It’s the 50th anniversary of JFK assassination. When he first became the president, JFK was viewed by many in a similar way as how people viewed George W Bush —a not-too-bright son of a political dynasty who got the top job through money and dirty deals. Then, just like Bush, Kennedy’s stock rose because of an international crisis — the Cuban missile crisis was JFK’s 9/11 moment. He was hailed as a great leader. And then he was killed, and became a martyr.
His successor, LBJ, was far less charismatic. While JFK was the suave Boston Brahmin, LBJ was an uncouth Texan. Still, LBJ won a landslide — largely on JFK sympathy — and pushed through a lot of progressive legislation, including giving Black Americans the right to vote. But then the Vietnam War escalated, US was gripped by race riots and cultural changes, and LBJ’s presidency ended in failure —he didn’t seek re-election in 1968.
In the 1960s and 1970s, JFK was seen by many as a tragic hero whose unfinished job was botched by LBJ. The overwhelming theme, in both scholarly big fat books as well as gossip magazines and TV dramas, was that had JFK lived, he would have done all the great things LBJ did, but he would have kept US away from Vietnam. He would have presided over a peaceful social transformation. If only he wasn’t killed…. And of course, there were the conspiracy theories — it was the mob, the CIA, the Cubans, all of them, my favourite is, it was Joe DiMaggio.
As for LBJ, the verdict was very harsh —this man had no principles, he was a power hungry politician, he sided with civil right movement and then sabotaged it, he escalated the war in Vietnam, he had no idea about the new social movements like feminism or environmentalism. Basically, he was the guy who destroyed progressive politics in the US.
Then something interesting happened in the 1980s and 1990s. Academics started reappraising LBJ’s record. A new view emerged that said that LBJ was a very pragmatic president with a strong sense of justice, including for the African Americans. By the end of the 1990s, the consensus was that without LBJ, Blacks would not have had the vote. Meanwhile, the best and the brightest like Robert McNamara came out and confessed how they all collectively screwed up in Vietnam. And after 9/11 and Iraq, it became quite clear how easy it is for the political establishment to completely misjudge big foreign policy decisions. Now LBJ is considered as the tragic hero —a fighter for the progressive cause in an imperfect world.
And JFK? Scholars now think of him as far less heroic. Maybe he would have been a great president had he lived. Maybe not. We don’t know whether he would have gotten out of Vietnam, but we do know he took the US there. For all we know, maybe his presidency would have ended in a sex scandal —he was, after all, a notorious womaniser.
Of course, we too have our assassinated presidents whose legacies we bitterly argue about. But the argument need not be bitter. As the JFK-LBJ discourse shows, it is perfectly fine to assess both Mujib and Zia differently based on what happened — there is no need to demonise or glorify either. In fact, one would expect different assessments of them depending on who is doing the assessing. It would be unusual if this weren’t the case.