Sunday, November 3, 2013

Book Review - Dallas 1963

A young, charismatic Democrat is elected President promising hope and change, a break from the past and represents generational change to a country going through a difficult time. His election spurs the very ugliest in certain corners of our land - bigotry, charges of leading the country toward socialism (or worse) and cries of treason. Sound familiar? While this describes America in the age of Obama, in their fascinating book Dallas 1963, Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis take us back to a time that will look very familiar to people who follow politics today. 

Dallas 1963 is best read on two levels - the first, as a purely historical meditation on an aspect of the Kennedy years that is largely forgotten in all the hullabaloo about Camelot, assassination conspiracy theories and "what ifs" - namely, the rise of a well-funded, right-wing opposition funded by people like H.L. Hunt, amplified by media moguls like the owner of the Dallas Morning News, Ted Dealey, and communicated to the masses by reactionaries like retired General Edwin Walker, who, in the span of 3 short years, went from leading the troops who integrated Little Rock schools to "palling around" with white supremacists. 

In this way, Minutaglio and Davis hone in on Dallas as the epicenter of paranoia and fear in a nation moving swiftly away from the stoicism of those reared during the Great Depression and who survived World War II and toward a future led by a singular figure whose charisma and charm were guiding the nation. Animating fears on the right were two things - communism and racial integration - and on both scores, Kennedy was perceived as feckless and weak. Dallas in the early 1960s was one of, if not the largest city still resisting integration and while growing in size, its politics were controlled by a small cabal of white businessmen unprepared for the changes that were occurring in our society. The other great fear was the Soviet Union. The Russian Bear lurked ominously in the minds of these paranoids, Kennedy's fumbling of the Bay of Pigs, invitation to Tito to visit the White House and, later in his Presidency, pursuit of a test ban treaty, all signaling weakness and capitulation to the communist scourge. 

Mixed together, and funded and led by deep-pocketed types like Hunt and Dealey, groups with names like the Committee for the Retention of the Poll Tax, the American Fact-Finding Committee, the National Indignation Convention and others served as a clearinghouse for every conspiracy theory (Kennedy as a dupe of the Pope, UN one-world government, etc.) under the sun while churning out a steady stream of boilerplate vitriol questioning Kennedy's commitment to the nation's freedom and support of its citizens. The book builds to a slow boil as the inevitable denouement approaches. The rabidity of right wing thought reaches its peak as Kennedy arrives in Dallas in November 1963, where a full page ad in the Dallas Morning News bordered in black (like a funeral announcement) "welcomes" him with questions cribbed from the right wing fantasies of John Birch Society members and a handbill is disseminated on the streets accuses him of treason (complete with a faux mug shot). Looked at through this lens, Kennedy's assassination feels more like a foregone conclusion than a bolt from the blue. 

On a second level, the parallels between the paranoia that pervaded the South in Kennedy's time is an obvious analog to the modern day Tea Party movement blended with the right wing hate we have come to know on talk radio, cable TV and the Internet. The rhetoric is uncannily similar - a radio show funded by Hunt claimed that Medicare would create, yup, you guessed it, "death panels" giving the President "life-or-death power over every man, woman and child in the country." Dealey, during an off-the-record lunch at the White House, excoriates Kennedy, reading a 500 word screed accusing the President of weakness in dealing with the Soviet Union and telling the President that the country needs a man on horseback, not Kennedy, who, Dealey says, people think is "riding Caroline's tricycle." Naturally, word of the confrontation leaks out and Dealey publishes the entire rant in his own paper. This incident of blatant disrespect toward the President mirrors similar incidents under Obama, be it Governor Jan Brewer wagging her finger in President Obama's face or Rep. Joe Wilson yelling "you lie" during a Presidential address to Congress. 

The other parallels are as obvious as they are depressing. The vitriol we associate with citizens who carry signs questioning Obama's citizenship or waved a Confederate flag outside the White House just last month are simply the progeny of white supremacists who spat on Adlai Stevenson and surrounded Lyndon Johnson during a last minute campaign swing through Dallas in 1960, waiving posters calling him a traitor and almost creating a mob scene inside a tony downtown hotel. The Ted Cruz of the early 1960s was a Dallas-area Congressman named Bruce Alger, who is shown holding a sign saying LBJ "sold out to Yankee socialists" outside a Johnson campaign rally and took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to commemorate the birthday of a man he called "a great soldier, a loyal Southerner, a noble American and a Christian gentleman." That man? Robert E. Lee. 

It would be easy to lose sight of the fact that these groups, be they of the early-60s Bircher ilk or today's Gadsden flag wavers represent a small (but vocal minority) of Americans. Dallas 1963 reflects this fact by highlighting the local leaders of the Dallas NAACP, the moderate, pro-business head of Neiman-Marcus and others who were concerned for racial tolerance and justice, feared the perception of Dallas as a city anchored to the past and who wanted simple fairness for all its citizens.  And while the consequences for the nation in 2013 have resulted in laws being passed that make it harder to vote, for women to seek abortions and for the poor, sick and young to obtain public assistance, the events of Dallas 1963 remind us that blind hatred of the President can have cataclysmic results.

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