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Sunday, April 18, 2021

A guide to remembering JFK and LBJ

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John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who together enacted the New Deal, passed away several months apart in 1963.

In 1938, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president whose long and tragic life ended three years later, gave a speech in that year’s January Fourth Parade that is remembered as providing the blueprint for Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” In contrast, John F. Kennedy’s term ended nearly two years before that speech and only during his death in 1963.

As we honor those two presidents, it’s worth considering some of their similarities and differences. Both presidents had hefty egos. Both had combat experience and a military background that they applied to government. Both were complex individuals. Both helped steer the country through divisive crises — both from abroad and at home. Both developed ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful, ambitious progressive agendas. Both were democratic icons. Both were pacifists. Both were Irish-American.

But one of their most important similarities goes beyond the five points outlined below in the section above.

They understood that their public legitimacy was dependent on consensus and public good. Their desires (rather than their individual goals) were more than satisfied. In terms of political positions, however, the two presidents developed vastly different approaches.

It is important to remember that not all politicians in either party are beholden to the same political ideologies — and maybe not even all Democrats and Republicans. But those who know presidents have valuable insight into which political views they fit into. John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower, two presidents with significant reputations for intellectual complexity, embraced the spirit of compromise that was a large part of Johnson’s and Kennedy’s legacy. In their speeches and negotiations, they pushed each other to be a little less rigid. John F. Kennedy was known for his arm-twisting. Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy were known for their populism.

It’s important to remember that not all politicians in either party are beholden to the same political ideologies — and maybe not even all Democrats and Republicans. But those who know presidents have valuable insight into which political views they fit into.

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