Dallas, 1963 - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Dallas, 1963

AFTER A TIME, ruts appear in the intellectual landscape, engraved through repetition of the same words, the same notions and incantations. “City of Hate” would be one of those; another, “right-wing hysteria”; also “paranoia,” “kooks,” “extremists,” “deranged,” “out of control.” The image of Dallas, Texas, the city where President Kennedy was slain in 1963, has the familiarity of a television commercial played so many times that reflex takes the place of reasoned assessment. Why analyze or appraise? Dallas, if it didn’t gun down the president, certainly furnished the stage and props for a creep like Lee Harvey Oswald. What else is there, my friends, that’s worth knowing?

From the historical standpoint, that is. I’m not convinced, actually, that vast numbers of Americans spend their days plotting to make the city of Dallas pay for the assassination—in Dallas, by a Dallas resident—of a president not understood as one of “The Immortals” until he became so at the Triple Underpass in Dallas. It was a long time ago, 50 years this November 22. The caravan moves on. The burgeoning, self-assured city of Dallas, to which the Kennedy party came in 1963, bears only happenstantial resemblance to the great North Texas “metroplex” of which modern Dallas is just one constituent element, albeit a large and highly important one.

For all that, we may anticipate that the Kennedy observances this fall—centered, naturally, in Dallas, and with the city’s robust participation—will require in the minds of some a retelling of the legends: the patient reconstruction, block by block, street by street, of the City of Hate. Some just can’t get past it. I’m sorry for them. Their mental batteries need a recharge. 

What follows here isn’t for them. Too many seem dead-set on knowing what they damn well know. The legend of right-wing hatred, hollow as it is, is too precious to let slip from their grasp. William Manchester, in Death of a President, gave a nice précis of the viewpoint. Dallas’s atmosphere, he said, was “something unrelated to conventional politics—a stridency, a disease of the spirit, a shrill, hysterical note suggestive of a deeply troubled society.” 

The Dallas-Did-It crowd has, provocatively enough, an active Dallas chapter: all liberals, so far as I can tell, some bred in the city, all apparently empowered by the discomfiture of the right as regards the assassination. A writer in D Magazine, which specializes in local trends and entertainment, recently asserted that “In the early ’60s, this town was full of hate.” Lawrence Wright, who was a Dallas high school student in 1963, declared 20 years later in Texas Monthly that “The political scale in Dallas began with Eisenhower conservatism and ran well past fascism to a kind of conservative nihilism.” Two Texas-based writers, Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, in their new book, Dallas 1963, are said by their publisher to have drawn a tight bead on the old Dallas, with its “radical, polarizing ideologies.” 

There was a fair amount of this sort of hair-tearing, and at a higher social level, at the time of the assassination. The merchant prince Stanley Marcus, whose family made the Neiman Marcus name internationally famous, spoke up strongly for his city in the aftermath, yet professed to recognize among his customer base a disturbing “spirit of ‘absolutism.’” Levi Olan, a well-known local rabbi and social activist who was also a friend of Marcus, acknowledged in a radio broadcast that “The people of this city did not pull the trigger.” Yet he assailed local indifference to “humanistic, religious, and even legal values of ethics,” as exemplified by opposition to subsidized lunch programs and public housing in the name of “individual initiative.”

How, 50 years later, to sort through so large a pile of calcified assertions as to the state of Dallas in 1963 and its relationship to the murder of John F. Kennedy? With some exasperation, some resignation, some weary relief that half-century anniversaries arrive only at half-century intervals.

I take a keen and personal interest in the sorting process. I was not in the city itself on November 22, 1963, but my hometown lay 55 miles to the south, on the highway to Houston. We of the younger generation, like our parents, considered Big D a suburb—a lively adjunct—of our much smaller community. We shopped in Dallas, partied in Dallas, took our dates to Dallas for dancing and movies and high-end ($2.50 entrees) restaurants. We saw Elvis in the Cotton Bowl and, on the other cultural extreme, rode yellow school buses for annual visits to concerts by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Our families subscribed to the Dallas Morning News. Our town being officially, and depressingly, “dry,”  we purchased beer and alcohol at Dallas liquor stores for transport back home, and to the local country club.

