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Mr. Goodell Goes to Washington

The father of the commish versus Richard Nixon

Can we talk about Roger Goodell? Not Goodell’s 39 percent approval rating, or his faceoffs with the players’ union, the referees’ union, reporters, Jerry Jones, or Jonathan Vilma. No, let’s talk about Roger Goodell’s dad.

Senator Charles Goodell, a Republican from New York, was briefly and magnificently a ’60s icon. He marched with Coretta Scott King in a Vietnam War protest. He palled around with Jane Fonda. Daniel Ellsberg asked his friend Charlie to leak the Pentagon Papers. In 1970, Noam Chomsky endorsed Charlie for reelection.

Our quest to understand Roger — to find the Rosebud that explains what kind of NFL commissioner he has become — ought to begin right here. Let’s picture Goodell in 1969, as a 10-year-old boy. He’s old enough to know his dad has become a liberal hero. He’s old enough to know Richard Nixon is plotting his dad’s destruction.

September 24, 1969
Transcription of a secretly recorded call between National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (“K”) and Senator Charles Goodell1
“Goodell wanted to alert K and the President to what he was going to do tomorrow at a press conferences [sic]. He is going to introduce a bill along the lines that will require, by December 1, 1970, that all American troops be out of Vietnam …”

“K said he would tell the President.”

Charlie Goodell was calling Henry to give him a heads-up. Just to say that he, Charlie, was about to become the Nixon administration’s most vocal, most stubborn, and most Republican opponent of the Vietnam War. On the upside, the call was short.

Charles Dunn, Goodell’s chief of staff, was standing in the office just then. It seemed like Kissinger’s fist was about to come through the receiver. Next, Goodell called Melvin Laird, Nixon’s secretary of Defense. That might have been even more awkward — Mel and Charlie had been pals in the House. Next, Nelson Rockefeller. Yes, it’s my position. Click.

It was a strange insurrection. Goodell, who was 43 years old, looked like no one’s idea of a maverick. Goodell was a tall, handsome man with a receding hairline; his staff often found him in a cloud of pipe smoke. “There was an academic and removed quality to him,” says Greg Craig, who met Goodell as a House aide and later became President Obama’s White House counsel. If you bunked with Goodell on trips, the last thing you saw at night was the senator reading a dictionary, trying to increase his vocabulary.

Charles E. Goodell was born in Jamestown, in southwestern New York, in 1926. In the Goodells’ membership in the town’s Episcopalian ruling class, and their gonzo love of sports, they were like a less prosperous version of the Prescott Bushes. “I have been going to the High School football games the last two Saturday nights … ” Goodell’s mom, Francesca, wrote to him in 1950. “Pa insisted that we ladies wear his hunting pants & yours & John’s so we did and were we a sight.”

Goodell practiced law and served in Korea. Roger — the third of five boys — was just 3 months old when Charlie was elected to the U.S. House in 1959. These were wilderness years for Republicans. After Barry Goldwater’s thumping in ’64, Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the House two-to-one. “My attitude and Charlie’s attitude was: Why do we want to serve in the Congress if we’re going to be in the perpetual minority?” says former Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was then a congressman from Illinois. Goodell and Rumsfeld planned a coup against the Republican leader, an old-timer named Charlie Halleck. When Gerald Ford beat Halleck by six votes, Goodell and Rumsfeld were minted as young thinkers.

“Charlie was kind of the Paul Ryan of the time,” says Richard Reeves, a former chief political correspondent for the New York Times. When Goodell cast a doomed vote against a Great Society bill, he liked to sketch out what a Republican version might look like. “We would put forth what were called Constructive Republican Alternative Proposals,” says Rumsfeld. “If you think of the acronym, it was a problem.”

On June 6, 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy died from bullet wounds in Los Angeles while campaigning for President. New York’s Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, needed to fill his seat with a GOPer who was palatable to RFK’s supporters. Sensing an opening, Goodell sent a secret memo to Rockefeller listing all the things he had in common with Kennedy. Three months after Kennedy’s death, Goodell was the new junior senator from New York.

