Dallas 1963 is not another JFK conspiracy theory book. In fact, it’s the furthest thing from it. Authors Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis intimately examine the hostile social and political climate brewing in the lead-up to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which occurred 50 years ago on Friday. By using Dallas itself as the protagonist, the authors give us a contextualized account of how the city’s elements of ruthless extremism, fostered by a cast of powerful kingmakers, fueled the roiling hatred toward America’s 35th president. The Current talked to Minutaglio about his latest book and the striking similarities between ’60s radicalism and today’s political environment.
Can you describe the tone and the make-up of the city and tell us who some of these key characters were that aided in cultivating the anti-Kennedy extremism in Dallas during the early ’60s?
There were a handful of really powerful people—there’s no other way to describe it, that’s not a political statement—they just were powerful. … The world’s richest man [H.L. Hunt] lived in Dallas. The leader of the Baptist faith in America [W.A. Criswell] was headquartered in Dallas. You had probably the most extreme member of Congress [Bruce Alger] representing Dallas. And then you had a powerful newspaper publisher, Ted Dealey, of the Dallas Morning News who was arguably the most vigorous anti-Kennedy publisher in America ... You had a group of extremely influential folks who, I maintain, hijacked the microphone.
[This is] what makes Dallas really singular as a backdrop, in the years prior to [Kennedy’s] arrival in 1963 … They had the money, they had the pulpits, they had access to media and they were the leading political figures. Really it wasn’t a conspiracy—they didn’t gather in some back room and swear to some dark oath of anti-Kennedyism. Rather, they coalesced around the notion that Kennedy was a weakling—literally weak, weak willed—that he was on bended knee to Communism, Socialism, to the Russian Bear, that if Kennedy remained president we would be annihilated, that we would literally be blown-up.
Can you take us through maybe a couple of the myths you discover and deconstruct surrounding the assassination? Ones that even surprised you and your co-author?
We were surprised at how the people who were so virulently anti-Kennedy had moved to an action plan. We knew that there were some folks who didn’t like Kennedy and went out and about espousing that view, but we didn’t really realize until we began digging down … at what they were saying and doing and it really blew our minds.… What scared us is that as we were slipping back into the history and reading the accounts of these people and just the venom [that] seemed to be coming from them, it moved beyond politics to true personal animus.… I would say Dallas during that time period was almost the genesis of modern demonizing in American politics and it was driven, again, by a handful of folks.… I think what [also] surprised us and, in some ways, scared us as we began to think it through: What influence did this portion of Dallas have on the assassin?
Do you see any similarities or parallels between the present-day religious and conservative right’s attacks on the left and the hostility brought forth by the anti-Kennedy camp in the early ’60s? And on that note, how much has really changed in Texas?
I was in Detroit talking about our book and I met a retired auto worker up there, who said “you could change the title of your book to America: 2013.…” He said there’s extremism, people just yell at each other from the left and the right, and it doesn’t seem to be too productive and it can be scary. And then he added, “why does it seem to often come out of Texas?…” I’ve traveled around a little bit to various places, New Orleans, Michigan, the D.C. area … and I’m hearing the same. People are saying the book seems awfully similar—emphasis on the awful—50 years later there’s still this hothouse, people seem unleashed and almost fanatic in their accusations and they demonize people. [There’s] the sense of: How do we at least get back to some dialogue or have healthy disagreements as opposed to this vitriol and screaming going on?… There really seems to be amazing parallels between 1963 and 2013.
In some ways, the book can be considered a story of how unchecked, blind ideological hatred manifests. So, is this a cautionary tale?
I don’t know that our book is a cautionary tale but I think that what happened back in Dallas was a cautionary tale—unequivocally, absolutely, 100 percent—it should be really studied … The cautionary tale in any … society is to be wary of ideologues who purport to represent the majority and, in fact, don’t.... We should be vigilant in the media, in the houses of worship, in government, in every step against letting folks steal the thunder, steal the microphone and move from a bully pulpit to something worse and even more aggressive.
By Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis | Twelve | $28 | 384 pp