LBJ Library at 50: An Interview With Mark Updegrove
The Library's director from 2009 to 2017 on LBJ's evolving legacy
By Robert Faires,
11:20AM, Thu. Aug. 26, 2021
Mark Updegrove came into the job of LBJ Presidential Library director with a vision, a vision involving nothing less than the way we all see Lyndon Baines Johnson and his presidency, to turn our attention away from the tragic failures in Vietnam toward the landmark achievements in civil rights and social progress.
He spent nine years working toward that goal, and since a perceptual shift that huge doesn't happen without going big, Updegrove went big. He oversaw an $11 million overhaul of the permanent exhibits in the Library's museum, bringing greater attention to Johnson's work on civil rights and voting rights, along with his numerous Great Society initiatives, while not ignoring the Vietnam War. He also convened major summits on Vietnam, race in America, and civil rights, featuring leading scholars, activists, and political figures, including three former presidents and one sitting president.
Updegrove believes that there has been a change in the way people think about LBJ in the past dozen years. "When I came in, I think he was 'the Vietnam President,'" he said in our interview," 'and now I think he’s seen more – as is right – as 'the Civil Rights President.'"
As a result, you might think that Updegrove feels his work on the LBJ front is done and that he's ready to move on from that president – and maybe presidents in general. After all, in his life before his tenure at the LBJ Library, he was the manager of Time in Los Angeles; president of TimeCanada, Time's Canadian edition; and the publisher of Newsweek in New York. Well, he did take the position of CEO for the National Medal of Honor Museum in 2017. But it wasn't long before he was involved with the LBJ Library again, this time as President and CEO of the LBJ Foundation, a post he currently holds.
Here, Updegrove speaks about his work as a presidential historian, his perspective on LBJ's legacy (and Lady Bird's), and the distinctive pull of the LBJ Library on him.
AC: What did you think of the LBJ Library before you became director?
Mark Updegrove: It’s a fair question, and I’ll tell you without equivocation that I had a view that the LBJ Library was by far the best Presidential Library in the system well before I even thought about becoming the director. I had occasion with my first book, Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House, to do research – albeit virtually, in many cases – at all the presidential libraries, and I found the experience at the LBJ Presidential Library was far superior. The archivists were so knowledgeable, and the ease of getting materials was so much better that I had a positive impression from the start.
So there came a time when I was interested in being a Presidential Library director and went to the National Archives, and they reached out to me and asked me if I was interested in running the Kennedy Library – entering into the interview process. And I said, “No, but if the LBJ Library ever becomes available, I’m your guy.” It was later, in 2009, that they came back to me and we began conversations which later led to me running the institution. But the reason was three-fold – in no particular order:
Number One: Austin, Texas was a vibrant city then and it continues to be a vibrant city now.
Two: The reputation of the Library preceded it, and I knew that there was a harmonious relationship between the Library on the National Archives side and the LBJ Foundation. Since presidential libraries are public-private partnerships, that was really important. I knew I would have the support of the Foundation. The Foundation took its founder, LBJ, at his word, when he said in the dedication, “It’s all here, the story of our times, with the bark off.” That meant that we could look at his legacy and speak honestly about the flaws as well as the successes of the administration. I took them at their word.
And the last thing was – and this is important – I knew that I would be coming to the institution at a time when we could finally evaluate LBJ’s legacy on a more even-handed, dispassionate basis. We’re very myopic when it comes to assessing our presidents. And it takes us a longer period of time to evaluate some objectively than others. A perfect example is George H. W. Bush. When he died, he had a pretty clear look at what his legacy would be in posterity. He had a relatively clean break in 1993, when he handed the reins over to Bill Clinton. We didn’t have these heightened passions around the George H. W. Bush presidency, and most of the issues he had been involved with had been resolved. It was very different for LBJ. Passions around Vietnam took at least two generations to recede. But once they did, I believed that LBJ would be seen for what I consider the bigger part of his legacy, which are the laws of the Great Society and the transformational effect they had on our nation. They are the foundation of modern America. And I wanted a hand in seeing LBJ’s legacy for what it truly should be: not just Vietnam as one of the central pillars but also the Great Society laws, and moreover, the accomplishments in civil rights. When I came in, I think he was “the Vietnam President,” and now I think he’s seen more – as is right – as “the Civil Rights President.”
AC: You came on and made a huge difference with the makeover of the permanent exhibits. Your programming moves are unforgettable. Were there ideas that you came in with, things you wanted to do that you felt would move the institution forward? Or did changes come organically after you’d been at the Library for a while?
MU: I had a vision for what LBJ’s legacy should be, and that’s the advantage of being an historian. Again, I saw the accomplishments in civil rights as superseding everything else. The story of America is our capricious relationship with race, and that’s what it comes down to. And you simply don’t meet our most basic creed as a people – “All men are created equal” – until you get the laws that LBJ signed. The Civil Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act. The Fair Housing Act. The Immigration Act. There are so many bills that are ostensibly about something else but ultimately have a very strong civil rights bent to them, like Medicare, which desegregated hospitals; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which poured money into inferior schools for people of color to more equal the playing field in the area of education – all these things. So that was important to me.
And I think the Civil Rights Summit that we did in 2014 helped to solidify that, because you had four Presidents – not only Democratic Presidents but a Republican President – coming together to pay tribute to the courage that LBJ exhibited around civil rights. Until that point, not only had the Republican Party attacked LBJ, but the Democratic Party ran from LBJ because of the stain from Vietnam, which is, again, a rightful part of LBJ’s legacy – no question about that. But I think the accomplishments in civil rights are outsized, so I think that that was a tipping point, and that’s what I had hoped to achieve as the director.
