My first sighting of the new world came from the back of the family station wagon, in the late afternoon as the slanting sun behind us lit up the city skyline with fierce and brilliant color. Now, of course, the vista of skyscrapers that awed me as a child is buried in the shadows of modern Dallas; the buildings that seemed so monumental then against the flat horizon were the pale blue Southland Life building, the Mobil building with the neon winged horse atop, the Republic Bank, largest bank in the Southwest—as I come upon those structures now they seem petite and almost historical. Foremost, as we approached the city, was an unpretentious cubical edifice with an enormous billboard on top advertising Hertz rental cars and blinking the time and temperature. The building itself was anonymous, and afterward, when the world knew it as the Texas School Book Depository, people in Dallas identified it by the Hertz sign and said, “Oh, that one.”
We were moving from Abilene, where my father was vice president of the largest bank in town. My sisters had been crying for weeks, since Daddy had returned from his mysterious trip and announced that he had gotten a new job—at last he would be president of his own bank. It was small, he warned us, but it was in Dallas, and Dallas was growing, and as the city grew so would his bank. Dallas was a place where dreamers like my father were given a chance.
Dallas was a boom town, full of promises. As in all boom towns tension was high. Some people were zooming through society like race cars, giving the world an impression of Dallas as a city of affluent hicks—you could see them suddenly flaunting their greenbacks at the gaming tables from Las Vegas to Monte Carlo or talking too loudly in their drawling nasal voices in restaurants that were really too good for them—monied, naïve, too eager, democratic yes but socially pretentious. For an astounding number of people Dallas was just such a jackpot, and they formed a rough society of nouveaux millionaires; they would build a gorgeous Gatsby-like mansion on the north side, enroll their children in Hockaday or St. Mark’s, open a Neiman-Marcus charge account, buy a mink coat and two Cadillacs, and join the Republican party. The winners were easy to spot.
The losers made their own headlines. Dallas was the murder capital of Texas, which led the United States in homicides. We were reminded that Dallas killed more people some years than all of England did—a statistic with little effect, for wasn’t England a sound-asleep society, and weren’t we exploding with new force, building a new world, making millions by the minute, and did you expect a new world to be born without death and broken hearts?
In many respects my father was typical of the kind of man who made that new world. He went to a one-room schoolhouse in central Kansas, watched his family farm blow away in the same wind that brought the Depression, and with no apparent resources other than his own unbending will put himself through Central State Teachers College in Edmond, Oklahoma, then through law school at the University of Oklahoma. When World War II broke out he dutifully joined the infantry, spent seven years fighting in Europe, the Pacific, and Korea under conditions that twice turned his hair completely white, and was discharged as a major in 1952 at the age of 36; a civilian now, with a family of five, and he had not even begun to make a career. He hit the ground running.
After eight years he learned the frustration of small-town banks with sleepy family management, so when he was finally offered the presidency of the Lakewood State Bank in Dallas he accepted at once. In 1960 it was a small and troubled storefront bank in Gaston Avenue, between Doc Harrell’s drugstore and Kirk’s Beauty Salon. To see it now—three city blocks of land, a tower, a parking garage, fountains, expensive art on the walls, a boardroom table that would have made King Arthur blush, and a modern amalgamated name, Allied Lakewood—is to realize my father’s own aspirations in their most tangible form. He built this bank, with the help of people like him, people who came out of nowhere with nothing, who came to Dallas because Dallas would give them a chance.
For my parents, leaving the close social quarters of Abilene was like getting out of jail. They were not true West Texans; they had not come to love the unending monotony of mesquite barrens or the high, hot blue sky that made sunsets a matter of prayerful thankfulness. To an outsider, Abilene was like a small landfall in the Sargasso Sea—remote, laconic, and forever closed to strangers. By comparison Dallas seemed wide open, but it wasn’t really, as we soon learned. Politically it was shut up tight. Ambitious newcomers like my father found the leadership of the city distant and mysterious, a cabal, and it would not do to crash the secret circle. You must prove yourself, endure probation. If you do, you will be noticed; you’ll be brought along slowly, like a colt being trained to a bridle. One day someone will approach you. You’ll be asked to “do something for Dallas.” You’ll get an assignment. For my father it was to head up a bond election to air-condition the public schools. People were surprised when the bond passed; the secret circle opened and admitted my father and of course quickly closed behind him.
And why shouldn’t he be glad to do something for Dallas? Hadn’t the city shared its bounty with him? Later, the civic-mindedness of Dallasites would seem cold hypocrisy to the rest of the world, but most people in Dallas had the same gratitude and protectiveness that an immigrant has toward a place that opens itself to him and allows him success. If this new world was not perfect—well then, how did it compare with the old? Outsiders would point to the slums on Dallas’ west side and say it was a city that didn’t care; it was true. They would point to the peaceful integration of the city and say that it was done simply because it was good for business; there was no argument. Dallas was not a caring city, but it was efficient. Its mission was not to tend the needy and unfortunate but to expand, to spew out opportunity. As a political model it ruled from the top down, but by and large the city was well ruled.
