AT SOME POINT EARLY IN THE PLANNING of this issue, our articles editor, Brian Sweany, asked if it was a problem that two stories hinge on the Kennedy assassination: the excerpt (“The President Is Dead, You Know,”) from LBJ consigliere Jack Valenti’s memoir and my interview with actor Bill Paxton, who talks at length of being an eight-year-old in the crowd outside the Hotel Texas, in Fort Worth, where JFK made an appearance before heading to Dallas (Texas Monthly Talks,). The answer, of course, was no. Whenever we’re dealing with a pivotal moment in our collective history, we can’t go back to the well too many times. And especially with this pivotal moment. Forty-three and a half years after the deed was done, there seems to be no end to the number of pieces people are willing to read on the subject—on the still-lingering questions of what exactly happened on November 22, 1963.
By our count (by which I mean the count of institutional historian and assistant editor John Broders, who knows our old tables of contents like the back of his hand), we’ve previously published two dozen assassination-related takeouts. The very first (“Mother of the Decade”) was written in November 1973 by the British troublemaker Alexander Cockburn, who quotes Marguerite Oswald describing herself matter-of-factly as “the mother of the man they say shot the president.” Not surprisingly, Lee Harvey Oswald—who he was, whether he acted alone, why he himself was killed by that mysterious rascal Jack Ruby—has figured prominently in the great majority of our articles in the years since. The last time we weighed in, in November 2003, executive editor Mimi Swartz profiled former Texas first lady Nellie Connally (“The Witness”), who had tired of hearing people float absurd theories and finally told the story of what she saw with her own eyes, as she liked to say, “in that car, on that day.” (Our complete JFK archive can be accessed at online.)
Mrs. Connally, who died last year, needn’t have worried too much about the tinfoil-hat types perpetuating tales of loitering tramps, evil puffs of smoke, and foreign agents running amok in Dealey Plaza. They’ve moved on to the Bush administration’s “cover-up” of 9/11. Even the die-hardest assassination fantasists I know, including a certain writer on our staff whose skepticism of The Man is legendary, have grudgingly resigned themselves to the reality that the lone gunman of myth was, indeed, the lone gunman. When Paxton told me it “angers” him that “three out of four people believe … the government was somehow culpable,” my first thought was “You have to be kidding me.” But Paxton is squarely in the mainstream these days. We’re a long way from anyone putting stock in such conspiratorial craziness.
But as I said, that doesn’t mean we don’t like to be transported back in time every now and again. What excited me about the stories in this issue is that they bookend the usual ones you hear. Paxton’s anecdote takes place, in its entirety, in the early hours of that fateful day, when no one could have imagined the tragedy to come. The Valenti excerpt is largely about the aftermath: the hysteria at Parkland hospital, the eerie calm on board Air Force One as LBJ took the oath of office, and his own mundane but understandable apprehension at leaving his life in Texas behind to serve the president at an uncertain time in our nation’s history.
Valenti died in late April, so, unfortunately, this is his final word on the subject. I have a sneaking suspicion that it won’t be ours.
The Best and Worst Legislators of 2007, a killer nurse, a young woman’s crusade, the best museum cafes, the war over the Confederacy, and Sarah Bird on a hog hunt.