Updated: Jul 3
At a time where the President of the United States is so divisive, being so contemptible to some and so adored by others, it is important to look back at past Presidencies to see how two contrastingly considered executive occupants are remembered in the popular memory. In this article, I’ll be taking a look at the Presidencies of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson; their strengths and weaknesses; their triumphs and failures.
When thinking about beloved U.S. Presidents, few fit the bill better than John F. Kennedy. He was the man responsible for the relative calming of tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in 1962 following the Cuban Missile Crisis. Conversely, when we think of controversial and historically maligned Presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and images of young American men being shipped off to the meatgrinder that was the Vietnam War are evoked.
For many famous artists, success and widespread admiration come posthumously. For example, Edgar Allen Poe's famous novel The Raven was sold for $9 while he was alive, it is now regarded as literary genius. While it is perhaps not the best comparison to JFK, whose tenure as President was celebrated by many during his lifetime, his unceremonious public assassination did create an affection for the man after his death, something he may not have enjoyed had he not died in office.
That said, JFK was by no means a one-term President in waiting. As I noted before, he oversaw the de-escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis without the launching of nuclear weapons or any proportional bloodshed. More credit goes to Kennedy when we understand that all of his Generals and armed forces advisors were urging him towards military action. Kennedy chose the diplomatic route, which decisively pulled the world from the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Above all else though, Kennedy was a captivating speaker. He famously declared in his inauguration speech that the United States was standing “on the edge of a New Frontier”. Kennedy’s objective in office was to stand up for the principals of liberty, freedom and democracy abroad, and to eradicate poverty, raise the standard of living and turn America’s eyes to the stars (not just a meaningless platitude, he meant through the space program).
That said, if we look at JFK’s natural abilities, he was far more interested in foreign policy than he was domestic. His inauguration speech was focussed on defending the free world, rather than developing the home front. That is ultimately what characterised Kennedy, a man whose ideas were broad and international, not solely domestic. Kennedy knew how to get the world singing to his tune, but he never quite had the requisite tools to get Congress on his side to implement his domestic agenda.
There are few Presidents, both of whom belong to the same party, with as little in common as JFK and LBJ. By the time he reached the Oval Office, Johnson had collected 24 years’ worth of Congressional experience, including holding the post of Senate Majority Leader from 1955-61. In short, Johnson knew his way around Congress. As a result, he was a smooth operator when it came to influencing politicians to do what he wants, a skill he undoubtedly crafted and honed during his time as Senate Majority Whip (1951-53).
Johnson, clearly inspired by Kennedy’s stagnant domestic agenda, attempted to clear the blockages in Congress and get stuff done. Resultingly, he managed to pass eyewatering amounts of domestic legislation, including the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), the Immigration & Nationality Act (1965), Medicare & Medicaid (1966), and so much more that justifies acknowledgement – but you get the picture; Johnson got stuff done and made lives better.
However, where Kennedy succeeded in foreign affairs, Johnson failed – and failed spectacularly. While Kennedy was not so interested in the domestic as he was the foreign, Johnson was a novice in the foreign, whereas he was a titan in the domestic. No blunder better epitomises Johnson’s overseas ineptitude than the U.S.’s entry into the Vietnam War and the accompanying draft program. What’s more, later revelations about the executive’s knowledge of the war and intelligence from the ground showed that, by 1967, they had given up hope of decisive victory. Instead of Johnson deciding to cut his losses, he doubled down on a war they knew they could not win, costing many thousands of American lives and many billions of taxpayer dollars.
A Matter of Perspective
Deciding who was better between JFK and LBJ, given what we know and what we can see, really depends on what function of government you interpret as the most important. If you think that given the international circumstances, a President’s main role was to guard against the spread of Communism, Kennedy’s your man. If, like me, you think that foreign affairs are important, but ultimately a President’s first objective should be to serve those who elect him, then you’re going to lean more towards Johnson.
Either way, the purpose of this article is to try to look beyond the rhetoric, beyond the now, and look at the big picture. If ever there is a time for big picture thinking, it’s now. As we sit in our homes, waiting for the black cloud above our collective heads to clear, we have to look at our leaders and appraise their performance in this crisis – but we also have to remember how our leaders work on a day-to-day basis; do they get stuff done?