However, it was that same firm rule that caused life in Dallas to go, subtly, quite wrong. If you had come to Dallas in 1960 from any other American town of comparable size, you would have found it much the same as your city. Its people dressed alike, talked alike, thought alike, as the preponderance of middle-class citizens did in any other town; the country had after all a very homogeneous culture in 1960. What would have struck you, if you were keen enough to observe it, was that similarity had been carried too far in Dallas. America was a conformist society, perhaps, but conformity went to extremes in Dallas. I don’t remember ever seeing a bearded man in the city, other than Santa Claus, until Stanley Marcus decided to grow a beard two years after the assassination. When Commander Whitehead came to Neiman-Marcus for a British Fortnight celebration, Marcus decided to give a party for bearded men. He found he scarcely knew any; he wound up serving a roomful of strangers.
Dallas was a city of believers, a city of eight hundred churches, among them the largest Methodist, the largest Baptist, and one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the world. In the face of so much belief, honest doubt quickly hid itself; skeptics and heretics were one and the same. In 1960, when Kennedy was contending for the Democratic presidential nomination, Reverend W. A. Criswell of the First Baptist Church in Dallas declared in a sermon that “the election of a Catholic as president would mean the end of religious freedom in America.” One of Criswell’s 18,500 parishioners was billionaire H. L. Hunt, and he took the trouble to have 200,000 copies of Criswell’s sermon mailed to Protestant ministers all over the country. Criswell later told Ronnie Dugger and Willie Morris of the Texas Observer that in his opinion Catholics should be barred from holding any public office.
While everyone was religious, some were superreligious, and they thought of themselves as a spiritual vanguard. They were contemptuous of the rest of us—we might as well have been agents of the Devil. It was the same with politics. The political scale in Dallas began with Eisenhower conservatism and ran well past fascism to a kind of conservative nihilism. Earle Cabell was a far-right Democrat, present at the founding though not a member of the Dallas chapter of the John Birch Society, and yet he was routinely described by the farther right as “the socialist mayor of Dallas.”
It was the politics of the new world. When people spoke of right-wing politics they were thinking of the archconservatives of Southern California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida—it was not just Dallas, in other words. Money was flooding south and west; new cities were forming, cities without traditions, with only the blind instinct to grow, to add wealth. Across the country, but particularly in this new world, there was a certain adolescent bitterness, a suspicious feeling of betrayal, a willingness to find conspiracy lurking in every corner. “The mood,” as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., described it, “was one of the longing for a dreamworld of no communism, no overseas entanglements, no United Nations, no federal government, no labor unions, no Negroes or foreigners—a world in which Chief Justice Warren would be impeached, Cuba invaded, the graduated income tax repealed, the fluoridation of drinking water stopped and the import of Polish hams forbidden.”
No, it was not just Dallas, but my hometown was already gaining the reputation of being the capital of this new world. The only elected Republican of any consequence in Texas was Dallas congressman Bruce Alger, a handsome fanatic with wavy hair and a heavy chin, who was ridiculed in his own party as a hopeless extremist. Alger had already survived political challenges by two of the most popular Democrats in the city, first by district attorney Henry Wade and then by Barefoot Sanders, a state legislator who became a federal district judge. In all of his contests Alger was carried along by a formidable cadre of angry right-wing women. His relation to those women was a matter of legend and speculation in the city. Alger was their prince; it didn’t seem to matter to them that in the ten years he represented Dallas there was never an important piece of legislation passed with his name on it or that the prevailing leadership in Washington was so hostile to his presence in Congress that Fort Worth was growing fat off of the pork-barrel projects that might have gone to Dallas.
Four days before the general election Lyndon Johnson came to town. We hated Johnson there. The rest of the country might have viewed Kennedy’s running mate as a hard-shell Southern conservative, an instinctive racist, a drawling, backslapping political whore with no guiding lights other than the oil-depletion allowance, but in Dallas he was called a closet socialist, a leftover New Dealer, a bleeding heart in domestic matters, and a weak sister when it came to standing up to communist aggression. Was there ever a man in political life with such a divided public image?
It was November 4, 1960, Republican Tag Day in Dallas, and the downtown lunch crowd was being canvassed by three hundred women in red-white-and-blue outfits. They were Bruce Alger’s women. Many of them were in the Junior League, and they looked disarmingly girlish in their red coif hats with ribbons in the back. They were passing out literature for the Nixon-Lodge campaign. Some of them wore their minks.
