Studs Terkel once said that “people are hungry for stories.” A rapt crowd in the Junior Ballroom at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center on May 28 proved the late author and radio personality correct.
It didn’t hurt that the storytellers were renowned authors and presidential advisers Richard Goodwin and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who were in town to receive honorary degrees at Commencement and take part in a Commencement Eve event called “A Conversation With Dick and Doris.”
The married pair regaled the crowd with insider stories laden with personal details about their time spent with the likes of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy - even the Argentina-born revolutionary Che Guevara.
Joseph P. Kennedy II -; founder of the non-profit Citizens Energy Corp., former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the eldest son of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy -;moderated the discussion, jumping in periodically to share some of his own memories of the time.
Kearns Goodwin led off with tales of her tenure as a White House Fellow during the Johnson administration.
“I was 24 - it was a different thing to be a 24-year-old White House intern then; it got more complicated after the Lewinsky years,” she joked. “And there was a dance for the fellows at the White House and I got to dance with President Johnson - which really wasn’t saying much as only three of the 16 fellows were women. Anyway, we’re dancing, and I’m afraid I’m going to fall - he was twirling me around, doing these elaborate dips and LBJ whispered in my ear that he wanted me to work directly for him.”
Three days later, an article Kearns Goodwin had written in protest of the Vietnam War while a graduate student at Harvard University appeared in The New Republic. Its title: “How to Remove LBJ in 1968.”
“When Johnson heard about it, he said, ‘Ah, bring her down here for a year; if I can’t change her mind, no one can,’” recalled Kearns Goodwin, who was soon after appointed a special assistant to the president.
She went on to work closely with Johnson for years, eventually writing his memoirs.
Richard Goodwin - who also spent time with Johnson, working as his speechwriter - was John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter during his presidential campaign, and stayed on staff after JFK became president.
At the “Conversation with Dick and Doris,” Goodwin began by telling the crowd about Kennedy’s inauguration parade, held on a freezing day in Washington, D.C.
“Of course Kennedy didn’t wear a coat - being a New Frontiersman and all - and so none of us could wear coats. So I stood shivering for hours watching this parade go by,” he recalled. “Finally when it was over, I went into the West Wing to take a look at my new office.”
As he was walking down the hallway, Goodwin ran into Kennedy.
“He motioned to me and I said, ‘Yes, Mr. President?’ And boy did it feel wonderful to say that. If it felt good to me, it probably felt even better for him,” Goodwin said. “Anyway, he said to me, ‘Did you see that Coast Guard contingent?’ And I searched my mind, but there were thousands of contingents. And so he said, ‘There wasn’t one black face in that contingent. I want you to do something about that.’”
It was a powerful moment, Goodwin said - one during which he realized that after all the months of traveling all over the country, making promises about what the administration would do and change if elected, they could finally actually make things happen.
So Goodwin immediately went upstairs and called Douglas Dillon, the newly appointed Secretary of the Treasury, and relayed Kennedy’s message to him.
“And within three weeks, the Coast Guard Academy had been integrated,” Goodwin recalled. “And the next year, the first black cadets entered the Academy.”
After more than an hour of sharing such touching, revealing and often humorous memories, the Goodwins signed books for attendees.
“We were honored to have the Goodwins join us in celebrating this special time at UMass Lowell,” says Chancellor Marty Meehan. “Their contributions to American history and government are legendary.”
Kearns Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of such books as “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln;” “Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream;” “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys;” “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The American Home Front During World War II.”
Goodwin was a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. His experience as the lead investigator of the rigged television quiz shows was made into an Academy Award-nominated movie, “Quiz Show.” He served as assistant special counsel to President Kennedy and as special assistant to President Johnson. He also advised Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He has authored a number of the most memorable speeches of the last decades, including John F. Kennedy’s Latin American speeches; Johnson’s Great Society and civil rights speeches; Robert Kennedy’s South African speech and Al Gore’s concession speech in 2000.
For more photos from the "Conversation With Dick and Doris" and other Commencement Eve events, see the Commencement Eve 2010 photo gallery.