Editor's Note: On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, The Post and Courier's book page has featured reviews of 16 new books about JFK. Today, we conclude with the final review.
BY MICHAEL NELSON
Special to The Post and Courier
DALLAS 1963. By Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis. Twelve. 384 pages. $28.
What was Dallas, Texas, like in November 1963 when President Kennedy went there?
"Dallas 1963," by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, is not a book about Kennedy or the assassination; rather, it describes the city and many of its prominent players.
The book shows how Dallas, which became known after Kennedy's death as "The City of Hate," evolved into a cauldron of ultra-conservative political rage.
The political mood in Dallas already was charged in 1963. Kennedy did not relish going there, and numerous people warned him not to visit. Reportedly, Kennedy told Jacqueline on the way there, "Be prepared, we're headed into nut country."
Political extremists from the Right received support from influential people such as ultra-conservative Dallas Morning News publisher Ted Dealey (for whom Dealey Plaza, the place where Kennedy was assassinated, was named) and multimillionaire oil tycoon H.L. Hunt. The John Birch Society found fertile ground there for its radical views. Major General Edwin A. Walker was a right-wing extremist who resigned from the Army after being reprimanded by Kennedy. Walker ran unsuccessfully for governor of Texas against John Connolly, and was a high-profile activist whose supporters were responsible for an attack on Adlai Stevenson during his visit to Dallas a month earlier. Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson were victims of upper-crust Dallas Right Wingers, primarily women, in the infamous Mink Coat Mob riot.
Other key players in the story of Dallas include Mayor Earl Cabell (brother of ex-CIA deputy director Charles Cabell), and Baptist minister W.A. Criswell, who espoused a fiery racist-segregationist view. The authors also write about Bernard Weissman and Larrie Schmidt who, along with H.L. Hunt Jr. and the John Birch Society, were responsible for the notorious WELCOME MR. KENNEDY ad that showed a quasi-mug shot of the president with the words "Wanted for Treason" beneath it.
The authors include some voices of reason as well. Stanley Marcus (of Neiman Marcus), emerges as a compelling figure. There is also the Rev. H. Rhett James, an African-American Baptist preacher who was an anti-segregationist activist.
Then there is, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald; he makes his first appearance about halfway through the book. The writing on Oswald is superficial, providing nothing insightful. There is also nothing new or enlightening on Jack Ruby. This is a shortcoming of "Dallas 1963." The reader would certainly benefit from greater detail on these two men.
The book is arranged chronologically from January 1960 through Nov. 22, 1963, the moment of the assassination. An epilogue provides a brief outline of Dallas in the wake of the assassination.
Inevitably, there are some gaps perhaps impossible to fill in. A reader might want a fuller description of Dallas' underbelly. Besides Ruby, there is scant detail about how the Mafia operated in Dallas. Also, more about Police Chief Jesse Curry and the Dallas Police would have been welcome.
The authors provide essentially no original research regarding the assassination. While Dallas bore a large portion of the blame and backlash for Kennedy's death, how much was the city to blame? If one believes Oswald to be the assassin, his ties to the city were not deep. If one embraces the idea of a conspiracy, it is generally considered to extend well beyond the borders of the city.
But the mood of political rage and hatred in Dallas surely provided a ripe environment for such a tragedy. The contempt for Kennedy and intolerance for differing views at that time can provide a lesson for us today, when political polarization and extremism are all too common.
Reviewer Michael Nelson is an editor and writer in Charleston.