dallas 1963

dallas_coverThere’s a scene in JFK where the “how” of Kennedy’s assassination is described as irrelevant, nothing more than “scenery for the public.” Oliver Stone uses that as a springboard into conspiracies and motives at the highest and broadest levels of government and politics. In contrast, Dallas 1963 drills down to examine the local social and political context of JFK’s death. A savvy marketer would call it a “refreshing take” inasmuch as it’s not actually about the assassination: there’s nary an Oswald, rogue intelligence agent, mafia kingpin, or CIA-centric conspiracy to be found. Just a particular time and place and a presidential assassination happening there.

The book’s primary focus is the politics and polity of early 1960s Dallas, and we quickly find out that Kennedy being killed there is not the only thing that makes Dallas stand out. It was a political outlier in conservative Texas, and I don’t mean that it stood out for being liberal. Dallas staked a claim further right than the rest of the state, which was impressive if only because of how little room was left over there. The city was a hotbed of hatred; a stewing and simmering population of wealthy and/or well-funded arch-conservatives, anti-communists, WASP true-believers, and John Birch Society castoffs, like a Koch brothers company town.

Among the Dallas power players were oil billionaire/anti-communist HL Hunt, newspaper magnate George Dealey (who brazenly treated his paper as a propaganda arm), closeted demagogue and strident segregationist Edwin Walker, radically right-wing Congressman Bruce Alger (whose right-wing bona fides were established when he opposed the school lunch program), and Christian Crusade evangelist/radio host Billy James Hargis (who hated queers, pinkos, and integration, in no particular order). Imagine the country as a funnel and everyone who wasn’t six steps to the right of Attila the Hun managed to hang on and not get sucked down into Dallas. In a real cinderella story, 1960s Dallas is climbing the ranks of places I’ll avoid if I have access to a time machine. Have I spent far too much time thinking about my hypothetical actions if I had access to a time machine? Yes, yes I have.

A few notable incidents demonstrate the toxic atmosphere and political turmoil of 1960s Dallas. During the 1960 presidential race, Texas was the political prize—possibly the difference between victory and defeat. Kennedy hadn’t visited its largest city, though, primarily because he was so hated that there seemed little benefit. Even as a native son, LBJ didn’t rate much higher—after all, he was aligning himself with the pinko Kennedy—but he was sent to Dallas to campaign anyway. It did not go well. LBJ and Lady Bird were surrounded by a ravening crowd of pro-Nixon picketers, led by Congressman Bruce Alger, who was carrying a sign that read “LBJ Sold Out to Yankee Socialists.” The crowd jeered and spat on the Johnsons and seemed to hang on the razor’s edge of real and disastrous physical violence, which never materialized. The Johnsons won plaudits for their diplomatic resolve while Dallas earned a bad name for its ungracious welcome. In fact, some believe the Kennedy-Johnson ticket only carried Texas—which sent them to the White House—because of sympathy generated from this incident.

The LBJ incident wasn’t an anomaly. A few years later, UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was accosted by a throng of anti-UN acolytes. Riled up by right-wing gadfly Edwin Walker, the crowd prevented Stevenson from speaking, surrounded him, spat at him, and swatted him with protest signs (I can only imagine the verbal savagery the hyper-intellectual Stevenson was muttering under his breath during the assault). And it wasn’t just protests: Dallas Morning News editor/owner George Dealey had upbraided Kennedy at a White House breakfast in 1962, shocking everyone present. Even on the morning of Kennedy’s assassination, the paper had published this “advertisement”:

this ran in a newspaper

Given Dallas’s atmosphere of violent rhetoric, it’s not altogether surprising that JFK was killed there. He’d avoided it earlier precisely because advisors thought it dangerous, and he even morbidly joked the night before his death about how it easy it would be for a rifleman to take a shot at the motorcade. But if you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald is guilty, the real oddity is simply this: for all the sturm und drang of Dallas anti-Kennedy politics, and for all those people who loathed him for “being a Communist,” it wasn’t anyone on their “side” who pulled the trigger. Dallas was a strange and almost certainly alienating place for someone with Oswald’s leftist beliefs to end up, made all the moreso by his own social ineptness. Maybe that tells us there’s something to his claim of being a patsy, but I wonder if Oswald was slowly going crazy while stuck in what was, to him, an oppressive and hateful political atmosphere.

Conspiracy theories in JFK’s murder look at the big picture. They hinge on grand motives and sprawling plots: the military-industrial complex, the forces for global communism, the Cold War, Vietnam, big business, organized crime. If those are the forest, Dallas 1963 is like looking at the trees, reminding us that “politics” were happening on smaller scales too. JFK’s presidency was about more than whether he “wanted” or “planned” to get out of Vietnam, or whether he antagonized the mafia, or whether the CIA was working against him. There may be measures of truth to all those, but it’s also true that a major US city was practically off-limits to the president, so virulent was its anti-Kennedy sentiment. While it may not tell us who killed Kennedy or how, this approach grounds the reader in the political/cultural zeitgeist and contextualizes a particular time and place in a way that other assassination books simply do not.

• • •

Since it doesn’t answer the question of who killed Kennedy, here’s a short list of amazing (real) theories about his death:

  • The limousine driver used the rifle shots (that missed) as a cover to turn around and shoot Kennedy with a pistol.
  • The Secret Service agent behind Kennedy accidentally shot him while drawing his gun.
  • Kennedy’s body was doctored and/or completely replaced at some point between his death and the autopsy.
  • The X-Files had the Cigarette Smoking Man setting up Oswald as a patsy and shooting Kennedy from a sewer grate.
  • A team of Corsican hitmen was hired by the mafia; they shot Kennedy from multiple locations including the grassy knoll.
  • The “umbrella man” along on the parade route shot Kennedy with a poisoned arrow to paralyze him for the fatal headshot.

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