What Charlie Goodell did then was … change. There were electoral considerations behind it: Goodell now repped a big, mostly liberal state versus a conservative House district. But Goodell’s conversion also had a Jimmy Stewart quality to it. It was a dawning of conscience supported by a not-small amount of political naivete. “He was what was called a progressive Republican,” says former vice-president Walter Mondale, who served with Goodell in the Senate. “They don’t exist anymore.”

Senator Goodell staged small rebellions against the White House. He voted against two of Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees. He put out a press release bashing Nixon while he was flying with the president on Air Force One. (While he was on my plane, Nixon swore later.) But Goodell’s real “treason” — that was Kissinger’s word, mumbled on one of his tapes — was over Vietnam. In the House, Goodell had been an early supporter of the war. But Al Quie, a Republican congressman from Minnesota, remembers him scoffing at the news from Saigon. When Goodell accepted Rockefeller’s appointment to the Senate in ’68, he told him in a letter: “We should not be engaged in a land war 10,000 miles away.”

Goodell was taken with student protesters — the so-called “kids.” He traveled to Cornell University after the riots in 1969 and let himself be denounced for supporting the war. He polled his young staff, and they helped convince him he should come out big. “This wasn’t, where do you want to stand on aid to Turkey?” says Michael Edwards, a legislative aide. “We had people in the office every day who were making decisions on whether they were going to Canada or not.”

“The Vietnam War was immoral and it was evil,” says George Mitrovich, Goodell’s press secretary. “A lot of us saw it as that, and Goodell came to see it as that.”

At first, the Goodell boys were baffled. “We thought, Why did he do this?” says Tim Goodell, one of Roger’s older brothers. “Why didn’t he wait and get through the election and have Nixon’s support? Basically, he said he couldn’t wait any longer. He couldn’t see any more men dying.”

Nixon said he had a secret plan to get out of Vietnam and had offered gradual troop withdrawals. What Goodell was doing was pinning Nixon down, calling for a complete pullout in a little over a year. With an eye toward history, Goodell picked a memorable bill number: S. 3000. When he went out onto the Senate floor on September 25, 1969, he went alone.

Now, this was Washington, D.C. Having “evolving” views is the easiest way to be ridiculed. Goodell was called Changeable Charlie! Instant Liberal! As his future Senate opponent James Buckley quipped, “It was the most stunning conversion since Saint Paul took the road to Damascus.”

Representative Mo Udall, a Democrat from Arizona, even created a special play for the annual congressional basketball game. It was called the Goodell Shift. As historian Timothy J. Sullivan explains, all the congressmen gathered on the right side of the court. Then someone would yell, “Senate!” And just like Charlie Goodell, a player ran to the left.

Roger Goodell and Charlie Goodell

October 7, 1969
Henry Kissinger’s secret taping system
Kissinger: “[William F.] Buckley was in the other day. He is thinking of running for senator against Goodell.”

President Nixon: “That would be interesting. He might beat him. They are so sick of Goodell they would vote for him.”

Charlie Goodell was suddenly one of the most famous antiwar activists in the country. He agreed to lead the second Vietnam Moratorium, a November 15, 1969, march that brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to Washington. “I walk into our office that Saturday morning,” says Mitrovich, “and Jane Fonda is sitting in a yoga position on top of somebody’s desk.”

Goodell was the only Republican politico at the Moratorium. He was the bipartisan gloss. “And as much as we wanted him to speak,” says Sam Brown, one of the organizers, “he wanted to speak. The politics of New York State were pretty clear.”

It was a cold morning, and Goodell wore a black coat with American flag buttons on his lapels. Near the Capitol, he locked his left arm with Coretta Scott King and his right with George Wiley, an activist from the National Welfare Rights Organization. King and Wiley and Goodell and George McGovern — this walking phalanx of liberalism — marched past the White House, which Nixon had surrounded with buses. Tim Goodell, who was 12, marched behind them. The crowd chanted, “One, two, three, four. Tricky Dick, stop the war!”

