I’m one of those crazy people who think that Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy and that he was the lone gunman. I don’t argue with people about it because it’s one of those issues that people are passionate about and nobody can ever change anybody else’s mind.
But if someone wants an argument, I suggest reading Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (BOOK | KINDLE), because I don’t know how anybody who reads that book — and at 1,648 pages long accompanied with CDs packed with source information, anyone actually reading the whole book deserves a prize — can walk away with questions that haven’t answered.
I don’t want to have this answer be an indication that I’m going to answer every message I have received on the Presidential rankings and/or debate or justify each individual ranking, but I do want to quickly make a point on this.
First of all, I never said that LBJ was 100% responsible for the passage of either the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act — credit belongs to the activists, to the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, to the moderate Republicans who offset the opposition by the Southern Democrats, and to many other people and politicians, including JFK. But it was Johnson, his political skills, and his mastery of legislative government who got the legislation through Congress and signed it. It was Johnson who saw that there was political value in using the national mood following Kennedy’s assassination along with the events of the Civil Rights Movement to recognize that the time was right to get the legislation passed. I don’t mean that he felt the time was right to grant equal rights — he had frequently noted that the time for action had long passed — but that, politically, the stars were aligned for actually being successful at getting something done. John F. Kennedy was a good leader with fantastic political skills, but he was overly cautious — especially with civil rights — and when it came to legislative success, Kennedy had not proven himself. Not as a member of Congress, and not as President.
President Kennedy did make an important and influential address on civil rights on June 11, 1963. His then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson made a speech that was quite similar on equal rights and race less than two weeks earlier, on Memorial Day, at Gettysburg. Is it possible that this was a coordinated roll-out of the Kennedy Administration’s civil rights policy or purely a direct response to the President taking command of the Alabama National Guard and order the desegregation of the University of Alabama when Alabama Governor George Wallace stood at the door to protect segregation? Sure, that’s possible. But considering how little Kennedy involved Johnson in policy, I doubt that it was coordinated, and even if it was, the President would have been out in front on the issue, not the Vice President.
So, is it possible that LBJ’s speech forced the issue? Vice President Biden spoke out on his support for same sex marriage in 2012, and it resulted in President Obama having to speak out and note that his position on the issue had evolved and that he now supported same sex marriage, as well. Obama and his staff didn’t want to have to cross that bridge yet, especially prior to the 2012 election, but they had to act because the VP acted. Perhaps the incident at the University of Alabama gave President Kennedy a reason to make that speech on June 11, 1963 and clearly state his position on civil rights because his Vice President — a man who was as Southern as the South gets — was out in front of him on the issue and had forced his hand.
On civil rights, John F. Kennedy believed the right things, but he was extremely cautious about actually taking the dramatic actions that were needed. Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement openly criticized him for this. And while the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were originally worried about LBJ and weren’t sure if they could trust him, especially once he assumed the Presidency, if you could ask any of them today who did more for civil rights or who they would rather have fighting for them when it came to actually achieving their goals, I am convinced their answer would be Lyndon B. Johnson.
In closing (I said this would be done quickly, but I got carried away), if you’re going to disagree or debate with me or anyone else (which is totally cool…seriously, I have no issues with that) and you’re going to bring up the other person’s “evidence”, you should definitely be solid when it comes to the main facts — I ranked LBJ at #5, not #6. That’s a big one, especially since you’re bringing up his positioning in my rankings. I hope that doesn’t like a petty attack at your comments because that’s not my intention and it’s why I’m sticking it at the end after my explanation. It’s just that with something like that, you’ve gotta come correct, for lack of a better phrase. Also, I didn’t list every accomplishment or every failure of every President in my rankings because I barely had the time and energy to do what I did do; going even deeper into would have resulted in every entry being 6,000 words long. Lyndon Johnson achieved more than just civil rights — few Presidents had more domestic accomplishments than President Johnson. But, let’s just say that civil rights was his “only” accomplishment — imagine gigantic quotation marks surrounding the word “only” — if civil rights was the “only” thing that LBJ achieved, isn’t that enough? Ask John Lewis or Dorothy Cotton or Joseph Lowery or Andrew Young or Diane Nash or C. T. Vivian how important the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were, and see what they thought about LBJ’s accomplishments.