What did we like about Dallas? Its sophistication, for one thing, especially as compared to hustling Houston: “An overgrown country town,” as my mother used to call it. Dallas was more orderly; its business community spoke and acted with true civic spirit. Its people did things together—for the general good. It welcomed upstarts and parvenus; however, it hoped to civilize them, to help them do things the comparatively genteel Dallas way. Of the Dallas way, the city was rightly proud. Its leaders in oil, banking, cotton, and insurance—the primary industries prior to the 1960s—got things done by working together. They were conservative in some of the best senses of an often-abused word: thoughtful, practical, calm, rational. Dallas had rationality in spades. Its main newspaper, the News, spoke to rational people in rational tones. (I will have more to say on this sadly contested point.) 

Dallas’s rationality made all the more surprising the emergence of—well, let me put it this way—a particularly, and sometimes peculiarly, zealous species of conservative. We come to the point at which the Dallas-Did-It crowd makes so much at the arraignment proceedings it organizes for the City of Hate. The early ’60s brought to the city Gen. Edwin Walker, the John Birch Society, an ad hoc group calling itself the National Indignation Committee, and also Mr. and Mrs. Lee Harvey Oswald. These were not, by definition, happy campers. In fact, they were greatly worked up. America seemed to be becoming a different place, more government-controlled and less, somehow, free. Further, like most of the rest of the South, Dallas did not cotton to racial integration of the schools, as commanded by a distant Supreme Court. 

The placidity of the 1950s is commonly overstated. The ’50s were in fact a seedbed of revolution. Did I not mention Elvis at the Cotton Bowl, a swivel-hipped cultural revolution in himself? Other tributaries flowed into the main revolutionary stream: the interstate highway system, the decay of rural and small-town America, a growing divorce rate, the (non-integration-related) deterioration of public education; likewise, beatniks, TV, and Jackson Pollock. Things were hopping. Many Americans felt hopped upon. A few reacted in astringent, occasionally bug-eyed ways. 

A conservative city, proud of successes achieved in an atmosphere of generous freedom, both at the personal and the economic level, could be expected to celebrate country and flag. Dallas did so, with a pride and protectiveness that seemed to increase as the troublous ’50s advanced. The Soviet Union had set its icy heart on extinguishing the freedoms that made Dallas, not to mention America, what it was. This was not to be put up with. The touchy Scotch-Irish who stamped the lower South with their character traits, including love of liberty, would have understood completely. “Better dead than Red,” a catchphrase of the day, had real resonance in Dallas, where Sen. Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, square of jaw, rugged of spirit, adamant foe of those who made it their job to push others around, won many sincere fans and admirers. 

Many Texans delighted in Barry not least because, as man and politician, he was the polar opposite of Texas’s senior senator, Lyndon Baines Johnson. If Barry was straightforward, Lyndon was shifty. If Barry’s politics were crisp, honest, and open, you never could be sure where LBJ would come down next, after much whispered conversation and back-stage maneuvering. Neither liberals nor conservatives trusted him; none could be sure he would not turn on them.

DISTRUST OF LYNDON Johnson ran nearly as deep as hatred of communism as a factor in the formation of Dallas politics in the period before the assassination. Conventional wisdom, confirmed in recent years by the Johnson biographer Robert Caro, held that Johnson operatives had stolen the 1948 Senate race from former Governor Coke Stevenson, a conservative Democrat, adding enough votes in Jim Wells County to afford the candidate—afterwards mocked as “Landslide Lyndon”—an 87-vote victory. Well! Here, in 1960, was the receiver of these stolen goods, running on the Democratic ticket for vice president. Showed you what Johnson (who really wanted the top slot on the ticket) thought of his home state: canoodling with Harvard liberals like JFK. 

