It’s a somewhat esoteric question to ask what was worse, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 or the four commercial jet plane attacks on America on September 11, 2001. In one case, the victim was an inspiring and idealistic president of the United States; in the other it was 3,000 innocent people.
What we can attempt to do is to assess how America and the rest of the world responded to each of these tragedies. There is an enormous difference. and yet it is rarely analyzed.
In short, the response to Kennedy’s assassination was that the world pulled together and, within the United States, remarkable legislation was passed that advanced civil and economic rights. In contrast, the response to nine-eleven was one semi-necessary war; one thoroughly useless war, and fragmentation on the American people, with a particular growth of negative feelings towards Muslims, both in the United States and overseas.
Kennedy’s assassination was in many ways a double loss for the American people. First, we lost a visionary president who had had a level of charisma that the rest of us could only envy. Second, he was succeeded by a president, who though very well intentioned, was as dull as the land from which he came in Texas was flat. It was as if we had been kicked in the stomach. One moment our president inspired us and set a realistic path of progress. The next moment wewere bored to death and uninterested in his ideas.
But Lyndon Johnson surprised us all. As a former Senate Majority Leader, he was extremely savvy and knew how to play the political game with all three branches of government. He also knew how to appeal to the American people, not eloquently but practically.
Perhaps his greatest sense of political acumen was that he made John Kennedy into even more of a martyr than Kennedy’s death represented. Kennedy death became a fulcrum for the enhancement and legislative passage of progressive policies. Johnson took Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights legislation and embellished it with an urgency and intensity that Kennedy never could have done himself. Johnson worked with Congress to pass civil rights legislation on public accommodations, fair housing, education, and perhaps most importantly, voting rights. Johnson also created or expanded agencies such as the Department of Education and Housing and Urban Development.
Having grown up poor, he had a special empathy for others who were poor, whether they lived in inner-city ghettos or the hollars of West Virginia. He initiated a War on Poverty under the administration of the Office of Economic Opportunity. All of his progressive work was known as the Great Society.
While President Kennedy’s assassination was one of our nation’s greatest tragedies, at least some positive developments occurred in the wake of his killing.
There were some positive developments following nine-eleven. In many ways the country pulled together, most particularly the people of New York, especially those with relatives and friends who were victims of the World Trade crashes and implosions.
However, the government’s reaction, under the leadership of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and other neo-cons was deplorable. They half-heartedly went into the Afghanistan to track down Osama bin Laden and quickly gave up the cause, even though they were close to finding him. Bush and others made up a story of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction and being a hiding place for al Qaeda. Both were false, but the arguments were enough to lead the country into a fruitless war, one in which all but twenty-three senators affirmed their support.
The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy went into full effect, taking budget surpluses from the Bill Clinton years to tremendous Bush deficits. Not only did direct spending to the military go up, but new contractors such as Halliburton made a fortune off government largesse. In the meantime, Bush did nothing as the seeds of the recession of 2008 were growing. Wall Street was running rampant. Homeowners were losing their houses because mortgages were unrealistic and often invisible. Unemployment was rising as jobs were outsourced so that CEO and corporate board members could profit off the sweat of third world labor.
Bush was often praised for his “bullhorn speech” near Ground Zero in New York shortly after the attacks. But it was more of a bullying speech in which he advocated revenge over reconciliation. He had no interest in negotiations with those behind the attacks. He considered the hijackings and subsequent destruction as acts of war rather than criminal actions.
Part of the tragedy goes back to December, 2000 when the Supreme Court selected Bush to be president over Al Gore. While it is unlikely, though not impossible, to hypothesize that nine-eleven would not have happened or would have been foiled had Gore been president; it is likely that in its aftermath, the country would have sought justice and healing rather than belligerence.
Having just returned from visiting the JFK Memorial Museum in Dallas, it’s difficult to think of any act over the last fifty years being more harmful to the country than President Kennedy’s assassination. But it serves no purpose to argue between JFK’s assassination and nine-eleven. What is important for us to remember is how Lyndon Johnson, at least until he mired the country in Vietnam, did much to help the country. It’s hard to think of anything positive that George W. Bush did. The tragedies cannot be compared without considering what happened in their aftermath. And what happened following the events is precisely what currently separates progressives from conservatives.