35th President of the United States (1961-1963)
Full Name: John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Born: May 29, 1917, 83 Beals Street, Brookline, Massachusetts
Political Party: Democratic
State Represented: Massachusetts
Term: January 20, 1961-November 22, 1963 (Assassinated)
Age at Inauguration: 43 years, 236 days
Congresses: 87th and 88th
Vice President: Lyndon Baines Johnson (1961-1963; Assumed the Presidency upon Kennedy’s death)
Died: November 22, 1963, Trauma Room 1, Parkland Memorial Hospital, Dallas, Texas
Age at Death: 46 years, 177 days
Buried: Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington County, Virginia
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 14 of 43 [↓2]
I rank JFK much in the same way that I rank Ronald Reagan. I’ve written before that I believe John F. Kennedy is often overrated, and that is not out of any disrespect for his legacy, but from looking at what he actually accomplished (and had time to see through) during his brief Presidency. Kennedy was a cautious politician, which isn’t necessarily a weakness, but there are times when people can no longer accept being patient about immensely important issues and demand action, and I think Kennedy was perhaps too cautious about moving forward on Civil Rights. His strength was in the soaring speeches and inspirational vision that was carried through by his successors in his memory following his tragic assassination. There will always be questions about “What if?” with JFK. Would he have fought for Civil Rights like LBJ? Could he have done it? Would the difficult mission to put a man on the moon have been completed without his legacy to fuel it? Those are questions we cannot definitively answer. His vision was set many of these things into motion; his memory drove them across the finish line. What would the result have been if Kennedy had lived and it required his political skills to achieve those goals. One thing can never be doubted: JFK’s leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis — tough, reassuring, and handled brilliantly through back-channel negotiations with the Soviets at the same time that we took steps that led us closer to turning the Cold War hot than anything else in history — was remarkable and he should be recognized for what he did in October 1962. It was Kennedy’s charisma, his young family, and the unique aura spotlighting him which forged his connection with the American people, particularly those who were of JFK’s generation rather than Dwight D. Eisenhower’s generation. And it was the shocking manner and sudden impact of his death which created a legend and froze John F. Kennedy in time as he was and as the American people wanted him to be. Because JFK was tragically, violently, and publicly robbed of his life and time, the foundation of his legacy was built on the fact that we focus on his unrealized potential rather than his missed opportunities.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 14 of 38 (tied with John Adams)
1990: Siena Institute: 10 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 12 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 8 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 12 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 15 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 6 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 11 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 15 of 40
When you can provide me some solid, definitive evidence that proves that Richard Nixon, Henry Cabot Lodge, Barry Goldwater, and “half of everyone else” were “convinced” that LBJ arranged the assassination of JFK, I’ll go ahead and start considering your theory.
More importantly, who is “everyone else”? Because if “half of everyone else” is convinced that LBJ planned JFK’s assassination, it seems like that would get more play in the history books and, oh, I don’t know, maybe be mentioned in LBJ’s biography somewhere before getting to signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I mean, “everyone else” sounds like a lot of people — in fact, it sounds like literally everyone on the planet in addition to Nixon, Goldwater, and Lodge — so if half of everybody on the planet was “convinced” (not “suspicious” or “curious”, but “convinced”!) that LBJ was culpable in John F. Kennedy’s assassination, you’d think that more people would mention it.
Then again, maybe you’re right and “half of everyone else” — literally billions of people — believe what you believe, but they just don’t want to say it out loud because it’s fucking ridiculous and they don’t want to sound like idiots.
When you provide that solid, definitive evidence, however, I’ll be the first person in line to shake your hand and apologize for my naivete. I don’t like being wrong about things, but it’ll be really cool to have communicated with the one person who had the genuine proof of a conspiracy that NOBODY has been able to deliver in the 50 years since November 22, 1963.
A lot of that is due to JFK’s charisma, his young family, his visible extended family, and, of course, his assassination. The sudden, shocking way that he died instantly romanticized the way that he lived and since JFK was frozen in time and never got any older than 46 years old, there was a fairy tale legend (with a tragic end, of course) attached to his life and legacy.
However, one thing that is often overlooked is the role that Jacqueline Kennedy had in shaping JFK’s legacy and that might be a topic to explore. It was Jackie who first attached the Camelot mystique to JFK when she mentioned that JFK loved the Camelot musical and especially appreciated the lyric, “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief, shining moment/That was known as Camelot”. It was actually a pretty brilliant piece of public relations by Jackie, and I don’t think it was accidental.
Yes, I think it would have been surprising to people in 1937 because the first Catholic to be nominated for President by a major party — Al Smith — had only been nominated a few years earlier, in 1928. Smith lost the 1928 election badly to Herbert Hoover (Popular vote margin: 58%-41%; Electoral vote margin: 444-87). Smith’s loss to Hoover wasn’t solely because of his Catholic faith, but it certainly played a part in his defeat, especially in parts of the South, which was solidly Democratic at the time. In 1928, Smith had to battle claims that he would be a pawn of the Pope and rule with the Vatican’s guidance — allegations which Kennedy had to face to lesser extent (but still had to face) in 1960.
The Catholic issue doesn’t seem like as big of an issue to us today until we look at the fact that a Catholic wasn’t nominated for President by a major party until Smith in 1928 and that only one Catholic (JFK) has ever been elected President. And Joe Biden is the first Catholic Vice President in American history.
I doubt we would romanticize them as much as we do because if they had lived, they wouldn’t have been frozen in time. They would have continued their journeys and they would have been at risk of failing since they weren’t suddenly snatched from the scene.
JFK would have been reelected in 1964, but I don’t think he would have beaten Goldwater as decisively as LBJ did. Would JFK had passed the legislation that LBJ pushed through Congress? I don’t think so. He might have tried, but he didn’t have the same political skills that LBJ did. Would the mission to land on the moon have been completed by the end of the 1960s without the beloved memory of a popular, assassinated President there to fuel it? I think it could have faced some political challenges without the Kennedy legacy attached to it, but that legacy was powered by JFK’s death, not his life.
As for Lincoln, H. W. Brands addresses this issue in his must-read biography of Ulysses S. Grant, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant In War and Peace (BOOK | KINDLE):
"Had Lincoln lived, the war’s end would have forced him to answer questions he had avoided amid the fighting. He would have been required to say whether emancipation implied citizenship for the freedmen; whether citizenship entailed suffrage; how far political equality, if it came to that, demanded social equality; and who would enforce the rights of African Americans against the resistance the assertion of such rights must inevitably invoke. In short, he would have been required to specify what reconstruction meant. The task fell instead to Andrew Johnson."
Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson were polar opposites in the things that they believed and the way that they led, but the point is that we just don’t know how Lincoln would have handled Reconstruction. We hope that he would have showed magnanimity and protected the rights of freedmen, but Lincoln’s assassination robbed us of the opportunity to see how he waged peace, so we only know him as a wartime President.