Nixon had sensed Goodell’s rebellion was coming. In early 1969, he dispatched Bryce Harlow, a White House adviser, to meet Goodell and offer him a deal. Nixon would send Goodell to Israel to talk peace and to Italy to meet the Pope. Goodell would then report back to the White House — very publicly, of course. If New York constituency politics amounted to courting the “three I’s” — Italy, Israel, and Ireland — Goodell would tick off two of them on one trip.

And should Goodell lose his reelection bid in 1970, he could count on Nixon giving him a job in the administration. “That’s the kind of thing that goes unsaid,” says Charles Dunn. “But you know it’s on the table.”

Charlie turned Nixon down.

After Goodell’s Vietnam betrayal, Nixon wasn’t offering any deals. A story went around Washington that the president was intentionally mispronouncing Goodell’s name at press conferences, calling him GOOD-ull. On October 10, 1969, Nixon called Bob Haldeman, his chief of staff, and said Goodell should get a “going over.” The plan went like this: Nixon aides would find people — it’s unclear if they were real or fictitious — to flood Goodell’s office with mail. Each letter would tell Goodell he ought to get with the president. Unlike a lot of Nixon high jinks of the time, it had the benefit of being legal.

There was so much mail! But Goodell’s staff turned that into an advantage. Mitrovich piled the letters on the senator’s desk and enticed the New York Times to photograph the stack. See, Charlie Goodell was a player!

Goodell’s appearance changed. He bought better suits. He let his sideburns grow out. For a Republican, Charlie was almost mod. (Two skittish consultants noted in a memo: “The sideburns are fine, but he shouldn’t go beyond this. The rest smacks too much of being recently acquired.”)

Goodell’s Senate office became a be-in for Vietnam opponents. Jane Fonda and Don Duncan came by to see if Goodell wanted to call for war-crimes hearings — the hearings that later became Winter Soldier. Daniel Ellsberg talked to Goodell before seeking out the New York Times. Cora Weiss — an activist who was about to make her first visit to Hanoi, after which she’d be denounced as a commie and traitor — would phone Goodell and get right through. “You could call him,” Weiss remembers, “and he would say, ‘Hello?'”

Now, as Goodell marched down Pennsylvania Avenue — alongside Leonard Bernstein and Pete Seeger and Dick Gregory and Wavy Gravy — he could see these were his people. His constituency had flipped. Imagine Roger Goodell marching down Bourbon Street and being cheered by Scott Fujita, James Harrison, and DeMaurice Smith. That gets you about halfway there.

At the Washington Monument, Goodell said, “We are told that a United States pullout would result in a bloodbath in South Vietnam … What in the world has been going on for the last six and a half years if not a bloodbath?”

“We are not here to break a president or even a vice-president,” Goodell continued. “We are here to break the war and begin the peace.”

The President and Veep, meanwhile, were plotting to break him.

June 3, 1970
Henry Kissinger’s secret taping system
Kissinger: “Have we made any headway in the Senate? … “

Vice President Spiro Agnew: “One mistake we made was Goodell. We should have taken him on. Rockefeller notwithstanding …”

Kissinger: “I despise Goodell.”

Richard Nixon had two concerns about hitting Goodell in 1970. One was that he feared Goodell, the Instant Hero, was unbeatable. “Nixon told me that if Charlie could have won we would have stayed with him,” Pat Buchanan, a former Nixon adviser, writes in an e-mail. But then the Senate race was joined by both a Democrat, Dick Ottinger, and a Conservative Party candidate, James Buckley — brother of William F. In September 1970, speechwriter William Safire heard Nixon declare, “We are dropping Goodell over the side.”

