Kennedy vs. Johnson: Contrasting Leadership in Turbulent Times

Kennedy vs. Johnson: Contrasting Leadership in Turbulent Times

How do President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson compare as Presidents?


The 1960s, often remembered as a time of upheaval and change, were marked by significant events that reshaped the course of American history. At the helm during this tumultuous era were two transformative figures: John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Both presidents faced an array of challenges, from civil rights issues to Cold War tensions, and their approaches and achievements have left lasting imprints on the nation. While the youthful allure of Kennedy’s “Camelot” and Johnson’s ambitious “Great Society” programs often steal the spotlight, an in-depth look at their respective tenures paints a more nuanced picture.

Early Lives and Political Careers

John F. Kennedy

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, commonly known as JFK, was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, into the affluent and politically influential Kennedy family. Educated at Harvard University, he authored “Why England Slept,” reflecting on the pre-World War II appeasement policies. His political journey began in the U.S. House of Representatives for Massachusetts’ 11th district in 1947 and later, in 1953, as a U.S. Senator. A decorated war hero from his naval service during World War II, JFK’s charisma, and the compelling narrative of his wartime experiences made him a rising star in the Democratic Party.

Lyndon B. Johnson

Lyndon Baines Johnson, or LBJ, hailed from a starkly different background. Born on August 27, 1908, in Stonewall, Texas, Johnson grew up in a modest setting. He showed an early interest in politics and public service, working as a schoolteacher before his political ascent. Johnson’s career took off when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for Texas’s 10th district in 1937. Recognized for his ability to broker deals and build alliances, he climbed the ranks, eventually becoming the Senate Majority Leader. His prowess in the Senate earned him the moniker “Master of the Senate,” underscoring his aptitude for navigating the intricacies of legislative politics.

Domestic Policies and Achievements

John F. Kennedy

Under the banner of the “New Frontier,” JFK sought to invigorate the nation. He pushed for economic reforms, including tax cuts aimed at stimulating growth and reducing unemployment. His administration also initiated projects that laid the groundwork for the eventual moon landing in 1969. On the civil rights front, while Kennedy recognized the need for reform and gave notable speeches on the subject, critics argue he was somewhat cautious in his approach. However, he did propose comprehensive civil rights legislation, which, though not passed during his lifetime, paved the way for subsequent laws under Johnson’s administration.

Lyndon B. Johnson

LBJ’s domestic vision, termed the “Great Society,” was expansive. He declared an unconditional “War on Poverty,” resulting in the establishment of programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start. Education also received a significant boost under his leadership, with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act aiming to close the education gap for underprivileged children. Notably, his tenure saw the passage of the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These pieces of legislation represented landmark achievements in the struggle for racial equality in America.

Foreign Policies and Diplomacy

John F. Kennedy

JFK’s foreign policy tenure was dominated by Cold War tensions. The Bay of Pigs Invasion, an unsuccessful attempt by Cuban exiles backed by the U.S. to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime, was a significant blunder. However, Kennedy’s leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where he navigated the U.S. away from a potential nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, showcased his diplomatic prowess. Additionally, Kennedy set the early stages of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a decision that would have long-lasting implications for American foreign policy.

Lyndon B. Johnson

While LBJ achieved significant success domestically, his foreign policy, particularly regarding Vietnam, proved contentious. Johnson escalated the U.S. military presence in Vietnam, leading to widespread protests at home. His belief in the “domino theory” and the need to contain communism drove his approach to Southeast Asia. While Johnson’s intentions were rooted in maintaining global stability, the war’s unpopularity and the perceived lack of transparency, known as the “credibility gap,” tainted his presidency and overshadowed other diplomatic efforts, such as his endeavors to improve U.S.-Latin American relations through the Alliance for Progress.

Leadership Styles and Personalities

John F. Kennedy

JFK’s leadership style was characterized by his charisma and eloquence. With a youthful vigor and a knack for public speaking, he connected with a new generation of Americans, ushering in an era of optimism and hope. His speeches, such as the inaugural address where he proclaimed, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” became iconic. Furthermore, Kennedy was adept at using media, particularly televised press conferences, to communicate directly with the American people. However, behind the scenes, he was also known for his pragmatic approach to policy-making, often seeking a balance between idealism and the realities of governance.

Lyndon B. Johnson

LBJ’s leadership was marked by his hands-on, often forceful, approach. Drawing from his extensive experience in Congress, he was a master negotiator, using personal persuasion tactics famously termed “The Johnson Treatment.” Johnson was renowned for his ability to push through legislation by building coalitions and, at times, applying direct pressure on lawmakers. Unlike JFK’s charismatic appeal, Johnson’s strength lay in his understanding of the legislative process and his willingness to engage in the gritty details of policy-making. His often brash and direct style contrasted with Kennedy’s more polished public image, but it was undeniably effective in many of his domestic policy achievements.

Challenges and Controversies

John F. Kennedy

While JFK’s presidency is often viewed with a sense of nostalgia, it was not without its challenges and controversies. The Bay of Pigs Invasion stands out as a significant foreign policy failure, which he publicly acknowledged. Additionally, though Kennedy championed civil rights rhetorically, some activists criticized him for not taking swifter action. On a personal front, later revelations about his private life, including alleged affairs, added a layer of controversy to his legacy, challenging the idyllic image of “Camelot” that was often portrayed.

