Interview: Director of LBJ Presidential Library Weighs in on The Seldoms’ “Power Goes” and the Potential Impact of an Obama Library



With the controversies swirling around a possible Obama Presidential Library location in Chicago still in the air, the Director of the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas made a trip to Chicago. 



The occasion was a panel discussion about “Power Goes”, a dance inquiry into the relationship of power and social change through the lens of LBJ’s person



The Seldoms’ choreographer, Carrie Hanson, had convened a panel that included: the “Power Goes” playwright, Stuart Flack; an Art Historian with a specialty in using bodies as artistic material, S. Elise Archias; discussion leader and dramaturg for The Seldoms, Michael J. Kramer; and Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the LBJ Presidential Library that recently hosted the Civil Rights Summit including addresses by President Barack Obama and former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.



The LBJ Presidential Library, according to their website “is one of thirteen Presidential Libraries administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. It houses 45 million pages of historical documents which include the papers from the entire public career of Lyndon Baines Johnson and those of his close associates. President Johnson insisted that the Library that bears his name tell future generations the story of this rich period of history 'with the bark off.'"




During the “Power Goes” panel discussion Updegrove shared many anecdotes about LBJ that brought a narrative dimension to the dance work. 


Here is a recap of a later conversation with Updegrove about LBJ, “Power Goes” and the potential impact of an Obama Presidential Library on Chicago.


Question:  What did you think of “Power Goes”?


MU:  It was good.  I’m not a connoisseur of modern dance but it did a marvelous job of capturing the idea of power and LBJ as a paragon of power and his forceful and quirky personality.



Question:  As someone who creates historical narratives, what do you think of “telling the tale” via dance/multimedia?


MU:  Dance is a great media to tell a story and The Seldoms did an admirable job portraying the history.


Question:  In your archives/interviews, do many who knew Johnson speak of his physical person?


MU:  It comes up frequently.  Legendarily it was known as “The Johnson Treatment”.   He would use his 6 foot 3 inch frame --his physicality-- to achieve his ends.  You see  him towering over people he was talking to like a snake over a mongoose.


One historian famously said that when Lyndon started breathing in your mouth you were finished.


There’s a story about Hubert Humphrey who had come to a meeting with Johnson and then was asked how it went.  Humphrey was quoted as saying, “If I had been with him any longer he would have had to propose.”


Johnson was a very, very physical man.


(At the LBJ Presidential Library) We have a section on the Johnson treatment.  You hear his taped telephone conversations and  see pictures that show him cajoling, flattering, or threatening people he was trying to influence.  The Johnson Treatment shows you the many faces of LBJ’s multifaceted personality.  He knew people were motivated by love and fear, and he could read people to see the right combination for any given situation. 


He was reading people physically too.  He used anything at his disposal to assess where a situation was going.



Question:  When the choreographer, Carrie Hanson, spoke the other day of how she first got interested in LBJ, she noted the difference between LBJ’s vast accomplishments and today’s seeming inability to make political progress.   With that frame in mind--- could you speak to the age-old question of how you weigh in on whether LBJ made the times or if the times made LBJ?


MU:  It’s so hard to know.  Eventful times create an opportunity for great leadership.  Lincoln wouldn’t be the same President that we revere if not for the Civil War.  We rarely celebrate great leaders who don’t face great events during their time.


LBJ reigned in the Oval Office during very tumultuous times.   He became a great leader because he was the right man at the right time.  He was a master of the legislative process at a crossroads in US history when we needed reform across critical areas.  Through his great powers of persuasion and great skill in the legislative process he gave us the legislative reform that transformed our country.


Consider that in his first year after earning the presidency he gave us federal aid to education, medicare and medicaid, immigration reform and the Clean Air Act.   It was also when the landmark Voting Rights Act  became law—the most important civil rights legislation on the books.  He transforms our electoral process and without this you don’t have Obama, nor even Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. 


And since we are talking about a dance it is also especially of  note that that same year he created the NEA. 


Johnson’s Immigration Act created the most sweeping immigration reform ever. 


He also gave us the Clean Air Act and the Highway Beautification Act.


All these things happen in one single year!


Lyndon Johnson would thrive in any time.  He probably wouldn’t hold sway today in the same way but he would figure out somehow a way to get things done.   21st Century Washington is intrinsically a different place, but I think he would have been successful in any –Corporate CEO to bioengineer.   Johnson just has a remarkable record of success.  He threw himself at problems by giving them everything he had- he gave it his all, always.  His idea was that if he

outworked everyone else then he would be able to ascend the ranks faster.  This proved to be a good formula for success.


 Question:  In addition to visiting the LBJ Library in Austin, what would you recommend to "Power Goes" audience members who have become newly interested in LBJ’s life and times?


MU:  The LBJ Ranch in Texas Hill Country is a wonderful place.   It’s in  a Hill Country Town and tells you a lot about LBJ- -where he entered and departed from this world. The Hill Country was in his blood.  He was a product of small town Texas and spent about 1/5 of his presidency at his Ranch in the Hill Country – adding up to about a year of his presidency.  The job didn’t go away because he was leaving Washington.  The land sustained him.


Question:  Many Chicagoans hope we too soon have a Presidential Library.  Can you talk about how your work/LBJ Library affects Austin and how being located in Austin affects the library? What would be your hopes for the Obama Library


MU:  Presidential libraries are national treasures.   They tell us so much about our present and they also tell us how we were shaped and what got us to the place where we are today. 


In the case of the LBJ Library, it changed the model of presidential libraries.  The LBJ Library is not only a repository of historical archives but also a town square to talk about the issues of our time.  We bring the biggest names to talk about these issues. 


All presidential libraries are different, reflect the ambitions of the president they are named for.  The Obama Library could be so many things.  It depends on the vision that will shape it.  But always presidential libraries mean a great deal to their communities, in terms of eco-development, among other dimensions.


The Clinton Library is a perfect example.  It’s in a section of Little Rock where there was little going on and it increased the vitality of that area tremendously.  If the  Obama Library is established in Chicago it would be a similar economic driver and great institution that could enhance the entire community. 




To learn more about LBJ visit the LBJ Presidential Library website or visit the actual library in Austin, Texas.


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