There was a tumult in downtown Dallas when, just before the election, Johnson and his ladylike wife, Lady Bird, were boxed in by angry conservatives, chiefly women, flinging taunts and, reportedly, some spittle on the unhappy pair. It was the first of two occasions that blotted Dallas’s copybook prior to November 22, 1963. The shame went deep. There had never been anything like it in the city’s history. The Johnsons stood up doggedly to the assault; the attackers sank quickly into degradation. They had vented their anxieties and passions, but to what end? Their city’s embarrassment. What about it nonetheless as documentation for the Dallas-Did-It legend? Was it a premonition of disaster or a mere spontaneous outburst? The latter possibility alone makes sense. Following the presidential election, the city resumed its characteristically even tenor, enjoined LBJ not to let the door hit him on his way back to Washington, and contributed to the election of a solid Republican conservative, John Tower, as Johnson’s senatorial replacement. 

Not for three years did a similar episode take place. Then in October 1963, United Nations ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson, twice the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, was in town for a speech. Organized hecklers—organized, that is, by freelance conservatives who saw the U.N. as the advance agent of world government—tried to disrupt the address. They failed, and Stevenson won the audience’s hearty plaudits. A U.N. foe put the capstone on the occasion by bopping the ambassador on the head with a placard. A college student then spat on him. Southern hospitality, not to mention dignity and common sense (was spittle likely to lubricate the roots of policy change?) had been dishonored in monumental fashion, and practically nobody in Dallas was happy. Apologies flowed from every pair of lips. The City of Hate hated the predicament in which certain fools had ensnared it.

The counterargument among the Dallas-Did-It set is that it was by then too late; a climate of hatred had fallen over the city, poisoning civility and making it likely that somebody would take a gun and—well, who could tell? 

At least two objections to the objections arise. The first I mention is not well known, but it should be. Dallas, like all Southern cities, had long practiced segregation in all walks of public life. The terrain had nevertheless changed since the Second World War, not merely on account of Brown v. Board of Education, but additionally due to the mood that the Brown decision successfully anticipated: a growing national consensus that segregation was, at best, unproductive, at worst an affront to basic human rights. A city that took, as Dallas did, a high view of human freedom was going to wonder, sooner or later, whether it wasn’t best to move ahead with the new order of things. Local business leaders led the way, engineering the careful, deliberate integration of public accommodations—prior to the passage, under LBJ, of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—and of public schools, if too gradually for critics. The peace, at all events, was maintained. A biracial committee was formed to engage blacks and whites. The local newspapers agreed not to stir the journalistic pot. In many another city—New Orleans, Selma, and Boston come to mind—violence and death accompanied the social changes most had come to see as necessary. But there was no violence in the City of Hate. 

The second objection I mention is well known, yet does not enjoy the standing it deserves in our deliberations on the events of the evil day. Lee Harvey Oswald was a professed Marxist. Stephen King (of all people) in his novel about the assassination, 11/22/63, sees Oswald as an unsettled nut case looking for meaning in life. But a proud son of Dallas, seeking to boost a Goldwater presidential candidacy or something like that? I don’t believe so. As Robert Dallek writes in his graceful and measured biography, John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life:

in protecting the president from potential threats during his trip to Texas, and Dallas in particular, the Secret Service and FBI worried too much about the ultraright and too little about a possible assassination from the radical left. Consequently, neither agency picked up on the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald, an unstable ne’er-do-well who had lived in Russia for almost three years, openly identified himself with Castro’s Cuba, and unsuccessfully tried to breach a State Department ban on visiting the island, might be a threat to the president. If they had been attentive to Oswald’s movements, they would have noted his presence in Dallas where he worked in the downtown Dealey Plaza building of the Texas Schoolbook Depository, which overlooked Kennedy’s motorcade route. If he had been an object of clear concern, they would have taken notice of the mail-order Italian rifle he purchased shortly after the president’s visit was announced.

