It seems fitting that this book, published in the months leading up to the American election of 1992, should be endorsed by both Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton. It mimics the tone of the campaigns in both style and substance.
Early drafts of Goodwin's manuscript were passed out to several presidential hopefuls as the race got underway and, not surprisingly, soundbites from the book cropped up in a number of speeches on the campaign trail. The most notable instance was when Brown announced his candidacy using rhetoric taken verbatim from Promises To Keep.
As a former adviser and speechwriter to both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and one of the architects of the Great Society and Alliance for Progress, Goodwin is no stranger to Washington. But in the decades since the JFK and LBJ administrations, things have changed considerably. Goodwin is well aware of that fact — and deeply concerned about it.
The robust idealism of America in the early '60s, he says, has been all but lost in the past two or three decades. Democracy and capitalism, the "twin pillars of American society," are both at risk, he charges, and nothing short of a "new American revolution" can reverse the ominous decline.
For those of us still hungover from the campaign rhetoric of the last election, Goodwin's thesis seems a bit overplayed. The familiar litany about the "soaring power of money" in Washington, about "anxiety for office and mediocrity" among legislators, and about "greed, corruption, and the failure of enterprise" in corporate America, sounds about as inspiring as a Ross Perot infomercial.
That said, what is remarkable about this book is the forceful delivery, the sparkling prose, and the soaring rhetoric. Goodwin's talent for speech-writing is evident all the way through. Just about every quote is by a great president or prominent civic leader, and variations on the phrase "the promise of America" figure on almost every page. The book begins with a sentence about America's "common dream" and ends with the word "hope."
Like a great political speech, this is at once a rallying cry and a masterful act of persuasion. The only problem is that in oratory, as in life, eloquence in want of a good argument is hardly persuasive.
This review appeared in the Fall 1993 issue of Antioch Review.
Copyright 1993 by Scott London. All rights reserved.