JFK vs. LBJ

“Neither heroic nor exciting.”

That is how Patrick O’Donovan of the Herald Tribune – London Observer Service described President Eisenhower’s America of the 1950s.

1960 reversed the political status quo in the White House. Or at least detoured it towards a feeling of optimism, enthusiasm, and action. Forgotten is the battle at the 1960 Democratic National Convention from which John F. Kennedy emerged as the Democratic party’s nominee and Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate. It was a matchup that made perfect sense—Johnson’s legendary liberalism—particularly on civil rights—plus unparalleled knowledge of Captiol Hill through his tenure as Senate Majority Leader balanced Kennedy’s inspiring youthfulness, camera-ready charisma, and political charm.

Kennedy, too, had a solid curriculum vitae in politics, though not as extensive as Johnson’s. When a Japanese destroyer tore his PT-109 boat apart in the south Pacific during World War II, Kennedy led his crew to safety against impossible odds, an experience chronicled in several books and the 1963 movie PT-109, which Warner Brothers released during his presidency. After his service, Kennedy served as a congressman and a senator from Massachusetts; he ran, unsuccessfully, for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1956.

But the Kennedy-Johnson connection was not a foregone conclusion. The two senators jawed at each other in a battle for the nomination at the Los Angeles Sports Arena—one of the last examples of a format that gave way to a primary season, a pre-planned schedule of speakers, and an acceptance speech by a nominee already known.

Johnson poked at the 43-year-old Kennedy, declaring, “I’m not against young people, I’m for them—for Vice President.”

Kennedy’s family wealth also served as a punching bag. “I haven’t had anything given to me. Whatever I have and whatever I hope to get will be because of whatever energy and talents I have,” stated Johnson, as quoted by John A. Goldsmith in the Washington Post. Johnson made his remarks to the West Virginia and Kentucky delegations as the convention edged toward the nominating sessions.

Going deeper into the Kennedy clan, Johnson reminded the Democratic bloc that Kennedy’s father initially opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy against Nazi Germany; as Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. held, arguably, the most important ambassadorship in the Roosevelt administration. When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain struck a deal with Adolf Hitler that gave Germany a chunk of Czechoslovakia in exchange for curtailing invasions of countries, it sent a message of appeasement to a regime of evil. Germany ignored the pact, continuing its path towards destruction, bigoted mania, and the slaughter of six million Jews. “I wasn’t any Chamberlain umbrella policy man. I never thought Hitler was right,” stated Johnson.

Kennedy and Johnson joined forces the following day. When he stood in front of the crowd at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, Johnson erased—or at least partially obscured—the ill feelings displayed in the course of political combat: “I am proud to stand behind, and to stand beside, the next President of the United States.”

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