Dallas 1963by Bill Minutaglio
In the early 1960s, Dallas was a city brewing with political passions, full of extreme and unlikely characters, many of them dead set against a Kennedy Presidencyrabid politicos like fanatical conservative Bruce Alger and defrocked military general Edwin A. Walker; oil baron H. L. Hunt; and W. A. Criswell, leader of the largest Baptist congregation in the
In the early 1960s, Dallas was a city brewing with political passions, full of extreme and unlikely characters, many of them dead set against a Kennedy Presidencyrabid politicos like fanatical conservative Bruce Alger and defrocked military general Edwin A. Walker; oil baron H. L. Hunt; and W. A. Criswell, leader of the largest Baptist congregation in the world; along with a host of gangsters, unsung civil rights leaders, strippers, billionaires, and marauding police.
Breathtakingly paced, DALLAS 1963 presents a clear, cinematic, and revelatory look at the 20th century's most significant and terrifying political event. Beginning with the campaign for Kennedy's election, and set against a nation in transition, Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis ingeniously explore why the Kennedy camp never could have anticipated the swirling forces awaiting them in Texas.
Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, DALLAS 1963is not only a fresh look at a momentous political event but a sobering reminder of how extraordinarily violent ordinary Americans can become
All the great personalities of Dallas during the assassination come alive in this superb rendering of a city on a roller coaster into disaster. History has been waiting fifty years for this book."Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower and Going Clear"
Minutaglio and Davis capture in fascinating detail the creepiness that shamed Dallas in 1963."Gary Cartwright, author and contributing editor at Texas Monthly"
In this harrowing, masterfully-paced depiction of a disaster waiting to happen, Minutaglio and Davis examine a prominent American city in its now-infamous moment of temporary insanity. Because those days of partisan derangement look all too familiar today, DALLAS 1963 isn't just a gripping narrative-it's also a somber cautionary tale."Robert Draper, contributor, New York Times Magazine and author of Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives"
The authors skillfully marry a narrative of the lead-up to the fateful day with portrayals of the Dixiecrats, homophobes, John Birchers, hate-radio spielers, and the 'superpatriots' who were symptomatic of the paranoid tendency in American politics."Harold Evans, author of The American Century"
After fifty years, it's a challenge to fashion a new lens with which to view the tragic events of November 22, 1963yet Texans [Minutaglio and Davis] pull it off brilliantly."Publishers Weekly (starred review)"
Chilling... The authors make a compelling, tacit parallel to today's running threats by extremist groups."Kirkus"
A thoughtful look at the political and social environment that existed in Dallas at the time of the president's election... a climate, the authors persuasively argue, of unprecedented turmoil and hatred."Booklist
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By Bill Minutaglio, Steven L. Davis
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Bill Minutaglio Steven L. Davis
All rights reserved.
Over the brisk winter holiday, mailmen in Dallas are bundled against the biting winter chill as they place a series of carefully signed and rather unexpected cards into the mailboxes of the city's most influential residents—men living on the exquisitely manicured, tree-lined streets that filter north of the tall downtown buildings.
The front of the card features a crisp photograph of an attractive young family: A handsome, vigorous-looking man is seated in a comfortable chair, book-lined shelves visible behind him. His face is creased into a charming smile, and his posture projects an easy and sanguine confidence. Perched on his lap is his ebullient daughter, peering down at an open book. Standing behind him is his elegantly attired wife, leaning over her well-dressed husband and child. Her manner seems more reserved, nearly brooding. A strand of pearls frames her long neck. She is very attractive but appears as remote as a silent screen star.
The portrait of this young family radiates a sense of dynastic ease, of a kind of practiced and inherited status. On the inside of the card is the raised, gold-embossed Great Seal of the United States: the fierce eagle clutching an olive branch in one talon and thirteen arrows in the other.
Below the seal appears a message: "Wishing you a Blessed Christmas and a New Year filled with happiness. Senator and Mrs. John F. Kennedy."
Each of the cards has been signed in the same careful handwriting: "Best—Jack."
