WILL LESTER, Associated Press
“Dallas 1963” (Twelve), by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis
“Dallas 1963” by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis provides a chilling portrait of a city terrified by the election of a young, charismatic leader viewed by many as a threat to their way of life.
It stays clear of conspiracy theories about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and takes a “just the facts” approach in painting a vivid picture of a volatile city during the Kennedy administration.
The book tracks Dallas from early 1960 to late 1963 and introduces a colorful cast of Texas characters from the Rev. W.A. Criswell, who ranted about communism and integration, to Congressman Bruce Alger, who sang the praises of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on the floor of Congress, to the rich oilman H.L. Hunt, who passionately agreed with both of them. Among the most dynamic of these was Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, a daring military leader relieved of duty by Kennedy because of his increasingly outspoken views that “the enemy” was taking over the country.
That cast of Dallas characters included a strip club owner named Jack Ruby and eventually a confused young communist sympathizer named Lee Harvey Oswald.
Late in 1960, it became clear Texas was going to be a pivotal state in a close presidential election, and Sen. Lyndon Johnson and his wife visited Dallas on a campaign trip. Congressman Alger whipped his legions of women supporters, many from the most powerful families in Dallas, into a “mink coat mob,” who descended on the Johnsons at a top Dallas hotel, trapping them briefly. The scene backfired with negative publicity about the protesters, and may have contributed to a narrow Kennedy-Johnson win in the state.
The irony was almost unbearable for the conservative powerbrokers in Texas. “The November attempt to crush Kennedy in Dallas has catapulted him to the presidency of the United States,” the authors write.
In late 1962, with conservative firebrands like Walker dominating the headlines and the attention of the Kennedy administration, Oswald settled into Dallas with his young family. He was uneasily watching the president’s confrontations with Cuba and the communist world.
The accounts of events in 1963 unfold in the book like a thriller novel, with many associates fearing a disaster because of Kennedy’s plans for a November trip to Dallas.
When Adlai Stevenson, Kennedy’s ambassador to the UN, visited Dallas in October 1963, he encountered a large crowd of angry Texans booing and jeering him. A crowd of protesters descended on Stevenson as he left the hall, one striking him in the head with a placard. Stevenson told a friend “there was something very ugly and frightening about the atmosphere.”
As Kennedy’s Dallas trip approached, friends and political allies all raised similar concerns. One Texas Democrat suggested the climate could inspire an unstable person to take action against the president.
On the morning of Nov. 22, as Kennedy’s motorcade headed through Dallas toward Dealey Plaza, Texas Gov. John Connally was relieved about the enthusiastic reception from the crowds lining the streets. His wife, Nellie, told Kennedy: “Well, Mr. President, you can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you.”
Then the first shot was fired.
Oswald was arrested for the assassination and was soon shot to death by Ruby, fueling conspiracy theories that live on today, though most accounts conclude Oswald acted alone.
A trip that Kennedy made to Arlington National Cemetery on Veteran’s Day, more than a week before his Dallas trip, prompted an unintentionally ironic comment.
“This is one of the really beautiful places on Earth,” Kennedy said as he surveyed the scene. “I could stay here forever.”
Will Lester, a political writer for The Associated Press for a dozen years, is an editor in the AP’s Washington bureau.