A tale of two Sixties: How we misremember JFK and LBJ

The upcoming 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy promises to unleash an outpouring of admiration for the lost promise of Camelot, not only among Democrats but also, somewhat unexpectedly, from Republicans.

Democrats do not endlessly praise Reagan. But many Republicans seem to love Kennedy.

Yet it is worth remembering that JFK’s domestic accomplishments pale to those of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, who passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and enacted Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start.

Part of the praise for JFK, especially on the right, is intended to demean LBJ.

By honoring Kennedy, the Right is subtly dividing the 1960s into two distinct periods.

Indeed, to the conservative movement, there are two “sixties.”

The “good sixties” refers to the Kennedy era and conjures a time of strong national defense, a tough stance against communist expansion, peaceful civil rights protests, and the persistence of “traditional” standards of dress, expression, and family life.

The “bad sixties,” conversely, refers to the presidencies of Johnson and, for that matter, Richard Nixon; a time of urban riots, antiwar protests, difficulties in fighting the Vietnam War, increased incivility, crime, drug abuse, and social unrest.

When Republicans say “the sixties,” they mean 1964–1974, not 1960–1969: “the sixties” excludes Kennedy.

JFK’s assassination marks a dividing line in American memory. Remembering Kennedy, we also must recall how relentless criticisms of LBJ from the right have been over the years.

Ronald Reagan may have demonized the 1960s throughout his presidency, but he was always careful to distinguish between the Kennedy and the Johnson years. Reagan must have felt almost as much disdain for Kennedy as he did for Johnson — he voted for neither candidate and publicly criticized each — but as president he could not openly say so, for the Kennedy myth had grown much too powerful by the 1980s.

So Reagan simply co-opted Kennedy and claimed to admire him as much as anyone else.