Many of the people in Dallas are startled at the impressive, personalized card. Most of them have never met Kennedy. Many have never ventured into the Kennedy orbits on the East Coast—nor would they ever want to. In the powerful parts of Dallas, there is a mixture of old Southern families and the nouveau riche. And now, in the last few years, the oil money is flowing furiously into this New South city—sometimes seemingly despite men like Kennedy, despite the Northeastern establishment, despite the long and controlling reach of Washington.
Alongside the older mansions, there are newer thirty-room Taj Mahals where even the toilets are made with gold leaf. The most lavish store in the city, Neiman Marcus, specializes in making millionaires' dreams come true—it is preparing to debut its newest gift idea: His and Hers airplanes. People are flying out of Dallas's Love Field to New Orleans for lunch at Antoine's, or to Lake Tahoe to mingle with Frank Sinatra at the Cal Neva Resort. Or to Las Vegas to play poker with Benny Binion—once the most celebrated purveyor of illicit pleasures to the rich in Dallas, now their host at the famous Horseshoe Casino.
But just a few minutes from the mansions in Dallas, there are also clusters of falling-down shacks, with no running water, settling into the gumbo-soil bottomlands. The city's schools, country clubs, and stores are still perfectly segregated ... and bonded, through membership and memory, to ominous things that few speak about by name.
With the grand holiday cards from Kennedy in hand, the recipients place calls to friends. They learn that many others have received the very same greeting from Kennedy, not just in Dallas, but all over the country. Some must wonder if it is giving Kennedy some measure of satisfaction knowing that his cards are being talked about in a city like Dallas ... in a place like Texas.
The Lone Star State is often like some rogue nation playing by its own political rules, as if it is about to secede and become its own country again. At the family retreat in Hyannis Port, at the place where the Kennedys feel most unfettered and clear-minded, Dallas probably seems at times like a place worth conceding, a place where there is more than just the usual political resistance to everything a Northern Catholic might embody. Some who have never been to Dallas summon up the easy stereotypes: It is where Bonnie and Clyde came from. Where big oilmen drive huge cars. A distant city populated by gun-slinging cowboys and snake-handling preachers.
Even if they don't succumb to those cartoon caricatures, the key advisers in the Kennedy inner circle surely share something: a raw sense of Dallas as an outpost for people particularly disconnected to the Kennedy family's very personality, religion, and principles. And John F. Kennedy himself no doubt knows that it will take far more than a soothing family photograph and a handsome, gilt-tinted holiday card to even begin to erode distrust in a place like Dallas.
One thing is clear this January. Kennedy is watching his major rival for the presidential nomination, Lyndon B. Johnson, the crafty Master of the Senate, the Texas boss who has gone below deck to run the Democratic Party machinery during the Eisenhower presidency. No one in party circles knows more about Texas, about Dallas, than Johnson. No one but Johnson has done more to help empower the men who really run things in Texas. For months now, Jack and his brother Bobby have watched and waited for the tall, clever Texan to make his move.
There are certainly windows of opportunity for Johnson. There are coalescing, angry forces in Dallas and throughout the South. There are governors, senators, and mayors still rallying to resist so many things: the revolutionary integration edicts ordered by the federal government, by the Supreme Court, by political forces in the North ... as if a modern version of the Civil War is unfolding. But Johnson is coy, refusing to announce his plans. He is both cunning and wary—and wondering if the nation is really ready for a president from the South, from that alternately celebrated and reviled place called Texas.
While Johnson wavers, Kennedy decides to push forward.
He has been visiting every state in the nation. And he and his team have decided to mail those holiday cards, to have him personally sign thousands of them and send some straight to Dallas, straight to the heart of the American resistance.
On January 2, 1960, people in the city open their ultra-conservative morning newspaper and see the big story: John Fitzgerald Kennedy has announced that he is officially running for the White House.
Inside those three-story mansions with the curving driveways in the exclusive quarters of the city, people now understand exactly what Kennedy's lavish holiday greeting was all about. Later in the day, they are meeting, over coffee and eggs delivered by white-gloved black waiters in the private clubs downtown, and talking about the card—especially in light of the news.
It is both foolish and flattering: Kennedy wants Texas.
