Legendary speechwriter Richard N. Goodwin proved the power of words

Legendary speechwriter Richard N. Goodwin proved the power of words
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They are not just a collection of letters. They are not just a string of sentences. They are not just a series of paragraphs. 

No, they are so much more.


I have always thought that the purpose of words and, for that matter – writing, is to move people to action.


Richard N. Goodwin was a master of words. He died on May 20 but the words he wrote for presidents and politicians will live on for years.

Goodwin, as a speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson, was called on to draft a speech after civil rights marchers were brutally beaten up by law enforcement officials on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965. President Johnson gave a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965.

What was so urgently and desperately needed at that moment were words that would not only explain what happened and heal the wounds but call for the country, for the very first time, to change its soul. 

These are the words written by Goodwin at the time:

“Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country; to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effect of Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

I watched that speech on TV as a freshman at George Washington University. I remember the impact of those words. When LBJ ended with those words – “And we shall overcome” — you could feel that the world would no longer stay the same. Something better would come about.

Months later, Johnson signed into law the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. No longer would there be massive discrimination and barriers to voting. No poll taxes or literacy tests. 

A year later, Goodwin wrote words that Robert Kennedy spoke in South Africa. The subject was apartheid, but the purpose was to remind each and every one of us that we have the power to do enormous good: 

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lots of others, or strikes out against injustices, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

What grand and inspiring words. Apartheid did come down in South Africa. Who is to say that these words didn’t contribute to its demise?

Words can also be used for the goal of reconciliation.

The Washington Post obituary for Goodwin highlights yet another example. In 2000, Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreCharlotte Pence to hold wedding reception at vice president's residence Impeachment can't wait Lessons of the Kamala Harris campaign MORE lost an election for president. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Even today, that decision is called into question; to millions, the decision was not only unfair but dead wrong. 

Goodwin, for Gore, sought to unify the country with these words: “Just as we fight hard when the stakes are high, we close ranks and come together when the contest is done. While we yet hold and do not yield our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party. This is America, and we put country before party; we will stand together, behind our new president.”

Today we rarely — or not at all — hear or read words like Goodwin wrote. Instead, we get bitter, coarse, ugly words from politicians of every stripe and every office. We get tweets — not thoughts composed in meaningful sentences, but abbreviated, unrefined emotions that do not illuminate but antagonize and provoke.

These sentiments are intended to create bad feelings and allow for destructive and dangerous inclinations.

When words are used this way, we all ultimately suffer and are permanently hurt.

Words should be used not to divide and desecrate, but to elevate and inspire.

Why are words today only used to damage and destroy? Words can be beautiful. They can lead to noble thoughts and, most of all, noble deeds.

Mark Plotkin is a contributor to the BBC on American politics. He previously was the political analyst for WAMU-FM, Washington’s NPR affiliate, and for WTOP-FM, Washington’s all-news radio station. He is a winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in writing.