It practically went unnoticed that Nov. 22 was the 45th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. You know, the Camelot guy with the knockout babe of a wife — the White House couple Barack and Michelle Obama are being compared to. JFK the visionary, who said America could put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s — 8 years before we did and 6 years after his murder. JFK the inspiration to a generation of young people who couldn’t wait to explore his New Frontier. JFK the womanizer, who proved behind closed doors at the White House with Marilyn Monroe that some like it hot.
JFK was elected to the presidency in 1960 — a watershed year. It would be the most important presidential election in the last half of the 20th century. Three of the four men running that year would eventually become president. And all would meet tragic ends to their presidency in different ways. JFK’s Vice President Lyndon Johnson would take over after Kennedy’s death. The man JFK beat in 1960, Richard Nixon, would succeed Johnson. LBJ was humiliated out of office because of the Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign his office.
In retrospect, it would be the presidencies of JFK and LBJ that would define America for the next 45 years. And it was LBJ’s presidency, not JFK’s, that would make it possible for Obama to be elected the first African-American president.
Since JFK was cut down in his prime and never had a chance at a second term, the great debate has always centered on whether he would’ve been a great president. He gets the benefit of the doubt because he was martyred. One thing is certain, though, his death had more impact on America than did his presidency. The turbulent 1960s gained full steam after his assassination — the hero of the baby boom generation fell, and they viewed his successor as a meglomaniac who fed his hungry war more and more young people.
On the Civil Rights front, JFK was clearly inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and spoke with urgency to defeat discrimination — but he couldn’t get anything legislated. Had he lived, one wonders whether his would’ve been a profile in courage — could he fight tooth and nail what was the good fight. JFK talked a good game, but he didn’t have the support necessary to move the ball forward.
Not so with LBJ — a persuasive leader who was Senate majority leader before becoming vice president. LBJ could literally twist arms to get what he wanted. And he wanted to — and got — the Civil Rights Act of 1965 passed. He did JFK one better — no doubt knowing it was a feather in his own cap because he was a Southerner. But the nation saw the legislation as JFK’s dream fulfilled. Poor LBJ, up until his death he could never shake Kennedy’s ghost. After the law was in the books, LBJ was said to have told a colleague that “We (the Democratic Party) just lost the South for a generation.” A small price to pay when you consider those who fought and those who gave their lives for a freedom that should never have been denied. America’s mortal sin.
During the primary season, Hillary Clinton took a lot of heat for crediting LBJ as “the white man” who made the voting rights for African-Americans a reality. She forgot about the brave souls who protested, rioted, died, or spoke eloquently to get us as a nation to act like human beings. Clinton, unlike a lot of her fellow baby boomers, was courageous enough to give LBJ his due. If you talk to others from her generation, they’ll tell you they’d rather eat dirt than praise LBJ. They just cannot forgive or forget his Vietnam debacle that sent young men to an early grave.
For all his faults — and there were many — LBJ accomplished what JFK could only imagine and express eloquently. Shortly before his own assassination in 1968, JFK’s brother Bobby told an interviewer that he could see the possibility of a black man getting elected president within 40 years. Spoken like a true visionary. Forty years after his and Dr. King’s assassinations, America did what many believed they would never see in their lifetime. By doing so, we proved we are better than that.
Barack Obama made history because he benefitted from it — thanks in large part to a new generation of young Americans who are often criticized for not knowing history but know enough to learn from its mistakes.
The forgotten man in this history lesson is, of course, LBJ. The man who changed history with a bold stroke of his pen when he signed into law Civil Rights legislation. No more important piece of legislation has been passed since. LBJ’s presidency was a baffling dichotomy: Had he not had that damn war and been remembered only for his work with Civil Rights, his legacy would be immortalized. We’d be talking about LBJ, not JFK. So would the Democratic Party, which seldom brings up the Texan’s name. Not even Barack Obama speaks of LBJ. He’s a dubious footnote in American history — even though he left a large imprint on the country that lasted decades.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was right when he said the Democratic Party would lose the South for a generation (and then some.) But the payoff in return was more than he could’ve even imagined: We got ourselves a grateful nation.