The Reverend W. A. Criswell, the burly and square-jawed pastor of the sprawling Dallas First Baptist Church, knows that the Lord God Almighty is providing him with a special blessing on this brisk initial Sunday in January 1960.
A brazen bigamist, the craggy and philandering Dallas oil mogul H. L. Hunt, is bowing before him and whispering in his unusually soft and cottony voice that he is ready at last to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior ... and Wallie Amos Criswell as his spiritual leader. Criswell looks down, staring at the large, oval-shaped man with the baby-soft skin and the snowy, thinning hair. It is a holy marriage—between the leader of the largest Baptist church in the world and the richest man in America.
At age fifty, Criswell weighs two hundred pounds and has short, slightly curling hair parted close to the middle of his large head. He has a broad face, thin lips, and narrow but piercing eyes. He prefers a dark tie, a white shirt, and a gray three-piece suit. Like the seventy-year-old Hunt, he emerged in a part of the nation where there was nothing even remotely akin to inherited wealth—where a desperate, hungry man usually only prospered by muscling his way forward without waiting for benevolent figures in Washington to lend a hand.
Criswell was born into wretched poverty near the sluggish Red River and the barren Texas-Oklahoma border, where tornadoes routinely scrape away at people's lives. Baptized in an old galvanized tub, he found his calling under flimsy revival tents, and waving his dog-eared Bible in dusty, hardscrabble villages like Muskogee and Mexia. People say he acquired a holy gift for bridging the Bible to the real world, for linking God's ancient words to today's headlines, for using the Bible as a literal tool to make sense of the news events people hear on the radio or see in the Dallas Morning News.
Lately, when he sits inside his expansive, book-lined office in his sprawling brick church, he remains obsessed with liberals and socialists in the Northeast—how the men in Washington want to change traditions, push integration. Too, he has deep, lingering suspicions about Roman Catholics—about whether they would be more devoted to the pope than to the American Constitution.
But when Criswell closes the door to his office and writes his fiery sermons, he knows one thing: He doesn't want to risk the kind of agonizing, national blowback he endured the last time he attacked some big sea changes in America.
Four years ago, the governor of South Carolina had insisted the nationally famous Dallas preacher come give a speech to the state legislature, and Criswell erupted in full-throated roar against integration and those Northern socialists: "The NAACP has got those East Texans on the run so much that they dare not pronounce the word 'chigger' anymore. It has to be Cheegro! Idiocy ... Foolishness! Let them integrate! Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up! Let them stay where they are ... but leave us alone!"
The lawmakers were mesmerized as Criswell rocked on his feet and raised both of his hands to the heavens:
"They are not our folks. They are not our kind. They don't belong to the same world in which we live ... There are people who are trying to force upon us a situation and a thing that is a denial of all that we believe in."
The news about his blistering rebukes reverberated around the country, and some of the fallout was disastrous. Baptist preachers hissed that he had gone too far—even if he was saying what many of them believed. But in Dallas, the mysterious oilman H. L. Hunt listened and heartily approved. Hunt and Criswell both knew that the growing civil rights movement was just a way for soft-willed intellectuals and liberals to supercharge socialism, and open the door to a steadfast campaign by communists to infiltrate America. Hunt admires the way Criswell attacks the enemy. He'd like to entrust his soul and his money to the preacher who says:
"Communism is a denial of God ... communism is like a kingdom of darkness presided over by a prince of evil ... the greatest challenge the Christian faith has ever faced in 2,000 years of history."
Hunt can feel it. Criswell really understands who is leaving America so vulnerable: "The leftists, the liberals, the pinks and the welfare statists who are soft on communism and easy toward Russia."
Evening is coming on, the January light is playing off the chilly waters of the Potomac River, and inside the House of Representatives chamber Congressman Bruce Alger can see his colleagues pushing out of their chairs and beginning to drift toward drinks and dinner with lobbyists. Still, this is something that the lawmaker from Dallas has to do, even if there is not a full audience.