Nixon’s second problem was that his aides didn’t want him doing the dirty work himself. Don’t go to New York and risk a blowback, they told him. So Nixon sent an ax murderer.

Spiro Agnew was the titular Vice-President of the United States. But his true calling was as Nixon’s id — “Nixon’s Nixon,” as the phrase went. Agnew had found his stride in the fall of ’69 by reading the three-dollar words of speechwriters Safire and Buchanan. Agnew denounced “nattering nabobs of negativism,” “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history,” and “effete corps of impudent snobs.” To celebrate this rhetorical flowering, the Veep’s staff placed a dictionary on Air Force Two. Like Goodell, Agnew was working on his word power.

“Agnew was a hatchet man,” says Pete McCloskey, an antiwar Republican congressman. “He said my favorite painting was of Benedict Arnold crossing the Delaware.” Agnew had an even bigger doozy for Goodell.

Agnew’s first blow was a glancing one. On September 11, in San Diego, he remarked, “Any candidate of any party who voices radical sentiments … ought to be voted out of office by the American people.” He didn’t mention Goodell by name. But according to Jules Witcover, Agnew’s staff told reporters who he was talking about.

Over at Goodell headquarters, the shot was greeted with surprise. Goodell hoped — in fact, publicly asked — that the Nixon White House stay out of the race.

Agnew was revving up. From North Dakota, he declared: “Senator Goodell has left his party.”

In Salt Lake City, now feeling his Wheaties: “When a man consistently opposes a President of his own party on the greatest issues of the day; when a man makes public opposition to all his party stands for a major article of his political faith; when a man also goes out of his way publicly to reject support of his President that has not yet been offered; when a man attempts to curry favor with his party’s leading adversaries by gratuitous attack on many of his fellow party members — then I think that man has strayed past the point of no return.”

In other states in ’70, Agnew’s dirty job was straightforward. He would disembowel the Democrat. But with Goodell, the plan was more complicated.

As Buchanan wrote in a White House memo, Agnew’s attacks would “put some life into Goodell — who will thereby draw off some of Ottinger’s support.” Get that? By seeming to knife Goodell, the Nixon White House was actually building him up. Making him into even more of a liberal hero. That meant Goodell and Ottinger could fight each other for New York’s Democratic votes, while Buckley, the pro-administration candidate, would slip into office.

“Mr. Agnew is trying to destroy me,” Goodell told a New York radio station.

It’s an article of faith with Roger Goodell that his dad suffered the attacks with equanimity. “The real lesson,” Roger told Sports Illustrated, “was that my father never, never rapped the vice president, the president, or anyone else.”

That isn’t quite true. There was a televised address called “Senator Goodell on President Nixon,” in which Goodell blasted “hardhatted political militants in the White House.” In Life magazine, Goodell accused Agnew of “sophisticated McCarthyism.” As Timothy J. Sullivan notes, Goodell avoided Nixon-bashing not out of principle but because he didn’t want to fully alienate Republicans.

On October 8, in an interview in New Orleans, Agnew unveiled his most memorable line. The ax-murderer special. “If you look at the statements Mr. Goodell made during his time in the House and compare them with some of the statements I have been referring to,” Agnew told newspaper editors, “you will find that he is truly the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party.”

Christine Jorgensen. The former George Jorgensen — the first famous recipient of a sex-change operation. In our current state of enlightenment, the line is merely offensive. In 1970, it was close to obscene — and calculated to make Goodell look, to borrow a favorite Agnewism, effete. Pat Buchanan claims the line was an ad-lib — it just popped out.

“It was a badge of honor for some of us,” says Robert Sachs, a legislative assistant in Goodell’s office.

“I was appalled,” says Alice Tetelman, another aide.

Tim Goodell thought, Who is Christine Jorgensen?

After days of attacks, the ax murderer vanished.

“Perhaps he figures he’s done the damage and he’s left his victim bleeding,” Goodell told a Washington, D.C., radio station. That was exactly what Agnew had done. Nixon’s scheme was working.