As far as the exhibit goes, we needed to get LBJ firmly in the 21st century and needed to compel younger people who might not give LBJ any kind of look to say, “Not only do I understand but I can relate to this presidency because the same issues he addressed we are addressing today: voting rights, racial equity, environmental preservation, health care, immigration.” All these things that LBJ was grappling with so consequentially in the 1960s are issues that we’re facing today.
AC: About those younger people for whom LBJ is this distant figure from their parents’ or grandparents” time: I know you’ve taught some in the class “The Johnson Years,” with Mark Lawrence. Do you have difficulty getting them to connect with him?
MU: When you think about it, a young person looking at LBJ would be like us when we were their age looking at Calvin Coolidge. That’s the challenge. I think it becomes easier for LBJ for the reasons I mentioned. Number One: Issues are so big, and they continue to be the issues that we wrestle with in the 21st century. Those exact things that LBJ was dealing with, we are once again dealing with in 2021. The second thing is the outsized personalities of that era: LBJ with JFK and Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and Martin Luther King, all these giants, these icons. That helps. Culturally and politically, the 1960s are as relevant as any period of the 20th century. Young people know who Muhammed Ali is, and Martin Luther King and the Beatles. I think they understand those passionate times in a way. Young people are sort of inherently in touch with that period because they can see what’s happening with youth. And that’s stirring to the imagination. So we have an advantage. It would be very difficult, in my view, to teach the Eisenhower years or the Carter years. It becomes easier with LBJ for those reasons.
AC: It’s transformation writ large in so many ways, in civil rights, in the youth movement, in women’s liberations, in gay rights. Everything is bigger than it’s been in previous decades and in some cases even in later decades. Because it’s tied to youth, as you say, they feel a greater kinship in that line between yesterday and today.
What are your thoughts about Lady Bird? I have a sense of her, particularly where the Library is concerned, helping form that vision. It was only the fourth Presidential Library to be built, and the template was pretty simple: Honor the Great Man. But LBJ and Lady Bird were interested in making something different, and and it seems to me that she is pushing it forward after he dies. Am I off base?
MU: You are firmly on base. The LBJ Presidential Library is as much a vision of Lady Bird Johnson as of Lyndon Johnson, if not more so, and she was a part of it for much longer. LBJ wanted it to be the best, and it quickly became the best, partly because it didn’t just act as a repository of the record and a museum. It had a very programmatic component, which allowed it to be a future-looking institution rather than one that looks backward. It’s not just a museum where we look at the antiquities of the 1960s. It has a very vital feel to it, and that’s very much Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson’s visions around the institution.
And I will tell you – and this is true – when I had occasion to research the Library, it was not in person. The first time I set foot in the LBJ Library was when I was interviewing to be the director in 2009, and I walked into that building and I immediately felt at home, in a way that I can’t describe. I just felt immediately comfortable. And I think that there was the spirit of Lady Bird Johnson. I know that sounds hokey and silly, but it’s true. There is a spirit that hovers over the LBJ Library that is an embodiment of her grace. I felt it then and I feel it every day I walk in. Do you feel that? When you walk into that institution, what do you feel? Do you feel a warmth?
AC: I do now. I think initially, its architecture is of that type that suggests a temple to the pharaoh. You walk up to it feeling like it’s a mausoleum. Then going inside, there’s a theatricality and a grandeur to coming around and seeing the great view of the archives, floor after floor after floor behind glass. But the more time you spend there, you get a sense that you’re seeing the man LBJ, scaled down to not quite everyone else’s size, but a size where you see his humanity. And as the years have gone by, I’ve seen an attempt to bring that forward so you see it even more. Sometimes he’s your drunk uncle and sometimes he’s an incredible visionary of the American Experiment. The Library is allowing you to see that movement from one to the other. And maybe it’s because I know more about Lady Bird, but I do feel a sense of her spirit pervading that place, not as a shrine to Lyndon, but a place saying, “This is who he was, and this is what he did.”
MU: You’re taping this, right? If you don’t use that line in the article … That is exactly right. Lady Bird, she did not want to lionize Lyndon Johnson. By the same token, she was enormously proud of what he accomplished. He stood tall on feet of clay, and she knew this, and you see this in the Lyndon Johnson that comes to life in that library, largely because Lady Bird Johnson allowed the story to be told “with the bark off.”
But I would couple that, the impressions you get of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, with the fact that the programmatic part and the fact that the biggest names and greatest minds of our day come through our doors to talk about the issues of our time. Look at who’s been in that space. It is breathtaking. And that’s not just me or Mark or Betty Sue or Harry. Collectively, that’s all the people who have come to us because of our reputation for programming excellence. You’ve got, what, six or seven presidents. You have eight first ladies. You have Mikhail Gorbachev and Sandra Day O’Connor and Gloria Steinem and on and on and on and on. It is breathtaking.
AC: I talked about this with Mark Lawrence: It is an institution that is as much about the present and future as it is the past. In any given year, it is staggering the number of important political figures who come to that building and speak, and how it’s contributing to the current conversation.
MU: And that’s exactly what we want. That’s what Lady Bird Johnson wanted. I will say, too, that one of the reasons we get these people is because of Lady Bird’s presence at the institution for so long. They came for Lady Bird. And they imbibed the warmth and the grace that I got, almost through osmosis at the institution – she wasn’t alive, of course, when I became director. I think we continue to keep that spirit alive for guests who feel they’re taken care of when they’re there. So all that stuff makes this magic alchemy that is the LBJ Library experience.