'We're heading into nut country': President Kennedy said this to an aide as he began his fatal visit to Texas thirty years ago. Here Peter Pringle evokes Dallas as it was then, a hostile place which cared very little for the dream that died there

Dallas, 20 November 1963, two days before the arrival of President JF Kennedy. Four thousand, nine hundred and eighty yellow roses - all the yellow roses in California, according to the evening newspaper the Times Herald - arrived at the airport in preparation for the presidential visit. It was a typical, expansive Texan gesture, part of an effort to turn a rebellious city with the highest homicide rate in the union and a growing reputation for hating Democrats into a festive, reasonable place for a day.

Texans knew it was an impossible task; the flowers would be ceremonial, nothing more. By his third year in office most people in Dallas disliked Kennedy. Now a Republican stronghold, Dallas had voted 62 per cent for Nixon in 1960. A staggering 53.5 per cent of the city's wage earners were white-collar professionals. They could not have been less interested in Kennedy's New Frontier with its plans to desegregate schools and its civil rights bill. They longed for a return of the values of the Old Frontier and had concluded from the start that Kennedy could never fit the image of a plainsman.

As for his fancy liberal ideas about foreign largesse, such as the Peace Corps, it seemed to Dallas citizens that these encouraged socialism. They opposed funding backward nations in Latin America that then turned into ideological enemies. And while they appreciated Kennedy's determination to put a man on the moon, they didn't want to pay for the exercise - unless it helped to fight the Communists.

Dallas in those days was a town of 750,000, mostly Anglo-Saxon native Americans who kept a clean, God-fearing and relatively corruption-free city. They had kicked out the prostitutes and were prosecuting the new sellers of pornography. The city was playing its part in the record number of banks opening across the US; more had opened in 1963 than any previous year. Personal income nationwide had risen by dollars 3bn in October to a record annual rate. New money from oil was replacing old money from cotton. The city was expanding with newcomers from rural Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. All were politically and socially conservative.

These people thought Kennedy was doing the country a disservice by being too soft on Communism. 'We can annihilate Russia, and we should make that clear to the Soviet government,' the venerable owner of the Dallas Morning News, Ted Dealey, had told Kennedy at a dinner at the White House. What was needed, said Dealey, was 'a man on horseback to lead this nation, and many people in Texas and the South-West think that you are riding Caroline's tricycle'. Kennedy was not amused, but held his fire.

Texans were angered by the latest talk from Moscow about the Russians being able to 'wipe out whole states' and Khrushchev's boast that the new Soviet anti-missile system could 'hit a fly in the sky'. In Dallas, people thought Kennedy let the Soviet leader off too lightly.

By that last week, almost everyone was joining in the anti-Kennedy chorus. The American Bible Society placed an advertisement in the newspaper urging vigilance against the march of 'Godless Communism'. They added a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt warning of a 'lapse into paganism' to the point where America would perish like Assyria and Babylonia. There were many backers. The advertisement was sponsored by the First National Bank of Dallas, two funeral homes and a florist, among others.

In some cases the attacks were directed personally at Kennedy and his family. The Dallas Morning News ran a column headlined, 'Why do so many hate the Kennedys?' It was a vicious gripe about the Kennedys being 'new rich' and having money that 'still stinks'. (Never mind that much of Dallas money was even newer.) The writer was AC Green, editor of the newspaper's editorial page, which followed a sort of Kit Carson and Daniel Boone line. It had been writing in a mocking code about liberal causes, referring to Franklin Roosevelt's 'Queer Deal', the 'American Swivel Liberties Union' and the 'Judicial Kremlin' (the US Supreme Court). Even so, it was the most respected voice in Dallas, and everyone read it.

People in Dallas, wrote Green, disliked the Kennedys because their lifestyle has 'a touch of vulgarity' about it. He complained particularly about Bobby Kennedy being 'ambitiously dictatorial', and noted how people couldn't forget the Kennedy family links with the 'Frank Sinatra-Hollywood-Las Vegas axis'. The bleached-blonde dowagers of Dallas, who went to debutante balls and coffee mornings, and worried whether they had the latest kitchen gadgets, played a game in which you had to list the Kennedys you hated the most. The correct answer was Bobby, Jack, Teddy and Jackie, in that order. Many Dallas women would die rather than admit it, but they almost all copied Jackie's dress and hairstyle. It was the fashion.

This was a time when few southerners were ready to give the vote to Negroes, as they still called African-Americans, or let them drink at the same water fountains. But they were ready to share sports. The problem was, where would the Negroes change their clothes? As Harold Bradley, the University of Texas basketball coach, explained in the Dallas Morning News: 'It's going to be hard to get a Negro boy down here unless the housing is integrated.' He added: 'There's no question Negro basketball players are outstanding. You take the top 100 boys in the country and 60 of them will be Negroes'. Times would soon change, he forecast, because, 'Negro boys are hungry players'. At the University of Houston, they were willing to admit 'qualified Negroes' without specifying what that meant.