The smoothly handsome and impeccably dressed Alger steps to the front of the House chamber. Some people say the Princeton-educated, forty-one-year-old could have been a movie star, that he bears a striking resemblance to the actor Gary Cooper. His shined hair is combed to perfection, and he walks with a straight, easy gait.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee's 153rd birthday will pass entirely without notice in the House of Representatives if not for Alger, the lone Republican in the Texas delegation and one of the most passionate conservatives in the nation. Invoking personal privilege, Alger begins a speech—his mellifluous voice rising and praising the legend and memory of the Confederate leader.
This should play very well in certain parts of Dallas. The city was once the national headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan. The city's famous Magnolia Building, once the tallest in the state and adorned with that giant sign of a glowing red Pegasus, was opened by a Grand Dragon of the KKK. A Dallas minister named R. E. Davis—someone well known to Dallas police—is claiming to be the new Imperial Wizard of the Original Knights of the KKK. He is saying ominously that he will combat integration and that "this Republic was founded by and in violence." The current mayor of Dallas, R. L. Thornton, was named for Robert E. Lee and had once been an unabashed KKK member. There are two towering Confederate monuments to General Lee in Dallas, including one that is the tallest public structure in the city. There are statues of Confederate legends Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis—and all-white public schools named for rebel heroes. The Confederate cemetery in the heart of the city is always carefully tended.
Now Alger's heartfelt ode to Lee echoes in the lonely chamber. He doesn't care if there is no one to listen. This speech is, really, for the people who put him in Congress—the people who run Dallas. Alger's ode to Lee floats across the emptying room:
"A great soldier ... a loyal Southerner ... a noble American ... and a Christian gentleman."
After Alger finishes his speech, he heads to the airport. When his plane finally touches down in Dallas, he is greeted, as always, by a small army of adoring homemakers and young wives who have taken a sudden interest in politics. Alger seems so personally appealing. He seems fully aware of those unseen threats lapping at Dallas.
Immediately, the Dallas Morning News issues an editorial thanking Alger:
It was fitting, though ironical, that a Republican—Bruce Alger of Dallas—was the only congressman to get on his feet and salute Gen. Robert E. Lee on his birthday.
Fitting, because Lee fought for the rights of the states. By resisting big government in Washington. So is Alger.
Where were the Democrats—the so-called party of the South? Courting the support of ... the NAACP?
At home, Alger is often regarded as a folk hero despite the fact that he has never passed a single piece of legislation. He has introduced doomed bills to withdraw from the United Nations, to break off all diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, to privatize the federal government. He opposed the civil rights bill of 1957, condemning it as placating "the troublemakers of the NAACP who seek to incite race hatred and discontent which did not exist." And, finally, he cast the lone vote against a federal program to provide surplus milk, free of charge, to needy elementary school children.
The congressman was assailed across the country, but the leaders of the Dallas Morning News rushed to his defense: "Here we are telling ourselves that we must strain every nerve and conserve every penny to meet the assault upon our way of life by the Russians and the spend-it-all folk in Washington come in crying about the milk-hungry children."
Alger has other stalwarts in Dallas. The billionaire Hunt sends out a mass letter racing to the support of the Dallas lawmaker: "His acumen, integrity and courage rate him as one of the 5 or 6 truly great men among the vanishing good men in Washington."
But it is the prosperous stay-at-home wives waiting for him at the Dallas airport that really form the soul of Alger's political vanguard. They constantly spring to his side, excitedly host luncheon forums and fund-raisers in their homes, work for hours on phone banks, and parade door-to-door with his yard signs. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, routinely appear at his public events, applauding wildly. To some skeptics in Dallas it is almost too much—and some are quietly speculating about what inspires so much passion. There are even rumors about his marriage, about why the congressman and his wife have recently separated.
Now, in the city after his Capitol Hill salute to Robert E. Lee, Alger simply goes from one January appearance to another, engulfed by the well-dressed women who have braved the winter weather to welcome him back. As they listen, perched on the edges of their seats and clapping, they hear him hammer home what they know to be true: There is something poisoning the hallways of power in Washington. There is a cancer. Washington is filled with blind men, liberal men: "the most liberal since the heyday of the New Deal."
