During the early 1990s, Brinkley taught American Arts and Politics for Hofstra aboard the Majic Bus, a roving transcontinental classroom, from which emerged the book The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey (1993). In 1993, he left Hofstra to teach at the University of New Orleans, where he taught the class again using two natural-gas fueled buses. According to the Associated Press, “…if you can’t tour the United States yourself, the next best thing is to go along with Douglas Brinkley aboard The Majic Bus.”
Brinkley worked closely with his mentor, historian Stephen E. Ambrose, then director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans. Ambrose chose Brinkley to become director of the Eisenhower Center, a post he held for five years before moving to Tulane University.
Brinkley’s first book was Jean Monnet: The Path to European Unity (1992). The publication of Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years (1992) brought Brinkley popular acclaim. He then co-edited a monograph series with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and William vanden Heuvel in the 1990s. Brinkley also edited a volume on Dean Acheson and the Making of US Foreign Policy with Paul H. Nitze (1993). In 1999, he published The Unfinished Presidency about Jimmy Carter’s active and influential post-presidency.
Brinkley is the literary executor for his late friend, the journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson. He is also the editor of a three-volume collection of Thompson’s letters. Brinkley is also the authorized biographer for Beat generation author Jack Kerouac, having edited Kerouac’s diaries as Windblown World (2004).
He has also written profiles of popular writers Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, and Ken Kesey for Rolling Stone magazine. In 2009, Brinkley interviewed Bob Dylan in Paris and Amsterdam for a Rolling Stone cover story.
In 2004, Brinkley released Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, about U.S. Senator John Kerry’s military service and anti-war activism during the Vietnam War. The 2004 documentary movie, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry is loosely based on Brinkley’s book. Brinkley also wrote the Atlantic Monthly cover story of December 2003 on Kerry.
Brinkley’s book The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast is a record of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. The book won the 2007 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and was a Los Angeles Times book prize finalist. He also served as the primary historian for Spike Lee’s documentary about Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Critic Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker noted that Brinkley made up a “large part” of the film’s “conscience.”
FX Productions has announced that they will develop The Great Deluge for the second season of the network’s award-winning American Crime Story series, to air in 2017. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the series will contain thirteen to fifteen episodes.
Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite, Cronkite was published in 2012. It was also selected as a Washington Post Book of the Year.
Brinkley and Johnny Depp were nominated for a Grammy for their co-authoring of the liner notes to the documentary: Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. He also co-edited with Johnny Depp the long lost novel of Woody Guthrie titled House of Earth.