'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
Saturday 20 November 1993
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.
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