When Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, he was the perfect candidate for his time. Rock solid and filled with integrity, he provided a reassuring presence within a political environment rife with anti-communist hysteria and overheated accusations of treason. With unblemished credentials as the supreme commander of the Allied Forces during World War II, the respected general also seemed to be the commander in chief capable of ending the stalemate in Korea.
But by 1960, the steady former general had morphed, in the popular imagination, into the plodding old general. It was not just the mild stroke he suffered in 1957 that convinced many that the country needed a more vital chief executive; there were signs everywhere that America had lost its edge under his leadership. In August and September of 1957, the Soviets successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missiles, seeming to place the communists ahead in the nuclear race. In October, the Russians launched Sputnik, an unmanned satellite that circled the earth for three months. Sputnik’s radio beam, picked up by ham radio operators throughout America, provided a painful reminder that America’s most recent satellite had exploded at lift-off. The suggestion that America had lost its scientific edge was reinforced further in November when the office of education released a two-year study revealing that Russian students were better prepared than Americans in math and science.
In addition to America’s technological decline, some observers argued that Americans suffered from an erosion of morality and virility. Philip Wylie’s bestselling Generation of Vipers described a nation weakened by materialism and a generation of young men emasculated by overbearing and overprotective mothers.
In short, the message from several directions was that America needed rejuvenation—it needed to recover its technological and educational edge, and shake off the enervating excess accumulated during a decade of postwar prosperity. And this rejuvenation must begin at the top.
John Kennedy was the perfect presidential candidate for his time. Young and active, he presented a stark contrast to the older, increasingly frail Eisenhower. A Harvard-educated war hero, he represented intellectual rigor as well as personal courage—the right combination for steering America toward renewed international leadership. An eloquent speaker and an astute analyst of the national mood, he articulated a vision that took direct aim at American fears that aging leadership had left America vulnerable and soft. “Let the word go forth . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” he declared in his inaugural address. And to those who feared that material self-indulgence was stifling the American spirit he issued a call for personal sacrifice: “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”13
In office, Kennedy consciously cultivated the people’s expectations for his presidency. He placed his beautiful wife and young children prominently in the public eye. He played football on the White House lawn during the day and hosted elegant balls at night. He staffed his administration with Ivy League graduates and filled his dinner table with poets, scientists, and scholars. Americans did sense that they were in the midst of a new beginning, a time of renewal and grand vision. Camelot had come to America, one writer suggested.
Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 revealed just how intensely Americans had invested emotionally and ideologically in his presidency. For three days, the nation grieved collectively; not since Abraham Lincoln’s murder a century earlier had Americans experienced such a sudden shattering of hope.
For many, Kennedy’s legacy was inflated by the tragedy of his death. Launched amid extraordinary hope, and ended just as it was gaining traction, his presidency was romantically characterized as one of historic vision. He was to be the president that eliminated poverty and advanced civil rights, and his achievements were celebrated as portents of even greater things to come. In the bundle of proposals labeled “The New Frontier,” he had called for the creation of a health care plan for the elderly—Medicare—increased federal aid to education, and the renewal of America’s cities through a newly organized department of urban affairs. He promised to extend American good will around the world through the creation of the Peace Corps and to restore America’s scientific status by landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Yet for others, Kennedy’s legacy was defined by his failure to make much headway on this vision and his reluctance to push harder for causes that carried political risk. To these critics, Kennedy was a president of empty promises and meager achievements. In the final analysis, they charge, he was more style than substance. Intimidated by Southern Democrats, he was slow to take action on civil rights. He even shied away from the unilateral options open to him as chief executive. After promising to end discrimination in public housing, he dragged his feet and, eventually, signed orders guaranteeing equal access only to future projects. He appointed southern segregationists to the federal bench, and he gave FBI director J. Edgar Hoover the green light to tap Martin Luther King, Jr.’s phones in order to investigate Hoover’s absurd allegation that King was part of a communist conspiracy.
There is an element of truth in both assessments, but neither offers a fully realistic evaluation of the political realities surrounding Kennedy’s presidency. That is, to a large extent, both his defenders and detractors largely ignore what was politically possible in 1961. Instead, the mystique surrounding Kennedy’s presidency has served to both inflate his prospects and exaggerate his shortcomings. Kennedy was no King Arthur, nor was he just a flash in the pan. The most useful analysis begins with the recognition that he was a relatively young president with limited political experience. The real question, then, is how fully he would have grown in the office, and how fully he would have matured politically as president.
Clearly, the biggest challenge Kennedy faced was resistance from Southern Democrats, the conservative members of his own party. Their place in the Democratic Party was a legacy of the mid-nineteenth century, when the Republican Party was founded as the anti-slavery party. By 1960, these conservative southerners were clashing repeatedly with the liberal elements within the party, and eventually they would bolt to the Republicans. But in 1960, having won the presidency by a whisker, Kennedy was anxious to retain their support and maintain the full Democratic base. His reluctance to move on several fronts––civil rights, in particular––was tied to this political objective.