Sen. Charles Goodell, R-N.Y. and family

October 8, 1970
Henry Kissinger’s secret taping system
Kissinger: “They think they have a master ploy to elect Buckley.”

Governor Nelson Rockefeller: “They are wrong … They are going to elect Goodell and defeat me. That would be it.”

Kissinger: “I am going to call Agnew myself and tell him to shut up … “

Rockefeller: “You are great, Henry.”

In politics, there’s independence and there’s loneliness. As the campaign dragged on, Charlie Goodell was beginning to feel, as James Buckley put it, like “the most unpopular person around.”

With attacks on crime and pornography, Buckley had claimed the Republican base. Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, says he spent a few days as a 17-year-old Buckley volunteer.2 William F. Buckley’s National Review ran a taunting editorial. “How awful to be Charles Goodell,” it read. “You have this persistent headache just over your left eye, and a maddening ear-throb that goes ‘Buckley … Buckley … Buckley … ‘”

Meanwhile, Ottinger had matched Goodell’s position on Vietnam and was assailing the Old Charlie. “As a member of the House of Representatives, he was one of its most reactionary members,” Ottinger told an interviewer. “He just voted against everything constructive.” It was telling that Sam Brown, the organizer who’d been happy to have Goodell at the Moratorium, had come to New York to work for Ottinger.

Goodell was never the smoothest hand-shaker, the most natural man of the people. One consultant thought Goodell should be seen “in a delicatessen with waitresses moving back and forth, people coming and going, with the senator forcefully arguing his positions with the people.” (Remember this when profiles of Roger Goodell inevitably include a scene of the commish mixing it up with fans.) The Goodell boys went to clubs at Jones Beach and told swimmers, “Hi, hope you vote for my dad!” Late in the campaign, the atmosphere was fraught enough that they were pulled back. Goodell’s oldest son, Bill, says, “We were not supposed to go out in New York City without somebody with us.”

Goodell thought he could still count on the media, and he courted the New York Times. “We were going to endorse Ottinger, on the grounds he was the Democratic candidate,” says Richard Reeves. “When Goodell heard how the endorsement was going to go — I don’t know how he heard it — he asked to have lunch with Punch Sulzberger, who was then the publisher. He must have been pretty charming, because when the lunch was over, Sulzberger ordered the Times to endorse Goodell.”

More Goodellites turned up in a letter of support printed in the October 22, 1970, issue of The New York Review of Books. In addition to Noam Chomsky, the signatories included Jane Fonda, Betty Friedan, Dr. Benjamin Spock, William Sloane Coffin, Murray Kempton, and Howard Zinn.

“In retrospect, Charlie should have been closer to Rockefeller,” says Robert Sweet, who was Goodell’s first campaign manager. True, Rockefeller’s coattails might have won Goodell a full term. But the White House was pushing Rocky to get right on the Senate. Nothing much was uttered in public. Rockefeller just stopped mentioning Goodell’s name at campaign events. Promised funds from the Rockefeller-controlled state Republican Party never materialized, leaving Goodell helpless against two wealthy opponents.

Goodell was so independent that he decided to go it alone. He would blast Rocky.

In late October, George Mitrovich, his press secretary, called Reeves to see about getting an article in the Times. “What the conversation came down to,” Reeves remembers, “was Goodell was not getting the money and the help he expected from Rockefeller.”

“I said, ‘That’s interesting, and I don’t doubt it, but are you sure you want that in the New York Times?'”

Mitrovich said, yes, Goodell did.

“It became a front-page story in the Times,” says Reeves, whose piece was published on October 28. “That was the end of Charlie Goodell.”

The campaign was cratering. A Daily News poll had Goodell running third, 13 points behind Buckley and six behind Ottinger. True, Goodell and Ottinger combined to form an antiwar majority. But they were eating into each other’s bases, just as Nixon and Agnew had counted on. Goodell was asked if he was dropping out and, for 10 agonizing hours, he didn’t answer. “We decided we were going to do a statewide broadcast on CBS,” says Brian Conboy, Goodell’s chief of staff and second campaign manager. “We were going to preempt Lassie.”

