Born into politics
Goodell was practically born into politics. He was just 3 months old when Charles Goodell won a special election in May 1959 to fill an empty New York seat in the U.S. House. The family soon took up full-time residence in Washington, settling into a modest home near Cleveland Park that was busting at the seams with five young boys, a Great Dane, two cats, a parakeet, a father who worked long hours and a mother who tried to maintain order amid the chaos.
The boys — Goodell was the middle child — would walk or bike to nearby John Eaton Elementary and after school take refuge at the Macomb Playground. They played with the children of other elected officials, such as the Mondales and Udalls.
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and riots spread across Washington, Charles Goodell ran home and insisted the family’s maid, Pearline, stay the night because it wasn’t safe to leave. Roger Goodell delivered the Washington Evening Star after school and had to rush his delivery because of a city-wide curfew, pedaling past the Marines and National Guard members stationed on the corner.
“Washington in the ’60s was going through some difficult times, where there was antiwar movements, civil rights — those were big issues,” Goodell recalled. “Having that opportunity to be exposed to that and be in Washington was really influential to me.”
There were perks to being a congressman’s son, of course. The annual congressional baseball game was played at RFK Stadium immediately before a Washington Senators game. Ted Williams managed the Republicans, and the Goodell children served as batboys. And while the Goodells would participate in Easter egg hunts at the White House, their mother, Jean, also took them to antiwar demonstrations on the Mall.
As the 1960s drew to a close, their lives became increasingly affected by the Vietnam war, as their father began contemplating a break from his party.
Breaking with GOP
In Congress, Charles Goodell had accumulated power in relatively short order. President Richard Nixon praised him as the Republican party’s resident “egghead,” and he was widely considered one of the brightest minds on Capitol Hill. When Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller appointed him to the vacant Senate seat.
Republican party leaders didn’t know it at the time, but Goodell was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
“He didn’t want political advice — if you’re against the war, you’ll alienate this constituency or that constituency,” said Andrew Von Hirsch, the senator’s chief legislative assistant at the time. “What he wanted us to do was describe the issues on the merits, and not worry about who you’d offend. That seemed very different from ordinary politicians.”