There are a number of new examinations of John Kennedy's murder 50 years ago, but Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis pays special attention to those who contributed so much to JFK's death without ever hoisting a rifle. The book sheds a merciless light on a city that had become a viper’s nest where hatred was incubated, hatched, and set free to spread its poison.
If an ex-Marine turned nomadic malcontent named Lee Harvey Oswald fired the bullets that ended the president’s life, Oswald had found the perfect ground for bringing his simmering rage to a boil in Dallas. Through perceptions distorted by greed, prejudice, and sanctimony, some the city’s most prominent citizens constantly inflamed and exploited the right wing extremism.
Among the cast of contributing characters in what would prove to be one of the most tragic and traumatic events in the country’s history was a billionaire oilman, a Baptist preacher who ranted against the evils of integration ("They are not like us!"), the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, whose invective-filled tirades against Kennedy greeted the city every day, and a disgraced general from the United States army, who emerged as the anti-Kennedy faction’s hero-in-residence and would later serve as the inspiration for General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” a legacy he richly deserved.
Many people warned Kennedy not to go to Dallas. The monstrous sense of superiority that the state of Texas lays claim to, as If sheer land mass was the only requisite for measuring greatness, was even more pronounced in Dallas.
Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson had been verbally assailed there in 1960. Outside of the Adolphius Hotel, where LBJ was scheduled to speak, the Johnsons were besieged by a group of upscale Junior League types, dubbed by history as The Mink Coat Mob. Texas congressman Bruce Alger’s assurances that Mr. Johnson had acceded to the eventual communist takeover of America – threatening its glowing promise that members of the Junior League were constitutionally meant to wear mink coats – had goaded the screaming women into their hysterical fury.
Mrs. Johnson’s gloves were snatched out of her hands and thrown in the gutter. When the future First Lady started to reply to the vile epithets, her husband placed his hand over her mouth and told her just to keep walking. Ever the savvy politician, Johnson even instructed his entourage to disperse. The next morning, all the newspapers showed the Johnsons calmly walking through a shrieking melee and the entire world extended its sympathy, as LBJ knew it would. Even Dallas was embarrassed, no small accomplishment at that particular moment in time.
The Johnsons were treated cordially in comparison to the reception that awaited Adlai Stevenson, who was the object of the lunatic fringe’s wrath because he was the current United States Ambassador to the United Nations. The U.N. was an especially volatile subject amongst the super-patriots in Dallas, who held that American exceptionalism should hoist it above being bound by decisions made by a body that represented the international community. Mr. Stevenson remained admirably civil during his speech while he was relentlessly heckled, interrupted, and sneered at by an audience especially assembled for that purpose. He was spat upon and physically assaulted as he attempted to leave the Dallas Memorial Auditorium. When he finally made it to the relative safety of his car, he posed a reasonable question to no one in particular, “Are these human beings or animals?”
That is a question that may often occur to the reader of this tense and disturbing picture of a city devouring itself with hatred. John Kennedy was determined that the status quo would not be maintained any longer in a country that had torn itself apart to end racial inequality one hundred years earlier. He remained unmoved by the imprecations of generals to reduce Cuba to a pile of smoking cinders. The specter of an eventual communist takeover didn't haunt his dreams. Every enlightened position that the president assumed was like a slap in the face to the power players in Dallas.
Dallas 1963 is not just another trek to that inevitable moment in Dealey Plaza. It is a precise and meticulous recreation of the origins of a tragedy the reverberation of which would alter the destiny of a nation and the world.
If it seems unfair to blame the stage upon which a bad play is presented, other American cities have been the sites of political assassination in America. None of those cities has experienced such an irrevocable association of a terrible event and the place where it happened. There were good people in Dallas in 1963, who were horrified by the bluster and bullying of people like Ted Dealey and Edwin Walker. But, they stood by and allowed a tidal wave of hatred and hysteria to engulf their city. Fifty years later, Dallas is still paying the price.