Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dallas 1963: Context and Questions

Dallas 1963 (Twelve, 2013), by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, takes the reader back to the city of Dallas and to the years before that fateful day on November 22, 1963. In this 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, this important book raises several fascinating questions.

To what extent was Dallas already the “City of Hate” before the assassination? What role did conservative figures play in creating this paranoid milieu? How does this environment in part mirror current conservative attacks against President Barack Obama? Did the hateful environment in Dallas contribute to, or encourage, or explain Kennedy’s assassination?

The Dallas of 1960 is a city where the Ku Klux Klan once had its national headquarters, the current mayor had once been an unabashed KKK member, and important statues celebrate Confederate heroes. The Dallas Morning News is led by publisher Ted Dealey, who refers to Washington, D.C. as “nigger town” and joins oilman H. L. Hunt in supporting the belief that the United Nations is creating a world socialist system. For them, JFK’s support of Medicare is tantamount to “sweeping dictatorial power over medicine” and will create government death panels. This is Obamacare’s déjà vu.

Joining these powerful citizens is Rev. W. A. Criswell of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, who sermonizes that JFK’s Roman Catholicism is a “political tyranny” that threatens the very fabric of the U. S. of A. Meanwhile, General Edwin A. Walker resigns from the military, finds Dallas politically hospitable, and gives speeches to adoring local crowds where he exhorts unleashing nuclear holocaust on the Soviet Union, even at the price of millions of casualties stateside. Super-patriot Walker wants to overthrow the “totalitarian regime” of Kennedy, and files to run for Texas governor in February of 1962.

Stirring this toxic stew, and exploiting it, is Representative Bruce Alger from Dallas, the lone Republican in the Texas delegation, and an arch conservative. During a visit from Lyndon B. Johnson on the eve of the 1960 election, Alger leads a “mink coat mob” that attacks LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson. A sign in Alger’s hands reads “LBJ Sold Out to Yankee Socialists.”

Later when U. N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson visits Dallas in October of 1963, Frank McGehee, the Dallas founder of the National Indignation Convention, adopts the tactics of conservative intimidation by leading a mob to disrupt Stevenson’s speech. One protester, a Dallas insurance executive, slams a placard on Stevenson’s forehead.

Oddly, Lee Harvey Oswald is a relatively minor figure in this book, a Socialist sympathizer who nearly assassinates General Walker in April of 1963 and later kills Kennedy. This is odd because Dallas 1963 repeatedly hints that the hateful conservative milieu in Dallas somehow portended JFK’s assassination. But how exactly? Was Oswald drawn to Dallas because of its conservative fanaticism, and so he decided to combat it there? Why did he turn the rifle instead on JFK? These questions and any others explicitly linking the right-wing hate in Dallas to what happened on November 22, 1963 (at least the official and most likely version of events) are not answered in this book. We are left to make these links somehow on faith.

Dallas 1963 is a meticulously researched book that brings you back to a place and time beset by a mass or even class psychosis, where innuendo and wild accusations gain currency, where zealots sound reasonable, and wild and murderous ideas are taken seriously, and acted upon. The dark side of democratic rule, too often, is the rule of the mob. When that mob has power, money, news media, and well-spoken leaders, then the most inhumane acts can be perpetuated by societies in the name of what is ‘right.’ Dallas 1963 will help readers gain a perspective that resonates with the caustic politics that have unfortunately become the norm today.

(This book review originally appeared in The El Paso Times on November 3, 2013.)