American historian, best-selling author will address the 2023 CSG National Conference

By Lexington Souers

Brinkley, who is the Katherine Tsanoff Brown chair in humanities and professor of history at Houston’s Rice University, has previously worked at the U.S. Naval Academy and Princeton and Hofstra Universities. He is also on the board of the National Archives Foundation, the Library of Congress and the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. Brinkley edited the diaries of former President Ronald Reagan upon receiving them from former first lady Nancy Reagan, and he also edited Hunter S. Thompson’s work as his literary executor.

The written work of Brinkley covers military, presidential and environmental history, among other topics. Six of his books were named New York Times “Notable Books of the Year” and seven were New York Times bestsellers. Brinkley is also the recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Book Award for “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” as well as Fordham University’s Ann M. Sperber Prize for his 2012 biography of Walter Cronkite.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your history?

Brinkley: My mother and father were teachers. My dad went into business, but my mom was an English teacher at the high school I was at. I went to the Ohio State University, majoring in history. I then got a fellowship and earned my master’s and doctorate at Georgetown University. I started teaching for different stints at the U.S. Naval Academy, Princeton, Hofstra University and in New Orleans at Tulane. I’m now at Rice University.

My first book was on Dean Acheson, a very proven secretary of state. My second book was “Driven Patriot” on James Forrestal, who was our secretary of the Navy during World War II. So, I began by doing quite a bit of military and cold war strategy in my career, but I evolved into doing a lot on presidential history. For fun, I write music and pop culture from time to time.

Q: Do you have any early memories of presidents?

Brinkley: I have memories of the 1960s. I remember very distinctly the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War. I even have drawings I did at 6 and 7 years old of the Vietnam War. I remember exactly where and what I was feeling when I saw Robert F. Kennedy get killed at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

In life, I’ve gotten personally to know so many presidents over the years. I know former President Jimmy Carter really well — I wrote a book about him. I knew former President Gerald Ford well. Former first lady Nancy Reagan gave me all of former President Ronald Reagan’s diaries to keep, and I edited those and on and on.

Q: As you decided what to center your career around, why did you focus much of your work on presidents?

Brinkley: I grew up in Ohio and we used to call our state the mother of presidents. When I had field trips, we would go to the birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant and the home of Rutherford B. Hayes, the tomb of William McKinley and so on. I was really interested in those trips because: A., they were field trips away from school, but B., I really found all that history interesting.

Nothing pulls the national story together like presidents because it’s all 50 states. There’s no better way to think about modern politics than looking at the strands and past U.S. political history. People will use history and political history to go back in time and see if there’s anything analogous to what’s happening at the current moment.

Q: How have great presidents been molded by their environments or other great leaders? How have you seen that play out?

Brinkley: I always find that a great leader and great Americans have a love for the land or love for where they find a spiritual connection to nature. What experience in the natural world have you connected to?

If you ask that question and look back at other presidents, you will see presidents that got solace from the ocean like John F. Kennedy, or from the land like Lyndon Johnson did in the Texas Hill Country, Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, George Washington at Mount Vernon, or Jimmy Carter, who’s still alive with us, from Georgia and knows every nook and cranny of the landscape. I think it helps keep you grounded.

Q: CSG members are involved in all three branches of state government. What can they learn from looking at past presidents?

Brinkley: Overall, it’s a good idea to talk quickly and truthfully to your constituents. Presidents, Senate leaders and congressional leaders who are successful are truth tellers. They have to really tell their voting public exactly what’s going on.

By and large, if you can really shoot straight to your constituents, you are going to live a valuable life in your community and beyond — even if for some reason you lose. Look at Jimmy Carter losing to Ronald Reagan in 1980. Wait until Carter passes. The whole world is going to be talking about the integrity of Carter. He was a good person. It’s a legacy you can be proud of because it’s clean.

Q: Have you learned any lessons about leadership, or different leadership styles, from studying presidents?

Brinkley: First, you have to have a genuine love for the United States. Love your country equally; recognize whenever you see the grave of a fallen hero. Use your imagination and think about what it would have been like in the Korean War and to have been killed, or have been hit by a sniper in Guam and World War II, or shot dead at the beaches of Normandy. The list is long. Really have a historical memory of the cost to build a country like the United States. The more you go abroad and the more you leave the United States, the more you find something sacred about U.S. airspace. When you enter our country, you realize “I’m home” and it’s important to try to get back to the point where we like everybody and —if you’re an American — that’s the club and we take care of our own. We’re not going to demonize somebody in America because they have a different point of view than mine.

Q: Do you find any misconceptions in the study of political leaders from either your students or people at large?

Brinkley: Now, it’s a little harder because we’re trying to open up the American narrative on gender and race. When you’re dealing with presidents, it’s white men from the beginning to former President Barack Obama, so what you do is talk more about first ladies, do side lectures, and talks about women’s suffrage to vote, and people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I now try to consciously insert new talks about great women like Ida B. Wells and Dolores Huerta, who was a founder of United Farm Workers. I have tried to shine a flashlight on women in history because it’s been under underplayed and, particularly if you’re writing the history of American politics, it gets underplayed.

Q: How have you seen great leaders interact with the staffers who support their work?

Brinkley: I find that presidents who have trusted advisors turn out better than the other presidents, meaning they had true critics around them. FDR, because he was in a wheelchair and had to be lifted, usually had a general or military aid with him. He also he had a man named Louis Howe, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt and scores of friends that would just tell him, “You’re wrong.” He liked that. He liked hearing other people say, “You’re not right,” and be challenging. I think that’s healthy. I don’t think you want to get isolated in a White House. What helped John F. Kennedy is that he had Ted Sorensen. Ronald Reagan had Nancy Reagan, George Shultz, James Baker and people that he could trust. Those individuals can tell the president what they thought without facing repercussions.

If you build a team around you that can tell you straight and talk straight, I think you can have a better decision-making process. If you are in the legislature, keep your good friends close at hand — friends that don’t leave you, friends that you can talk straight to, a religious advisor who you can talk to, or people that can help you get clarity of mind so that you’re not just constantly off and about on your own raft.

Q: If you could run for any office, what would it be?

Brinkley: I would love to be a governor of a state because I like learning every detail about whatever state I’m living in or where I’m from, right down to the county lines and to the polling places. I like the state-by-state approach. Governor would be my most coveted job.

In the federal government, I have always dreamed — and, for me, it’s actually more realistic — of running the National Park Service. I just thought how much fun that would be. It’s not just Yellowstone, Yosemite or Mammoth Cave — it’s all of these historical sites, too. That job would be awesome.

Q: What is something meaningful that you keep in your office?

Brinkley: I think mainly — and not to sound boring — but just photos of my family. But I have a signed bat by Hank Aaron, the baseball king, and a painting by Duke Ellington, the great jazz leader. Those sit by me but mainly its books, and pictures of my wife and three kids.

Q: Do you have any tips for people visiting Raleigh?

Brinkley: I still go to capitols because I like to see what the statuary is around the lawns. I really am interested in how Raleigh has now bled into Duke University, and how that area has become the research triangle and one of the four or five most important parts of our country for innovation.

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