In later years, Goodell called it his “Lassie speech” — as if it had been sired by Nixon’s Checkers speech. (In a roundabout way, it had.) Charlie went on air with a pipe and a few notecards. His staff planted a couple of friendly U.S. senators onstage — Jack Javits from New York and Chuck Percy from Illinois — just in case he needed some help to fill the half-hour.

Goodell looked at the camera and said, “I shall continue to stand for election.” Bill Goodell says, “That was as emotional as he got.” As soon as the telecast ended, Michael Goodell, a.k.a. brother no. 4, ran out and hugged his dad. The photo — the last happy image of the Goodell campaign — ran on the front page of the Daily News.

A post-speech poll of Tim Goodell’s friends yielded a less positive result. “Everybody was pissed off,” he says, “because they couldn’t watch Lassie have her puppies.”

October 23, 1970
Henry Kissinger’s secret taping system
Kissinger: “According to Evans and Novak, Goodell is through.”

President Nixon: “I think he is.”

Even Nixon’s aides couldn’t keep Nixon out of the race. It was wonderfully tempting, to go to New York and strike the death blow against Changeable Charlie. On October 12, 1970, Nixon flew into Westchester County. He was greeted by hordes of sign-wielding Buckley supporters. Nixon helpfully posed in front of them, while news photographers clicked away. He’d endorsed Buckley while barely uttering his name.

None of these machinations were outside the bounds of politics. But they obscured the urgency of Vietnam. Michael Edwards, Goodell’s legislative aide, took his Vietnam physical on Election Day. That night, as the Goodell family made their way to the Roosevelt Hotel, it seemed like a moral setback on the issues as well as a political one.

As the night wore on, the Goodell boys rode up and down the hotel elevator, apprising campaign workers of their dad’s mood up in the suite. “Dad was hoping he’d get a big enough share of the vote from upstate and the Javits-Rockefeller Republicans to get him across the finish line,” Bill Goodell says. An hour after the polls closed, Goodell was seen doodling notes for a concession speech. He finished a poor third, 15 points behind Buckley, who narrowly defeated Ottinger.

In Washington, as a Nixon Cabinet secretary looked on, Spiro Agnew exclaimed, “We got that son of a bitch!”

Charlie’s concession speech was a little like Charlie himself, an ungainly, lovable thing that lurched around until it hit upon the truth. “Sometimes, for great causes, there have to be sacrifices,” Goodell told the crowd. “And I’m very proud to stand with you as a sacrifice … ”

“I think all five of us were crying because we’d never seen him lose before,” says Tim Goodell.

Charlie Goodell’s elective career ended at age 44. The irony was, he didn’t turn out to be a liberal of convenience. He continued to fight against the Vietnam War; he helped Gerald Ford pardon draft evaders; he was one of Ellsberg’s lawyers on the Pentagon Papers case; and — interesting for Roger — he was a fierce opponent of executive power.

If we peeked into Roger Goodell’s mind, I bet we’d find two legacies from his dad. There’d be a measure of his dad’s idealism, his contrarianism, his stubbornness. And I bet we’d also find a kind of defense mechanism that develops when you see your dad destroyed on a public stage. An instinct that makes you think, I won’t let that happen to me.

Charlie Goodell knew that politics, like football, doesn’t remember noble losers. Until his death in 1987, he liked to joke that his career would be swallowed by Agnew’s slur. That whatever he’d done, history would know Charlie as the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party. “He used to say, ‘That’ll probably be on my tombstone,'” says Patricia Goldman, his second wife. “But it only made it into the obituaries.”

This account is based on original interviews and historical and journalistic accounts found in the Charles Goodell papers at the New York Public Library.

Filed Under: People, Roger Goodell

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

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