What We Can Learn from LBJ When Evaluating Former Presidents

Mar 1, 2017

From Texas Standard:

The United States has 13 official presidential libraries. Three of them are in Texas: the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, and the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin.

For the past eight years, author and historian Mark Updegrove has led that library. He's helped reshape the legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson – in large part with a political star-studded Civil Rights Summit a few years ago to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

Now, Updegrove is moving on. He'll be the CEO of the new National Medal of Honor Museum being built in Charleston, South Carolina.

Texas Standard spoke with Updegrove about the work he's done in the Texas Capital city over the past several years – and the job Updegrove thinks is still ahead in defining future presidential legacies.

 

On the tipping point in LBJ's legacy:

"For so long, not only Democrats, but Republicans, ran from the legacy of Lyndon Johnson as associated with Vietnam. And this [the 2014 Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Library] really showed his importance in the area of Civil Rights. Race, in so many ways, defines our country and this is a guy who did something about it."

On the details of LBJ's civil rights efforts:

"Johnson ... pushed through the Civil Rights Act that [President John F.] Kennedy had proposed but went far further in the cause of Civil Rights than anyone had imagined before him; putting on the books the Voting Rights Act and the most seminal Civil Rights Act and the Open Housing Act as well."

On his own interest in LBJ:

"There's a much bigger story about LBJ that most people don't appreciate. The legislative accomplishments of Lyndon Johnson are breathtaking. I mentioned Civil Rights but if you look at immigration and federal aid to education and environmental protection, and Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start, and the creation of PBS and NPR and the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts – on and on and on. These are all products of Lyndon Johnson's ability to get things done."

On the evolution of presidential legacies:

"It takes us at least a generation to get a clear view of a president's administration ... and particularly as it relates to Vietnam. Vietnam so divided this country and passions ran so deep around Vietnam that it took us a much longer period of time in order to get a more objective look at the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson. We're finally to that point now – it's taken two generations. But now we're to the point where we can look at the broad sweep of the Great Society and look at how seminal it was, how important – I think the Great Society is the foundation on which modern America is built."

On evaluating President Barack Obama and other recent presidents:

"I would emphasize we can't get an objective view of the Obama administration at this point. It's going to take a long time for us to be able to do that. For instance, George H.W. Bush has been gone from the White House since January of 1993, so it's been nearly a quarter of a century. Now, we're finally getting a pretty objective look at his administration, he's finally getting his due. It's going to take at least that long for Barack Obama – it's a two-term presidency, it was very consequential in many respects."