'Dallas 1963': Two Texas writers examine the toxic stew of that year

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Was there something special about Dallas, Texas? What was going on there in the years and months leading up to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963?

Many books have been written about the assassination and its aftermath. "Dallas 1963" by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis focuses not on the killing itself but on the city where it happened.

As 1959 wound to a close, Nikita Khrushchev's tour of the United States ended, and the Nixon-Kennedy race for the presidency began. American media reported on the Soviet menace and the "missile gap," on Fidel Castro and Cuba, on Arkansas and school desegregation.

This last controversy, in which President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to disperse a mob in Little Rock, introduces us to one of the many colorful personalities featured in this book -- Gen. Edwin Walker.

"DALLAS 1963"
By Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis.
Twelve ($28).

Walker, raised on a Texas ranch and hardened by battle in World War II, migrates steadily rightward after enforcing the decree of Brown vs. Board of Education.

In this fast-paced book, Texas writers Bill Minutaglio and Steven Davis tell us how Walker joins the John Birch Society, quits the Army, moves to Dallas and assumes a leadership role on the American right.

We learn how Walker travels to Mississippi to inspire and lead those who fought the integration of Ole Miss. We learn how he fulminates in Dallas, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, saying little of a specific nature but warning of Communist advances at home and abroad and proclaiming that those advances were fostered by the weakness that began with the Kennedy administration in January 1961.

We learn how Walker finishes last in the 1962 Democratic gubernatorial primary, well behind John Connally, who, as governor of Texas, will be wounded in the same fusillade that kills JFK in 1963.

And we learn about so many other remarkable Dallas characters: H.L. Hunt, the billionaire oilman who bankrolls right-wing activities; Bruce Alger, the Republican congressman who incites his "mink-coat mob" of affluent women to a near-riot against Lyndon Baines Johnson and his wife during the 1960 election.

We're introduced to W.A. Criswell, pastor of the enormous First Baptist Church, who denounces JFK's Catholicism and campaigns against civil rights efforts; Ted Dealey, the Dallas Morning News publisher who confronts JFK at a White House luncheon and editorializes vehemently against his policies; and Frank McGehee, leader of the National Indignation Convention, who stages raucous anti-Kennedy rallies.

We read of Stanley Marcus, Dallas-bred and Harvard-educated, who expands his family shop into the Neiman Marcus megastore, an island of fashion and cosmopolitanism on the Texas prairie. We watch as Marcus, at once an insider at the heart of the Dallas business community and yet an outsider as a Jew, frets anxiously over the welcome that LBJ, and later JFK, will receive in Dallas. We meet the Rev. Rhett James and Juanita Craft, leaders of the efforts to integrate Dallas, from its lunch counters to its schools.

Among the many others that we encounter are Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. Oswald, the authors (and many others) believe, was the gunman who tried unsuccessfully to murder Walker at the general's home in April 1963. We read of Oswald's socialist and left-wing activities, and of his peripatetic existence, which took him from place to place, from job to job, and from marriage to quasi-separation.

This book suggests that, by November 1963, Dallas was steeped, quite thoroughly, in a seething brew of anti-JFK sentiment. It tells us of a deeply poisoned milieu, one in which hatred and violence were never far below the surface.

The authors have given us a brisk and invigorating read. Perhaps this reviewer was too much of a philistine to appreciate the present tense writing at first, but it grows on one.

What the book never explains is how and why an apparently pro-Communist agitator like Oswald could or would become the cat's-paw of ultra-conservative elements, or, more fundamentally, what connection there is between the reactionary landscape the authors paint and the avid reader of the Trotskyist Militant that they presume did the killing.

But perhaps that is too much to ask. Mr. Minutaglio and Mr. Davis may not answer all our questions about the JFK assassination, but, in examining Dallas and some people who inspired its citizens 50 years ago, they have asked important questions about rhetoric and invective.


David N. Wecht is a judge of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. Any views expressed herein are the author's and are not offered on behalf of the Superior Court.

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