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

Bernard von Bothmer Author, 'Framing the Sixties'
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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.

The memory of Kennedy, even the longing for him, represented a political minefield for the right. Reagan adroitly sidestepped the dangers and used JFK to his political advantage by claiming to agree with his policies. He asserted that Kennedy would not have recognized his own Democratic Party in the late 1960s and beyond.

Praising Kennedy gave Reagan a crucial political opportunity, allowing him to intensify his critique of the “bad sixties” by contrasting it with the Kennedy years. In attacking the Great Society, he could assert that Democrats had abandoned Kennedy’s wise policies after his death.

If Reagan fondly recalled the early 1960s of JFK, he had nothing but contempt for the post-Kennedy 1960s. Criticizing Johnson’s “bad sixties” became one of Reagan’s major rhetorical strategies. Reagan’s professed love for the Kennedy era was surpassed in intensity only by the vitriol he directed at the Johnson years.

Reagan skillfully co-opted the glowing memory of Kennedy to justify tax cuts and a vigorously anticommunist foreign policy. Reagan boldly claimed that he was Kennedy’s heir and that the post-1960s Democrats had departed dramatically from JFK’s agenda.

Reagan eagerly used the memory of JFK for political gain, referring to Kennedy in his public statements more than any other president of either party.

George H.W. Bush continued this line of attack. At the University of Michigan’s 1991 commencement ceremony, where in 1964 Johnson had announced his “Great Society” program, Bush criticized Johnson by name, and said that LBJ “believed that cadres of experts really could care for the millions. … And in time, this crusade backfired.”

After the 1992 Rodney King riots, within days Bush was linking the upheavals to the liberal policies of the 1960s. Bush spokesman Marlin Fitzwater that the failure of LBJ’s Great Society programs was central to the disturbances.

Even Democrats have long treated Johnson as a pariah.

As president, Bill Clinton, who clearly felt an affinity with Johnson, was reluctant to publicly defend LBJ.

While Clinton openly admired Kennedy, as president he rarely praised Johnson. Given that Johnson and Clinton were southerners with some interests in common, Clinton’s reluctance to speak of Johnson revealed the danger he sensed in speaking positively of JFK’s successor.

Clinton lauded Johnson’s Medicare and civil rights programs — “the greatest domestic achievement of my lifetime” — but he almost never defended the rest of Johnson’s domestic agenda. He only once uttered the words “War on Poverty.” He referred to the Great Society by name only four times in his entire presidency — and only after he was reelected.

The political use of Kennedy’s memory, and the dividing line it symbolizes, is really about competing views of the 1960s.

Liberals recall the 1960s as a high point of American idealism and admire the quest for racial and economic justice.

Conservatives, by contrast, see the 1960s as the beginning of the decline of beloved American values: self-reliance, self-discipline, personal responsibility, strong local communities, and love of country. Though they fiercely opposed him at the time, those on the right claim to admire Kennedy today.

In their narrative, everything fell apart after Kennedy’s death: the government needlessly intervened into state prerogatives on racial issues and waged a futile, costly, and ineffective War on Poverty, while the rebellious antics of protesters cost the nation victory in Vietnam.

According to this view the malevolent forces unleashed by the 1960s continue to reverberate throughout American life, causing drug abuse, crime, and a wide variety of other social ills.

By praising JFK, Republicans seek to remind Americans of the chaos that followed.

And that’s why some on the right gleefully refer to today’s president as “Lyndon Baines Obama.”

Bernard von Bothmer teaches American history at the University of San Francisco, where he received USF’s 2010 Distinguished Lecturer Award for Excellence in Teaching, and at Dominican University of California. He is the author of Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.