't make the slightest bit of difference'' to American security.

Given his abhorrence of the Vietnam war, particularly its aborting effect on the Great Society, and his concern that President Johnson had slipped over the edge, Goodwin paints a surprisingly warm, even affectionate portrait of LBJ. To his credit, his close association with the Kennedys, whose contempt for the raw Texas politician was undisguised, did not alter Goodwin's appreciation for Johnson's outsized personality, enormous magnetism, and empathy for the poor and outcast.

In one of his most poignant passages, Goodwin describes LBJ, clad in pajamas in the depth of night, seated in the White House situation room poring over reports of the war he knew was destroying his presidency.

(Another affecting passage is Goodwin's account of the White House staff working through their tears late into the night of Nov. 22, 1963, to ready the mansion for the return of the slain President's body. Familiar as the story is, it knots the throat every time.)

But back to Goodwin's canniness.

This is not simply a memoir; it is, by his open admission, a call to action, a summons to a new generation to revive the spirit of the '60s - the last time, in Goodwin's formulation, that Americans truly believed they could make the world better through collective action.

Surely such a rallying cry would have been ignored during most of the years since 1968, years when memories of the antiwar movement's debasement into anti-Americanism, of domestic terrorism, of the self-indulgence and excesses of the counterculture were still fresh.

Goodwin senses, however - and perhaps correctly - that the times, they are a-changin'. Other social observers, their acute noses sniffing the air, say they detect it, too, a restiveness on the eve of the post-Reagan era, a stirring that, if not exactly anticonservatism, may be a kind of anti-antiliberalism.

So Goodwin, with his writer's percipience and wordsmith's cleverness, has produced this elegiac, selective, and, in many ways, disingenuous book. Maybe it will help bring about its avowed purpose to unfurl liberal guidons and set them snapping again in the breeze. He may have guessed wrong, though.

Irving Kristol has defined a neoconservative as ``a liberal who was mugged by reality.'' A lot of Americans still remember that mugging and give a wide berth to the scene of the crime.

James H. Andrews is on the Monitor staff.

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