The church played a significant part in the life of the city. Most of its inhabitants were of Scottish-Irish stock and Protestants. They resented the Kennedys' Catholicism. It didn't help the strained relationship when the Catholic bishops spoke at their annual conference in that last week about the first step toward racial harmony being 'to treat all men and women as persons'. Most southerners simply didn't agree.

George Wallace, governor of Alabama and the supreme segregationist, came to Dallas that week, too. He arrived from Louisiana in a plane with Confederate flag markings. Asked by reporters about his stand against desegregation, he claimed he had never made an unkind remark about Negroes. 'It's just mixing the races that causes trouble', he said. 'We resent Washington telling us how to run our schools. Why, they've had to build extra bridges across the Potomac just for the people leaving Washington since they integrated the schools there'. Wallace said that with all the trouble in Washington, 'we Alabama people ought to be telling them how to run their schools'.

That was also the prevailing feeling in Dallas. The latest Capitol Hill scandal was free liquor in a contraband bar in the Senate basement. And at least one senator was accused of having call girls on his payroll. Life magazine reported that Washington was a place where 'a man needs a guide to distinguish wives from mistresses, and mistresses from hired prostitutes. It is a world devoted to the cynical manipulation of government influence and government largesse'.

The Dallas Morning News was in the front line of outrage against the nation's capital, suggesting it was inhabited by 'an unknown number of subversives, perverts, and miscellaneous security risks.' But the real security risk was the President's visit.

Dallas already had a reputation for roughing up Democrats. In the 1960 campaign, Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Byrd, were spat on by a group of housewives. A month before Kennedy's arrival, the UN ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, was assaulted in a crowd. Kennedy had been advised against the visit by several aides, unsolicited Dallas residents and by the Texas governor, John Connally, who said people in the city were 'too emotional'. In that year, a kind of fever lay over Dallas, wrote William Manchester in his book Death of a President. People carried huge billboards calling for the impeachment of the Chief Justice, Earl Warren. Cowboy-booted executives placed 'KO the Kennedys' bumper stickers on their cars. Jewish stores were smeared with swastikas and Kennedy's name was booed in classrooms. The Dallas city council rushed through an ordinance banning attacks against visiting speakers, but many still feared the worst, especially in a town where guns could be bought without a licence or any kind of registration.

There was more than gunfire. The day of the assassination, 22 November 1963, the Dallas Morning News printed a full-page advertisement, ominously bordered in black, accusing Kennedy, again among a long list of other complaints, of being a Communist patsy. It was signed by the American Fact-finding Committee, which eventually was identified as a group of right-wingers led by Nelson Bunker Hunt, of the oil-rich Dallas family. It was this advertisement that prompted Kennedy's remark: 'We're heading into nut country today'.

Kennedy had come to raise funds for his 1964 re-election campaign and to try to heal rifts in the Texas Democratic Party, which was in its usual mood: loving as a nest of alligators, as the Times Herald put it. His approval rate in the state was just over 50 per cent, as opposed to 59 nationally, and down from 76 in 1962.

In three years Kennedy had failed to make headway on the important initiatives of his administration - the first civil rights bill, a foreign aid bill and a pre-election year tax cut. He and Khrushchev had come within a button-push of blowing up the world over the Cuban missile crisis. And he left blacks seething over civil rights.

Yet by the mid-Eighties most Americans would remember him as the finest ever President. The ugliness of Dallas and the rest of the South would be replaced by a memory of what Norman Mailer and others called an age of innocence; an imaginary Kennedy era that afforded economic exuberance and a happier and more secure America rudely shattered by the assassins bullets.

The best explanation for this cognitive dissonance is that those who recall only the bright, shining moments of Kennedys presidency and manage to blot out the rest still cannot accept that a psychotic jerk with a cheap Italian carbine brought his life to a sudden close. Without such an end the staying power of the Kennedy legend would never have been so great.

(Photographs omitted)

Sport
Brendan Rodgers is confident that Sterling will put pen to paper on a new deal at Anfield
footballLIVE: Follow all the latest from tonight's Capital One semi-finals
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

    £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

    Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

    £40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

    Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

    £70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

    £30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

    Day In a Page

    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
    'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

    Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

    Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
    Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

    Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

    New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

    Rebranding Christmas

    More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up
    A Greek island - yours for the price of a London flat

    A sun-kissed island - yours for the price of a London flat

    Cash-strapped Greeks are selling off their slices of paradise
    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    New system means that evergreen songs could top the festive charts
    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence

    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys

    He is a musician of wondrous oddity. He is on a perpetual quest to seek the lost tribes of the Welsh diaspora. Just don't ask Gruff Rhys if he's a national treasure...