Should the Federal Government Be in the Business of Policing History?

tags: LBJ, Selma

Anthony Clark, a former speechwriter and legislative director in the U.S. House of Representatives, was responsible for hearings and investigations of the National Archives and presidential libraries for the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in the 111th Congress.

LBJ Library Panel 

Mark Updegrove, the federal director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library & Museum in Austin, Texas, is one of the instigators of the current backlash against Selma, the widely-praised film that depicts a crucial series of events in the Civil Rights Movement. Leaving others to engage in the historical debate about the film’s portrayal of LBJ, I would like instead to examine the campaign to discredit the film based on that portrayal. Waged by those intent on protecting and promoting Lyndon Johnson’s image, the efforts are part of a larger trend to use presidential libraries in ways far outside their initial objectives and Congressional intent, and to hire “legacy managers” rather than credentialed archivists and historians to run them.

Updegrove, who also serves, ex-officio, as a trustee of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library Foundation, began the wave of criticism in an article last month in Politico (which is published by Robert Allbritton, another trustee of the LBJ Foundation). Updegrove wrote that the film’s “mischaracterization” of LBJ “matters now” because “racial tension is once again high” and that “it does no good to bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the Civil Rights Movement by suggesting that the President himself stood in the way of progress.”

A few days later, former LBJ White House aide Joseph A. Califano, Jr. – also a trustee of the LBJ Foundation – in an angry op-ed in the Washington Post (which is published by Politico co-founder Fred Ryan, chairman of the board of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation) claimed that the Selma marches actually were Johnson’s idea. While this notion has been labeled false and outrageous by, among others, historian Peniel Joseph, in an illuminating NPR piece, the clamor may harm the film’s reputation, business, and, reportedly, its chances during the upcoming awards season.

From the significant, apparently coordinated endeavors of Updegrove, Califano, and others – and the negative attention they have brought to bear on an otherwise broadly-lauded work – it would seem as if, to them, Johnson was, and is, the point. But, like the movement as a whole, Selma the movie is not, and Selma the historical events were not, about Lyndon Johnson. By trying to make them about LBJ, and by rigorously policing any negative representations of him, those entrusted with managing the legacy of our nation’s 36th president reveal the motivations of the private organizations that build, donate, and utilize presidential libraries for their own purposes. 

This manufactured controversy sadly diverts proper attention from the film and its powerful message. It also underscores the main theme of my upcoming book, The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity & Enshrine Their Legacies. In the book, I explore the extent to which former chief executives, their families, supporters, and foundations go in order to, as in a campaign, present only the most positive – while ignoring all of the negative – elements of a president’s life, career, and administration. Instead of selling a candidate for office, they’re selling an image for posterity. And like a presidential campaign, image is more important than substance; the reality is more complicated – and less heroic – than the image-makers would have us believe. That doesn’t prevent them from rewriting history, and waging a concerted, and, at times, aggressive, campaign to rectify what they consider to be misrepresentations of their president.

Selling that image takes more than cheery messaging; it also requires the elimination of anything that may harm what often is a fragile narrative, based more on admiring rhapsodies than documented, historical facts. And like a campaign communications staff, members of the late president’s team feel they must hit back, hard, at criticism, negative facts, or even personal opinions that even slightly deviate from the message they have carefully crafted. 

To Updegrove, the suggestion that the man whose legacy he was hired to rescue was anything less than heroic, and motivated by anything other than saintly, selfless, devotion to a just cause, is unacceptable, and swiftly must be “corrected.” 

In a CNN blog post in February, 2014, Updegrove was quoted as saying, “We want people to know what this President did – what he got done and how it continues to affect us.” That’s a perfectly acceptable desire for a presidential family member or an official of a private foundation dedicated to promoting a president’s legacy to express, but not a mid-level federal employee responsible for administering a nonpartisan government archival facility.

On the January 4, 2015 edition of Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer commented on critics’ assertion that the movie was “dead wrong” on its portrayal of LBJ, asking Updegrove – as if he were a disinterested arbiter of the truth, rather than a tender of LBJ’s flame and a leader of that very criticism – “What happened here?” Updegrove answered, “Well, unfortunately, there's no litmus test for movies that -- based on history. There's no standard that says that you got this wrong, you have got to correct that.”

Apparently, though, Updegrove believes there is such a litmus test, and that he is the one designated to administer it.

An insistence that LBJ was so central to the movement that this film “bastardizes” it conveniently ignores his earlier role in successfully blocking civil rights legislation as Senate Majority Leader – a neat trick replicated in the recently-renovated LBJ Library museum. There, in exhibits depicting his pre-presidential career, Vietnam, foreign affairs, domestic programs, and the Civil Rights Movement, the narrative is clean, simple, and undeviating: Lyndon Baines Johnson Was A Great Man Who Did Nothing Other Than Great Things And Only For Great Reasons. 

The LBJ presented in the renovated exhibits – which were overseen by Updegrove – bears little resemblance to the meticulously-detailed and extraordinarily well-documented LBJ of Robert Caro’s multi-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. The museum’s adulatory portrayal differs little from those in recent presidential libraries, but it is quite different from the other mature museums in the National Archives system, which have, over time, begun to develop more thorough, balanced, and nuanced views of the men to whom they are dedicated. Instead of echoing that progress, the recent changes to the LBJ exhibits go backwards; that they are less factual and more flattering is unprecedented in the history of presidential libraries – as is Updegrove’s assertive campaigning, as a federal employee, to rehabilitate a president’s image.

Will Updegrove’s public scolding of Selma director Ava DuVernay have a chilling effect? Will future filmmakers think twice before daring to express an opinion about a former president with taxpayer-funded legacy managers to rescue their legacy? Will researchers at the Johnson Library worry the director might charge them with “mischaracterizing” Johnson? That our government now appears to be in the business not only of administering these legacy-burnishing shrines but of “correcting” others’ views of history should be unacceptable to the citizens who fund the operation of our presidential libraries. 

While it would be a shame if Updegrove’s and his colleagues’ need to police and sanitize Johnson’s image deprives this transformative film of deserved accolades and awards, it would be a greater misfortune if their attempts to discredit Selma prevented it from being seen by a broad audience. It is my hope that the film and the filmmakers succeed in spite of these negative efforts, and, in the face of this latest example of the last campaign, overcome.

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