Excerpted from Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio, Steven L. Davis. Copyright © 2013 Bill Minutaglio Steven L. Davis. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Bill Minutaglio's work has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Newsweek, Texas Monthly, Outside and many other publications. He has worked for The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News and is the author of several critically acclaimed books, including biographies of President George W. Bush, Molly Ivins and Alberto Gonzales, and a narrative retelling of the greatest industrial disaster in American history. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Steven L. Davis is the author of two highly praised books on Texas culture, and his work has appeared in Texas Monthly, Texas Observer, San Antonio Express-News, Southwestern American Literature, and Texas Books in Review. Davis is a long-time curator at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University-San Marcos, which holds the literary papers of Cormac McCarthy, Sam Shepard, and many other writers. He lives in New Braunfels, Texas and grew up in Dallas.
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The book explains what an influence a minority of people can have when they make the most noise and, in this case, have the most money and power. Whether or not certain Dallasites' behavior and actions substantially influenced a loner like Oswald, we will never know, but the authors do give us an intriguing background to the events of November, 1963 and the consequences of bad behavior and how they can influence history and people's impressions of a city.
History with Shocking Parallels to Today Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis have accomplished something that few know and that many should know. They have laid out a history preceding the asassination of John F. Kennedy that is compelling to the core and that has truly frightening parallels to today. Perhaps more astounding, after a half century of avid reading and being a lifelong news junkie, I knew almost none of the history that came alive in Dallas 1963. Over the last half century, many of the events leading up to the Kennedy asassination and its aftermath have been simply repeated in the news media from one anniversary observance to another. Minutaglio and Davis marked a sharp departure from rehashing old news. They both are journalists and scholars, and both are gifted storytellers. They have an exceptional gift for dramatic reporting of complex, intertwined events. They make sense of them in Dallas 1963. This book is a must-read for all who are deeply concerned about the rancorous political climate in the United States and other parts of the world. Dallas 1963 is a cautionary tale about the importance of returning to reason, thoughtful deliberation, respectful disagreement, a lowering of voices, and shared responsibility. This book contributes something fresh and new and powerful. I give it my highest recommendation. Earl B. Russell, Author Cold Turkey at Nine
This book is a compelling chronology of the rise of the political far right in the city of Dallas during the early sixties--which overlapped with JFK's campaign for and election to the presidency. Today, many political observers will speak of how contemporary politics has become excessively polarized and how government (especially Congress) has lost the civility for which it was once known. Despite being fully aware of this, I was shocked at the intensity of the vitriol among the right wing Dallas establishment. Men such as Ted Dealey and Edwin Walker (aided by the John Birch Society) created a hysteria against any idea or initiative that might be even remotely be considered progressive or liberal (like the radical idea that African Americans should be able to vote)--and never missing an opportunity to conflate these ideas with Communism. To them, newly elected president John F. Kennedy personified these social ills, while "giving aid and comfort" to the Soviet Union. Looking at these events through the lens of history, it's difficult not to shake your head and wonder how people could ever actually think like that. All the while, Stanley Marcus (of the famous department Neiman Marcus) remains the sole voice of sanity while trying to shake the city of Dallas out of its nineteenth century mindset. The book also charts the comings and goings of Lee Harvey Oswald, but in my opinion could have spent more time probing his motivations for assassinating the president. Despite this shortcoming, I highly recommend this book.
This book is an amazing historical guide to the JFK assasination insident. Dallas is one of those titles that adds so much depth to the historical event that the book ends up sounding like a 2000 houre documentary of great value to the investigation if you like to study the JFK assasination this is the book for you.
Great book. Deeply investigated. Also a great read Hector's Juice. It's an e-book.
Dallas 63 is a valuable addition to the Kennedy literature especially because it paints a detailed picture of the time and the cultural and political environment in which this senseless and dastardly deed of the assasination occurred. Unfortunatly, recent times have demonstrated that we as a culture have not progressed very far up the ladder of humanity. I recommend that this book be read in conjunctiion with "Kennedy and the unspeakable" by James Douglas. Walter Eanes
This is a must read for everyone interested in the JFK assassination or the political history of the 1960s. Minutaglio and Davis detail how the ultra conservatives affected Dallas and the nation. While conspiracy theorists will not find answers, they will certainly have many players to suspect.