Lyndon B. Johnson

The shadow of the Vietnam War loomed large over Johnson’s presidency. As the war escalated and casualties mounted, public trust in the administration dwindled, leading to widespread protests and civil unrest. The “credibility gap,” where the public felt misled about the war’s progress, further eroded confidence in his leadership. Domestically, while LBJ achieved significant legislative successes, he faced challenges from both conservatives, who felt his reforms went too far, and liberals, who believed he didn’t go far enough, especially in addressing issues related to poverty and racial injustice.

Impact on Civil Rights

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy’s position on civil rights evolved during his presidency. Initially cautious, he became more assertive after witnessing the brutal repression of peaceful protestors in the South. By 1963, he delivered a seminal speech, unequivocally framing civil rights as a moral issue and emphasizing its importance to the fabric of American democracy. Though he proposed comprehensive civil rights legislation, it was left unfinished at the time of his assassination.

Lyndon B. Johnson

LBJ’s contribution to civil rights is undeniable. Using his legislative acumen, he ensured the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This was followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, ensuring federal oversight of elections in areas with histories of racial discrimination. Johnson’s commitment to these acts, especially considering his Southern background, marked a turning point in U.S. civil rights history.

Legacy and Historical Impact

John F. Kennedy

The enduring image of “Camelot” — a time of hope, vibrancy, and potential — encapsulates JFK’s legacy. His call to public service, commitment to space exploration, and the peace corps initiative left lasting imprints. Despite his short tenure, his influence on popular culture, the arts, and the national ethos was profound. However, historians also point out his administration’s unfinished business and missed opportunities, especially in civil rights and foreign policy.

Lyndon B. Johnson

LBJ’s legacy is multifaceted. Domestically, his “Great Society” programs fundamentally reshaped the American social contract, establishing protections and programs still in place today. His determined efforts in the realm of civil rights solidified his place as a pivotal figure in the quest for racial equality. However, the Vietnam War’s specter casts a long shadow, with many viewing his foreign policy decisions as deeply flawed. Nevertheless, Johnson’s impact on the U.S. legislative landscape remains unparalleled in modern history.


John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, while distinct in their leadership styles and personalities, were both instrumental in shaping mid-20th century America. Their combined tenures witnessed groundbreaking domestic achievements and challenging foreign policy dilemmas. As the U.S. navigated the complexities of the Cold War, civil rights, and socio-economic reforms, both presidents left indelible marks. History’s judgment, while often kinder to JFK due to the romanticized image of “Camelot,” also acknowledges Johnson’s transformative domestic achievements. Together, their legacies offer a window into an era of ambition, hope, tumult, and change.

Class Notes and Outline: How do JFK and LBJ compare as Presidents?

The 1960’s where a very turbulent period. America needed leaders who could react to enormous public pressure and meet the challenges of a nation moving towards a new modern era. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had to deal with civil rights issues, the cold war, the Vietnam and the social upheaval of the turbulent sixties. Kennedy has a wonderful reputation, but was he really the better President?

Click here to read great quotes by Kennedy and Johnson.

I. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson

A. What types of issues did Kennedy and Johnson have to deal with in the sixties?

1. Cold War

2. Civil Rights protests, riots

3. Vietnam

4. Social upheaval – drug culture, rebellion, rock and roll.

B. What were the significant accomplishments of the Kennedy administration (1960 – 1963)? – The New Frontier. Click here for more on John F. Kennedy

1. Peace Corps – Responding to Kennedy’s challenge thousands of Americans went forth into underdeveloped countries bringing education and medical supplies. The spirit of volunteerism was never higher and people world wide began to develop a different view of Americans.

2. Space Program – 1961 began America’s push to put a man on the moon. While this was not accomplished during the Kennedy administration it was accomplished soon thereafter. The Kennedy Administration poured billions into NASA and the was rewarded by the success of the Apollo Space Program.

3. Passage of the Area Redevelopment Act and the Housing Act of 1961.

  • The Area Redevelopment Act provided funds to rural America’s schools, roads and bridges.
  • The Housing Act of 1961 provided funds to build low income housing in urban America.

4. Passage of the 24th amendment that made the use of Poll Taxes unconstitutional.

5. Leadership through the cold war, especially his courage in facing down Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

6. Great public persona and charisma, great control of the media – first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and he were “American royalty.”

B. What were the significant setbacks of the Kennedy Administration?

1. He was unable to get any real civil rights legislation passed. Kennedy himself considered this a great failure.

2. He was unable to get taxes lowered.

3. The Bay of Pigs Invasion was an embarrassing failure.

C. What were the significant accomplishments of the Johnson administration? – The Great Society – Click here for more detailed reading.

1. Civil Rights Act of 1964 – This landmark piece of legislation is still the current federal law on Civil Rights. Johnson solidified his reputation as a political “arm twister.” He was able to invoke the memory of Kennedy and get significant legislation passed.

2. The War on Poverty

-Economic Opportunity Act created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO)

-Job Corps

-VISTA – Volunteers in Service to America

3. 90 out of 115 recommendations approved in 1965 —

4. Appalachian Redevelopment Act

5. Project Head Start – a program to bring Pre K education to the

6. 1965 Voting Rights Act

D. What was the significant failure of the Johnson Administration?

1. Escalated involvement in the Vietnam War. Johnson relieved enormous public criticism for this. Protests and demonstration racked the nation. Johnson did not run for a second term.

Does Kennedy deserve the reputation as a “great” president?

Does Johnson deserve the reputation as a bad one? 

You be the judge.