Richard Goodwin goes from politics to playwright

Constance Gorfinkle

It was a story that demanded to be dramatized.

"Mortal combat'' is the way Richard Goodwin describes the struggle that ensued when the scientist Galileo Galilei, four centuries ago, came up with the idea that the Earth goes around the sun, rather than the long-held belief that the opposite was true. This theory put him at odds with Pope Urban VIII, who reigned during the Inquisition and held that such an idea was heretical and therefore threatened the dominance of the Church. The outcome was Galileo’s life-long persecution by the Church.

"Two Men of Florence,'' the play Goodwin adapted from his 1998 book on this subject, will be presented by the Huntington Theatre Company from March 6 through April 5.

The stage is a departure for Goodwin, 78, who was a speechwriter and adviser in the administration of President John F. Kennedy.

That his play would be riddled with politics is not surprising.

"I’ve always been interested in politics,'' he said. That interest flourished during his undergraduate years at Tufts, and in his hometown of Brookline. "I worked on rent control there.''

Goodwin went on to Harvard Law "because I had to earn a living.'' He then adds proudly: "I graduated first in my class; that’s even better than Obama.''

He was in his third year of law school when he met then-Sen. Kennedy. "He told me that if I was ever in Washington I should look him up.'' That opportunity came when Goodwin started to clerk for Supreme Court Judge Felix Frankfurter.

But he didn’t get close to the seat of power until Kennedy aide Ted Sorenson "asked me to try my hand at speechwriting.'' That was after Goodwin wrote about his experience as special counsel to the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1959.

In that position, he was investigating the television game show "Twenty One.'' His discovery that the show was rigged became a scandal, destroyed the career of celebrity contestant Charles van Doren, and served as inspiration for the Robert Redford film "Quiz Show,'' which starred Rob Morrow as Goodwin.

Goodwin remembers the heady fall-out from that episode: "After my third try at speechwriting, I was hired to be part of Kennedy’s presidential campaign.'' That began Goodwin’s long sojourn in the wilds of politics, which didn’t end until he became painfully disillusioned with Lyndon Johnson for his role in the Vietnam War. Quitting Washington in the mid-’60s, Goodwin turned his energies to writing about the America he knew from the point of view of a political insider.

In such books as "The American Condition'' (1974), and "Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties'' (1988), he dealt with the inefficiency of government bureaucracies, the temptations and corruption of high office and the country’s betrayal of the ideals of the ’60s.

An arresting-looking man whose most distinctive feature is bushy silver eyebrows that arch high onto his forehead, Goodwin talked softly and earnestly about art, politics and life, the life he has shared with his wife of 34 years, author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Though these days she is the better-known of the two – a Pulitzer-Prize winner and a frequent political consultant on TV talk shows, most recently for her expertise as a Lincoln scholar – Richard Goodwin’s own career is equally fascinating and rich.

Before the interview, the couple visited the theater’s rehearsal studio where the play’s cast of 11 soon would be going through their paces with director Edward Hall. The son of renowned British director Peter Hall, Edward has been part of this project since it had its premiere six years ago in Guildford, England.

The focus of attention in the cavernous studio is the props assembled before the table where Hall will hold court: a desk, a chair and, most notably, a telescope, the instrument at the center of the philosophical duel between the pope, played by Edward Herrmann, and Galileo, played by Jay O. Sanders, who currently is onscreen in "Revolutionary Road.''

The Goodwins, who live in Concord, have three sons (one on his second tour of duty in the Middle East). They share a love of American history, a fascination with politics, a decidedly progressive worldview and their generous support of one another’s work.

The last is exemplified, she says, by the time her husband spent on the early drafts of "Team of Rivals,'' her acclaimed book about Abraham Lincoln’s political acumen in organizing a Cabinet that included those who opposed his policies.

That 3-year-old book, by the way, which has received new attention due to President Obama’s attempts to form his own Cabinet of rivals, has been optioned by director Steven Spielberg for the screen, and will star Liam Neeson as Lincoln.

"Filming is supposed to start in May,'' says Mrs. Goodwin.

Just as Richard devotes time and effort to her projects, Doris has accompanied him on the long journey to bring "Two Men of Florence'' to light in this country, attending rehearsals and watching as the production takes shape.

"It’s a beautiful production,'' she says, in which the stage becomes a planetarium, "filled with stars overhead,'' an appropriate setting for a world-shaking confrontation between nothing less than "faith and science, or ‘natural philosophy,’ as science was referred to then,'' says Goodwin.

He says there is no lack of information about Galileo, but almost nothing about Urban VIII, save for his being at one time Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who at first extended his favor to the devout Catholic Galileo until it dawned on him that the scientist’s belief in the Earth not being the center of the universe was antithetical to Church teachings.

With so little to go on, Goodwin concedes the central conflict of the piece is largely "a work of my imagination.'' Certainly, he had much to fire that imagination, in particular his own first-hand observances of those in power and how they wielded that power.

He doesn’t miss Washington, he says. He sat at the right hand of history, but much of that was painful. He talks about gathering at the White House with other shocked members of JFK’s staff when learning of the assassination.

"Where else were we going to go? Later, Jackie asked me to find a way to have a perpetual flame at the grave. So, I called the Pentagon and was told they had no way to do that. I said, ‘What are you talking about? You can fight a war but can’t figure out how to create a perpetual flame?’ Well, they figured it out, and it’s still burning.''

Of course, there were rewards, too – aiding Lyndon Johnson in creating his Civil Rights legislation and coining the phrase "The Great Society,'' writing Al Gore’s noble concession speech after the vice president lost a dubious election for president.

If you go

What: “Two Men of Florence”

When: March 6 through April

Where: Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston

How much: $20-$82.50 at, at the box office or 617-266-0800