As his presidency progressed, Kennedy took greater risks with this base. He ordered federal troops into Oxford to force the University of Mississippi to admit James Meredith, an African American who had been denied admission because of the university’s segregationist policies. He sent federal marshals to the South to ride shotgun for the Freedom Riders as they attempted to force the integration of interstate bus lines. And in 1963, he lobbied Congress aggressively for a civil rights act that would increase federal authority to intervene in the face of discrimination.
But how long and how skillfully Kennedy would have persisted in these efforts is impossible to say. What is clear is that his successor, Lyndon Johnson, was a highly skilled politician of the old school. Trained in the arm-twisting methods of Texas politics, he acquired through his 23 years in the House and the Senate a reputation as a hard-nosed wheeler-dealer. Still, the years he spent as a schoolteacher in rural Texas left him with an intense commitment to the underprivileged. As a member of the Senate he had been one of only three southern senators not to sign the “Southern Manifesto”—a petition denouncing the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board. And further distancing himself from Southern Democrats, as Senate majority leader, he secured the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
As president, Johnson pushed through Congress a domestic agenda exceeded in its ambitions only by that sought by Franklin Roosevelt three decades before. Labeled “The Great Society,” this package of legislation pledged to produce “abundance and liberty for all. . . . an end to poverty and racial injustice.”14 Johnson committed millions of federal dollars to the renewal of America’s cities and the development of mass transit systems. He dramatically increased federal aid to education, created Head Start for disadvantaged pre-schoolers, and organized the Job Corps for high school dropouts. America’s safety net of social services was expanded through the introduction of food stamps and low-income rent subsidies. The Office of Economic Opportunity was created to assist in training and placing the unemployed. Johnson turned Kennedy’s Medicare proposal into law and supplemented it with Medicaid, a program that provided federal medical assistance to the poor. And he formed a domestic version of the Peace Corps by founding VISTA in 1964.
In the area of civil rights, Johnson built an equally impressive legacy. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in public facilities, such as parks, and in public accommodations, such as hotels and restaurants. It also prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender, and it authorized the federal government to initiate suits against discriminating schools and municipalities. The Voting Rights Act, passed in the following year, forbade all voter tests, such as literacy tests, which had frequently been abused to block blacks from voting.
Johnson’s political experience and skills were brought fully to bear by securing this legislative record. But he was also assisted by Republican decisions in the 1964 presidential election. The party nominated arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, who campaigned aggressively against the social programs and civil rights bills championed by Johnson. Moderate Republicans and Independents were alienated by a campaign that seemed better suited to the 1920s than the 1960s, and Johnson won the election by a massive landslide. With 61% of the popular vote and 486 of 538 Electoral College votes, Johnson was able to claim a clear mandate for his Great Society. In addition, Democrats increased their majorities in the House (295-140) and the Senate (68-32) making Johnson's agenda essentially filibuster-proof during his second term.15
If judged on Johnson’s domestic accomplishments alone, his presidency would be labeled a tremendous success. But the War in Vietnam undercut his domestic popularity and cast a cloud over his legacy. Here, perhaps, Johnson's hard-charging political skills contributed to his headaches. He used a minor (some argue fabricated) skirmish off the North Vietnamese coast to force Congress to authorize the escalation of American involvement. He proceeded to oversee a massive investment of American troops and material, and he ordered bombing campaigns that eventually dwarfed World War II efforts in terms of sorties flown and tonnage dropped. As opposition to the war mounted, he embraced misleading reports about troop casualties and military progress that supported his contention that there was a “light at the end of the tunnel.” And when opposition to the war mounted at home, he reminded his critics,“I am the only president you have got.”
In January 1968, a massive North Vietnamese and Viet Cong offensive debunked all of the administration’s claims that American efforts were moving toward victory. In the weeks following this Tet Offensive, public support for the president declined rapidly. In a dramatic televised announcement, Johnson informed the American public that he would not run for re-election in the fall.
Some called his decision cowardly, a refusal to face the public's judgment for the tough foreign policy decisions that had to be made. In the wake of Tet, some called for massive escalation; others called for immediate withdrawal. Johnson did neither—instead he froze policy. He suspended the bombing and rejected military requests for more troops. Others called Johnson’s decision to not seek reelection courageously humble, an admission that he had no solution for the military crisis and that the country would be best served by his turning over the reins of power to a new president. Foreign policy had always been the one aspect of the presidency he accepted without enthusiasm. “I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world,” he said in 1965. “I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of tax eaters. I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way.”16 But events in Vietnam demanded something different from Johnson—and when he could not deliver the policy or the vision required, rather nobly, he stepped aside.
Perhaps the truth is more simple. In the face of rising opposition he realized that he no longer could muster the political support needed to implement a different policy; he had reached the end of his formidable, but ultimately limited, political career.
In 1963, Lyndon Johnson was exactly the right person to complete the work begun by John Kennedy. As a southerner and a skilled politician, he was the perfect person to ride point on the legislative grunt work needed to turn Kennedy’s vision into law. Quite possibly, he was able to realize more of Kennedy’s program than the younger, northeastern, less experienced president ever would have. But by 1968, Johnson’s moment had passed. No amount of arm-twisting, cajoling, or deal cutting could build the public support needed to either escalate or retreat in Vietnam. The times demanded a new president.