Speaking of Cuba, according to Dallek, Bobby Kennedy told John A. McCone, the director of Central Intelligence, that his own involvement in attempts to knock off Fidel Castro “had led Castro agents to kill his brother.” Dallek notes that LBJ seems to have shared the same suspicion.

IN THE ABSENCE of evidence to feed the City of Hate narrative, what keeps it going? I have my own theory. It is that American liberals—all the critics of Dallas, 1963, are liberals, of local or national origin—are constitutionally incapable of turning off their motors. They sense the presence of conservatives in the woodpile. Somewhere! All that noise and ruction! How could Oswald (or whoever) not have picked up on it? As Stephen King puts it: “Damaged, dangerous people like Lee Harvey Oswald are loaded guns; the combination of hatred and political extremism is the trigger.” 

Yet the background-noise theory is itself hamstrung. The impression we get from it is of a city beside itself with wrath, unable to acknowledge that John F. Kennedy had somehow or other become president. This is fantasy. Where is the evidence for such an impression, in print or memory? In the early ’60s (when I was in college), Dallas was no more a nest of right-wing crazies than it was a Navajo reservation or a Pacific Ocean resort. The few, shall we call them extremists, who plied their calling here—including the patriotic but slightly unhinged Gen. Walker, whom Oswald tried to shoot earlier in 1963—were few in number and small in influence. Businessmen ran the city, and ran it well. If they knew nothing else, they knew wacky extremism was bad for business. Even H.L. Hunt, the fabulous oil magnate noted for financing “right-wing” radio broadcasts, kept his editorial proceedings within the generous bounds of reason.

There were no “extremists” even at the Dallas Morning News. I know this is a point hard to swallow for those used to the assertion that the News’s coverage and editorial page stirred up opposition and hatred against the Kennedys. It’s all myth. Never happened. I subscribed to the News all through those times, read it attentively, regarded its conservative commentary as intelligent and stimulating, without recourse to rancor. (Disclosure: I joined the News staff in 1973 and retired from the paper in 2001.) I invite any who disagree with my assessment to join me in inspecting the microfilm of editions from the early ’60s, specifying, identifying, fingering assertions by News writers that could have kindled in the city anything larger than a Boy Scout campfire. Meantime I tender the theory that much of what was written and said about George W. Bush just a few years ago, in the New York Times and various other journalistic venues, exceeded in virulence and violence anything written about John Kennedy inside the city limits of Dallas. 

To be sure, tensions rose in Dallas during the Kennedy administration, but the same could be said of anyplace in America in the early 1960s. Less than two years after the assassination came the New Left rising at Berkeley against the constituted authorities. There followed, at terrible rates of speed, attacks on university offices by student mobs; the embrace of draft card incineration and illegal drug use as instruments of fun and defiance; bombings and armed robberies and attacks on police stations, all attempts to bring about “revolutionary conditions”; the appearance in the streets of armed thugs like the Black Panthers, masquerading as protectors of The People. Who initiated all this? The Birch Society? H.L. Hunt? We know better than that. For the catastrophes of the ’60s, the political and cultural Left took prolonged, self-satisfied bows. 

Then there is the matter of the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinations, which occurred four and a half years after the slaying of President Kennedy. Has the author of Carrie and The Shining any cogent explanations for the spread of Dallas-style “hatred” to Memphis and Los Angeles?

I do not suggest that any of this obliterates the need to analyze the Kennedy assassination with intelligence and taste. I suggest it creates a larger perspective within which to view, in our sad and diminished time, the escalation of anger, the erosion of once-common decencies and inner restraints: marks of shame unlikely ever to command the historical/hysterical interest that animates the Dallas-Did-It School of Public Commentary. 

I would myself dangle a single, compact claim for consideration: Dallas was a City of Hate only in the overactive imaginations of people with axes to grind, obsessed with the particularities of life and politics in a city that, nevertheless, has become one of America’s most successful and dynamic. 

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