‘Dallas 1963’: dark days before the Kennedy assassination
In “Dallas 1963,” Texas journalists Bill Minutaglio and Steven Davis document the toxic stew of hate for John F. Kennedy that swirled in Dallas in 1963, a firestorm of anti-Kennedy feeling that culminated in the president’s assassination.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis
Twelve/Hatchett Book Group, 384 pp., $28
It seems safe to assume that anybody literate enough to be reading this review realizes the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination will occur on Nov. 22. A corollary of that anniversary is a large number of new books related to the assassination. Most likely, none of those new books will achieve a fresher approach, or be presented as skillfully, as “Dallas 1963.”
The four-year narrative does not attempt to answer definitively whether Lee Harvey Oswald killed the president without assistance. (Oswald does not make his first appearance in the narrative until page 178. The focus is not on him until the book reaches the year 1963.)
Instead, longtime Texas scholar/journalists Minutaglio and Davis set out to explain why the city of Dallas in 1963 was the mostly likely place in the world for a fatal shot to be aimed at Kennedy, and why in the aftermath it was the most likely place in the world for the suspected assassin to be murdered by unhinged nightclub owner Jack Ruby.
Avid followers of previous Kennedy assassination books will probably recall that multiple presidential advisers and Dallas civic leaders begged the president to stay away from the city during November 1963. Those prescient individuals understood how Kennedy haters from various political groupings had coalesced. The lineup of Kennedy haters as assembled by the authors is impressive and fascinating. The first among equals is Gen. Edwin A. Walker, a high-ranking U.S. military officer who died in 1993. His military bearing, his penchant for violence and his widely disseminated hateful political views in combination managed to exude an undeniable charisma.
Additional Kennedy haters with power among the Dallas elite include U.S. congressman Bruce Alger, Dallas mayor Earl Cabell, Baptist minister W.A. Criswell, newspaper publisher Ted Dealey and billionaire oil tycoon H.L. Hunt. Minutaglio and Davis draw masterful word portraits of each man, as the characters show up for a few pages, disappear and then reappear.
Occasionally, Dallas leaders emerge who might be called heroic, as they labored to diminish the hatred of the powerful elite against not only the president, but also against minorities and low-income residents. The most unlikely semi-hero is Stanley Marcus, the wealthy owner of the Neiman Marcus department store. Because of his wealth and high-end clientele, Marcus had a voice among the Dallas elite. On the other hand, because of his Jewish heritage, Marcus was considered a fringe member of the power structure. He understood that defending Kennedy and promoting civil rights in general would cause many of the department store’s wealthiest customers to take their business elsewhere. So, naturally, Marcus felt conflicted. His portrayal by the authors is memorable and might lead readers (including me) to learn more about Marcus. He died in 2002.
Near the book’s opening, the authors state what came together in Dallas during the early 1960s was “unlike anything in the history of the country — a handful of people in a seemingly staid city begin to set the stage for one of the greatest tragedies” the United States has experienced. “Marooned in an outpost of super-patriotism, their first, cautionary discussions begin to morph into a cacophony of anger.” The zenith of the cacophony turned out to be a rifle shot aimed at the Kennedy motorcade.
Steve Weinberg is an investigative journalist who has read at least two dozen previous books related to the John F. Kennedy assassination.