How Not to Remember Gettysburg: Doris Kearns Goodwin's Abysmal Speech

This week our nation remembers the battle that raged at Gettysburg 150 years ago. Thousands were killed in three days of fierce fighting. Had the Union troops not won, an outcome that was not a sure thing when the fighting began, our nation would have been quite different than it is today.

If you want to know what it means, many commentators have eloquently explained its critical importance. Today, David Brooks writes that the soldiers who fought did so not just to protect their immediate comrades, but out of “love for country” and a feeling of “indebtedness to the past.”  At Commentary, Peter Wehner writes that this three-day battle, in which 51,000 were killed, wounded, or missing, the outcome was essential to our future: “It ended slavery and it preserved the Union, which meant it preserved and extended liberty in America and the world.”

Few have written about its meaning more eloquently, however, than the esteemed Civil War historian Allen C. Guelzo, author of the recently released book Gettysburg:The Last Invasion.  Writing in National Review, Guelzo points out that it might have been the Southern states' last chance to win their fight for independence, and hence, to win the war. General Robert E. Lee's strategy of luring the Union troops after him and then smashing them to oblivion was close to being accomplished. As Guelzo writes, "it nearly worked."

Fortunately, Union troops arrived in the town of Gettysburg first, and were “ready to fight for dear life to hold it.” The Union won, but at great cost. The  final toll on the Union side was “3,903 dead, 18,735 wounded, and 5,425 ‘missing,’ so that the entire butcher’s bill edged up to 28,063.” Guelzo writes:

Gettysburg did not end the war in one stroke, but it was decisive enough to restore the sinking morale of the Union, decisive enough to keep at bay the forces that hoped Lincoln could be persuaded to revoke emancipation, and decisive enough to make people understand that the Confederacy would never be able to mount a serious invasion again.

In the New York Times, Guelzo sheds more light on how and why the Confederates lost the battle and the Union won: “But win it they did,” he writes, “and as that realization sank in, it rejuvenated the sagging weariness of the Union as no other single event in the war.”

Either of Professor Guelzo’s two articles would have made an appropriate and powerful speech at the official commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the battle held two nights ago at Gettysburg National Park. If the National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation had any integrity, they would have asked Gulezo, or perhaps our nation’s most well-known historian of the Civil War, James McPherson, to give the keynote speech.

Instead, they went for celebrity and chose the well-known television historian and best-selling author Doris Kearns Goodwin. My wife and I watched it live two nights ago, and were stunned at what we heard. Goodwin barely mentioned Gettysburg, except for a perfunctory acknowledgement at the start of her comments.

Those in attendance were forced to listen to a self-absorbed, narcissistic, and politically correct bromide about how Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg was important as a precursor to  LBJ’s support of the Civil Rights Act, the fight for gay marriage, the  “women’s liberation” movement of the '70s, and, of course, the need for a female president (there were numerous references to Hillary Clinton, Kearns Goodwin’s obvious choice).

Anyone who has heard Kearns Goodwin talk on interview programs, or read her essays, or seen previous speeches had heard it all before. A historian who was widely condemned some years back for proven plagiarism -- an act that did not harm her career or standing one bit -- she even plagiarized herself, taking segments almost verbatim from her 1998 commencement address at Dartmouth College, and similar themes and words she used in her 2006 speech to the Abraham Lincoln Association.

Writer and columnist Tony Lee captures the outrage over Kearns Goodwin’s speech at’s “Big Journalism.”  He is correct to argue that “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. “ Lee writes:

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."

Indeed. The author has actually written works of history, and in her books, she knows how to tell a story. There is a reason, after all, that the public that usually ignores history flocks to buy any tome she writes. Sadly, once the scandal about her plagiarism broke, her book sales only skyrocketed. They say that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and Kearns Goodwin’s career seems to prove that aphorism.

To me, the most outrageous section of her talk was when she  told the audience that when she was on a radio talk show, Hillary Clinton phoned in and invited her to sleep over at the White House. Once there, she said, Clinton “said then we could wander the corridors together and figure out where everyone had slept 50 years before.” Later, as a guest at a Clinton administration state dinner, the first lady, President Clinton, and Kearns Goodwin and her husband Richard Goodwin went “with map in hand…through every room,” and the group was able to “figure out whose it had been during [World War II]." To her delight, she found that she was sleeping “in Winston Churchill’s bedroom.”

What, one must say, led this prolific best-selling writer to think anyone concerned with the meaning of Gettysburg would give a damn about where she and her husband slept when they were overnight guests at the White House? I was waiting to hear her say that, unlike others, she didn’t have to pay for the honor. And anyone who read her Dartmouth commencement address already knew this story.

As a historian, Kearns Goodwin should know that history is the means by which we, as a people, learn about our country’s past -- how our ancestors took risks and measures that made the United States the hope of the world and created the great republic in which we now live and breathe as free men and women. Instead, Kearns Goodwin used the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the most important battle held on our own land to talk about herself, and the would-be greatness of the contemporary liberals she holds in esteem.

Her speech was a disgrace to those who fought and died at Gettysburg, and to those today who seek to honor them and remember their sacrifice. Doris Kearns Goodwin should publicly apologize, and return whatever money the Gettysburg Foundation paid to have her speak or donate it to the National Park Service to be used in maintaining the hallowed ground for future generations to enjoy.