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From Oval Office to Statehouse: Leadership Lessons With Mark Updegrove

The presidential historian shares insights—relevant in both the past and the present.

By Lesley Kennedy  |  December 13, 2023

As state legislatures gear up for a year of challenges, taking a step back to reflect on the nation’s history might just offer some well-needed perspective.

Mark Updegrove, the president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation and presidential historian for ABC News, is the author of five books on the presidency and has interviewed seven U.S. presidents: Joe Biden, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford. He has also served as director of the LBJ Presidential Library.

At the NCSL Forecast ’24 meeting in Austin, Texas, Updegrove addressed several leadership lessons he’s gleaned from a career spent chronicling America’s commanders in chief. He spoke with NCSL Staff Chair Sabrina Lewellen, who also serves as deputy director and assistant secretary of the Arkansas Senate.

Here’s a condensed look at some of the insights from their conversation.

On the legacy of former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who died Nov. 19, 2023.

“Jimmy Carter called his wife, Rosalynn Carter, his secret weapon. But there was no secret about how influential she was during the course of the Carter administration and beyond. She was her husband’s closest confidant, closest advisor, most trusted counselor. She would attend cabinet meetings, foreign policy briefings, national security briefings. She was an emissary on trips abroad, including to Latin America, which was far more substantive than it was ceremonial. And so, at the time, she was considered the second most important person in Washington.”

On common traits among leaders.

“Every man, and hopefully soon, every woman, wants to make his own mark on the presidency, and those leaders come to the presidency with different skill sets, with different ambitions, with different visions for our country. There’s no one-size-fits-all blueprint for what leadership looks like. I’ve interviewed seven presidents, and I think they will all get good marks in history for various reasons. They’re going to have mixed reviews, but basically, I think they will be on the plus side of history because of two things and two things only that they share. One is that they love their country, and the second is that they did their best. And that’s the best that we can ask for anybody who is in public service.”

“There’s no one-size-fits-all blueprint for what leadership looks like. I’ve interviewed seven presidents, and I think they will all get good marks in history for various reasons.”

—Mark Updegrove, presidential historian, LBJ Foundation

On the role of staff in supporting presidents and leaders.

“One of the things you learn from talking to presidents is while they’re the most important person in the world, by most accounts, they’re unbelievably insulated. Harry Truman called (the White House) the big white jail, and you do get insulated by virtue of your schedule and demands on your time.

“It’s hard to understand the needs of the American people. It’s hard to understand things outside your immediate sphere, and the staff are the eyes and ears of a president. A president is only as good as the information that gets to his desk, right? I don’t know that legislators are as insulated as the president is, but I can tell you the invaluable nature of those who serve any lawmaker in terms of what you do in collecting information and giving it to your principal so that they have the right information to make the right decision.”

On leading in times of disunity.

“The person who provides the best example of that is Abraham Lincoln. You know from the iconic (Lincoln Memorial) statue that Lincoln’s two hands are outstretched on the arms of the chair in which he’s sitting. One is balled up in a fist, and one is outstretched—and that is meant to symbolize the two most important aspects of Lincoln’s presidency: strength on one hand, compassion on the other. That’s the Lincoln presidency in a nutshell. You use all of your strength to defeat the South in order to keep the Union together. And then once the South has been vanquished, you stretch out that hand and bring them back into the fold, as he said in his second inaugural address, ‘with malice toward none, with charity for all.’ Those, I think, are the most important aspects for any leader—when do you use strength, when do you show compassion—and the balance depends on the situation that you’re facing.”

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On leading during times of significant technological change.

“The greatest presidents, the greatest political leaders, understand how to use the mediums of their time based on technological advances. Jefferson was a master of understanding partisan newspapers and how to use them in his time. Lincoln understood the importance of the fledgling art of photography, which he used so successfully in getting elected. He also understood the importance of the written word. We know the great speeches that Lincoln delivered, but very few people heard those speeches. (They) read them in newspapers across the states. Franklin Roosevelt successfully used radio, which was the dominant medium of its time, to keep us together during the depths of the Great Depression. During World War II, he (broadcast) a series of fireside chats and people who heard those chats would say you could walk down a street and never miss a word because everyone was listening to them. For John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in particular, they understood the importance of television. Donald Trump successfully used Twitter during the course of his administration.”

On the legacy of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

“LBJ used to say, and I love this quote: ‘Any jackass can knock down a barn door, but it takes a damn fine carpenter to build one.’ And there’s a lot of tearing down in America today. A lot of burning down, a lot of destruction. But I think we need to think about what we do to build. You build consensus, you build relationships, you build a future. In the wake of Bloody Sunday (the 1965 attack on civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala.), LBJ had to confront (Alabama Gov.) George Wallace in order to get Wallace to loosen his grip on the very violent Alabama state troopers so that the march could be completed successfully.

“He says, ‘George, we shouldn’t be talking about 1965, we should talk about 1985. Now, George, we will both be dead by then. So, we have to ask ourselves, how do we want to be remembered?’ He says, ‘Now, George, when people go to your graveside, do you want something written on a scrawny bit of pine that says “George Wallace, he hated,” or do you want a great temple in which is etched the words “George Wallace, he built”?’ I just think about that all the time. What have I built? What am I doing to build something that will be lasting and meaningful to the next generation? LBJ espoused the virtues of doers and builders. That’s what lawmakers should do. They should get things done and they should build for the future.”

Lesley Kennedy is NCSL’s director of publishing and digital content.

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