On Sunday, a stunned audience sat in silence as Doris Kearns Goodwin turned the keynote address at the opening ceremony for the 150th anniverary of the Battle of Gettysburg into a political lecture focusing on women’s and gay rights.
Missing from much of her keynote: Gettysburg.
Self-centered, insular, and oblivious to the occasion, the historian who was infamously caught plagiarizing merely recycled much of what she has said before about herself in previous speeches. And her rambling, self-promoting, and borderline inappropriate lecture touched upon nearly everything except for the heroic sacrifices made on that battlefield.
In so doing, she desecrated the hallowed land on which she spoke, dishonored Gettysburg’s honored dead, and disrespected the nearly 8,000 Americans in attendance who did not come to Gettysburg to hear about her life’s story and a progressive history lecture.
Before even referencing President Abraham Lincoln, Kearns Goodwin started her speech by mentioning President Lyndon Johnson. In fact, more of her speech was devoted to Johnson and herself than to Lincoln, Lee, and Gettysburg. Boasting about all the presidents she has researched, Kearns Goodwin said her only worry was that in her afterlife all of the presidents about whom she has written or plagiarized will confront her to complain and point out inaccuracies in her work.
She said the first person who would confront her in her afterlife would be Lyndon Johnson, who she said would scream at her, “how come that book on the Kennedys is twice as long as the book you wrote about me?”
After briefly–and in an obligatory manner–actually mentioning Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Kearns Goodwin could not stop herself from rehashing her civil rights stories.
Of course, all of the stories centered around her. She talked about how she worked for Lyndon Johnson and met her husband while working for him.
She spoke about segregation in 1963, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, but they were merely supporting characters in her narration about her life’s story. Kearns Goodwin then gave a history lesson about how Johnson took up what President John F. Kennedy started with civil rights and reminisced about the time Johnson “danced with her” and “twirled her around” while she was a White House Fellow and how she, as an anti-war activist, had written an article in the New Republic condemning Johnson’s war policies. She praised Johnson, calling him an “aging lion of a man” and talked about how she spent time during his last years helping him with his memoirs.
Her speech just got worse from there. She continued to speak about the 1960s instead of the 1860s. And it was all stuff she has said before.
If attendees did not know she met her husband while working for Johnson, they soon found out. She said Johnson ordered his staff to assign the voting rights address to the person that would eventually become her husband. She praised Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” voting rights speech, hailing it as “one of the best presidential speeches,” perhaps forgetting for a moment that Lincoln gave a pretty decent one at Gettysburg.
Clearly mistaking the Gettysburg 150 audience for the Aspen Ideas Festival crowd, Kearns Goodwin then lectured the audience on the “women’s liberation movement” and spoke at length about Eleanor Roosevelt. She emphasized that World War II led to a “new birth of freedom” for women and reminded attendees, “Still, we await our first female president.”
She again spoke about herself, saying she was privileged to have written about Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she credited with ultimately laying the foundation for women to eventually “combine the love of work with the love family.” Instead of giving details about Gettysburg, Kearns Goodwin told attendees that Roosevelt was responsible for news organizations hiring their first female reporters when Roosevelt declared she would only answer questions from females.
She said she was obsessed, while writing about Eleanor Roosevelt, with people who slept on the second floor of the White House. And when First Lady Hillary Clinton heard her talking about that on the radio, she invited her and her husband to spend the night at the White House with the Clintons.
In nearly exactly the same words, Kearns Goodwin told the Gettysburg audience the same story she told at Dartmouth’s commencement in 1998:
I happened to mention this on a radio show in Washington which Hillary Clinton happened to hear so she called me up and promptly invited me to sleep overnight in the White House. She said we could then we could wander the corridors together and figure out where everyone had slept 50 years before. A couple of weeks later she followed up with an invitation to a state dinner, after which between midnight and 2, the president, my husband, Mrs. Clinton and I did indeed with my map in hand go through every room up there and figure out whose it had been during the war, and the best part is that we realized we were sleeping in Winston Churchill’s bedroom
Then, Kearns Goodwin commented on last week’s Supreme Court decisions that she called “stunning.”
“On the one hand, a critical section of that same 1965 Voting Rights Act which had stood for fifty years was struck down,” Kearns Goodwin said. “On the other hand, the struggle to end discrimination against gays and lesbians took a giant step forward.”
She compared the gay rights movement to the women’s rights and civil rights movements, and then gushed about how privileged she was that she had a “curious love of history” that allowed her to look back and tell stories–if they were her own–about the past.
The closest she came to discussing the Battle of Gettysburg at length was when she mentioned “Stonewall.” But instead of talking about how different Gettysburg could have been had the great Southern General Stonewall Jackson lived to aid Robert E. Lee, Kearns Goodwin instead spoke about the Stonewall gay riots that united the gay community, which she used to discuss how women’s rights and civil rights and gay rights were all “human rights” while quoting Robert F. Kennedy’s “ripples of hope” speech. She even compared “Stonewall” to “Selma,” linking the gay rights movement and the black civil rights movement.
As an historian chosen for the honor of keynoting the opening ceremonies for the solemn–and special–anniversary of the most important and famous battle fought in the Western Hemisphere, Kearns Goodwin had a duty to take up the task of Oliver Wendell Holmes and “bear the report to those who come after.”
Instead, she slapped the faces of those in attendance by mistaking the occasion for an alumni weekend speech or a Georgetown cocktail party. Throughout the Gettysburg festivities, Americans emphasized how important it was to remember the country’s honored dead, echoing what President Ronald Reagan said in his Farewell Address when he spoke about the necessity of an “informed patriotism” that could only be learned when one generation teaches the next about America’s exceptional past.
But when supposedly esteemed historians like Kearns Goodwin use such a cherished occasion to shoehorn modern–and unrelated–social issues into the Gettysburg narrative, it makes it more difficult for the nation to have an “informed patriotism.”
Kearns Goodwin’s keynote–for style and substance–can only be given a failing grade. And this time, it was not even for plagiarism.