Johnson had spoken earlier that morning in Arlington, and as he entered Dallas a city policeman pulled him over to warn of a “little disturbance” awaiting him at the Baker Hotel, where the Johnsons traditionally stayed. Commerce Street in front of the hotel was filling up with Tag Girls, who had suddenly transformed themselves into an angry demonstration, complete with placards that Alger had stored in the Baker overnight. The cop advised Senator Johnson to use the Akard Street entrance.
Several Tag Girls spotted the Johnsons arriving and rushed over to surround the car. As Lady Bird was stepping out of the Lincoln one of the pickets impulsively snatched her gloves from her hands and threw them into the gutter. Lady Bird went white. It was still a time when incivility was rare in politics, when public figures felt safe in crowds. No one, perhaps not even the Tag Girls themselves, was prepared to understand the ferocity of the anger in those otherwise happy and well-cared-for women.
Johnson rushed Lady Bird into the lobby of the Baker, which was packed with jeering Tag Girls. As he entered the elevator Johnson turned and said, “You ought to be glad you live in a country where you have the legal right to boo and hiss at a man who is running for the vice presidency of the United States.”
There was an instant of silence, then a voice in the back of the crowd responded, “Louder and funnier, Lyndon.”
Johnson was to speak at a luncheon across the street at the Adolphus Hotel. Congressman Jim Wright of Fort Worth had accompanied the Johnsons, and he forayed ahead. As he passed through the mink-coated rabble in the street, he encountered his colleague Bruce Alger grinning hugely and holding a sign that said, “LBJ Sold Out to Yankee Socialists.” Wright told him that it was inappropriate for a United States congressman to be standing in the middle of a mob, and no matter what Alger might think of a man’s politics, Johnson was Senate Majority Leader and due the respect of his office.
“We’re gonna show Johnson he’s not wanted in Dallas,” Alger replied, and the Tag Girls cheered.
As the Johnsons made their way through the Baker Lobby the crowd closed ranks behind them, becoming bolder, but it was nothing compared with the mob that waited in the street and, beyond that, the packed crowd of Tag Girls in the lobby of the Adolphus. It was an odd political gauntlet to pass through, recalling the stoning of Vice President Nixon’s motorcade in Caracas. But this wasn’t South America; this was Lyndon’s own state. We knew him here.
The demonstration in Commerce Street waited with catcalls and accusations. Most of them were carrying Nixon-Lodge and Tower for Senate signs; one of the peculiarities of that election was that Johnson was entered in both races, thanks to a special dispensation from the Texas Legislature. “Think Once and Scratch Lyndon Twice,” said one sign. Also: “LBJ Traitor,” “Judas Johnson,” “Johnson Go Home.” The Johnsons moved inside a small capsule of personal distance that grew smaller and threatened to collapse entirely under the crush of the crowd. In retrospect it was that violation of private space that seemed to herald our new, tragic political era. Years later as president, Johnson would become accustomed to seeing hateful signs with his name on them; indeed, he would know the fury of the public as few men ever have, but in 1960 it was something new, something unheard of.
What was more surprising was that the sign carriers and catcallers were for the most part well-groomed women from some of the finest homes in the city, and yet as soon as the Johnsons waded into Commerce Street the women in red, white, and blue began to curse them and to spit. (Later, some members of the “Mink Coat Mob,” as they came to be known, claimed that they were not spitting, exactly—they were frothing.)
Why? What accounted for the hostility (or to use her word, indignation) of the fashionable and affluent Dallas woman? In part she was imply a prisoner of her age: a women of unfocused ambition, intensely competitive but unemployed (the working wife was still a signal of economic desperation), lonely at home and given to causes. She may have been financially secure, but she was deeply troubled by some unnamed fear that her castle was built of sand and the coming tide would wash away her American dreams. She named the tide International Communism, or Creeping Socialism. When Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev boasted to the West, “We will bury you,” the conservative Dallas woman believed him. Earlier that autumn Khrushchev had come to the United Nations and pounded on the table with his shoe—a gesture of such swaggering boorishness that it justified every qualm the Dallas woman felt about Russia, the United Nations, and American foreign policy. She worried about the missile gap and the spread of communism to Cuba. Moreover, people in her own country were talking enthusiastically about social change—Kennedy was already speaking of the “the revolutionary sixties”—and the Dallas woman knew those changes would come at her expense. She worried about the erosion of liberty caused by recent Supreme Court decisions (often delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was the creeping socialist personified). The court was taking rights away from the Dallas woman and awarding them to pornographers, criminals, atheists, communists, and Negroes. The Dallas woman felt herself to be under attack at home and abroad.
She was not the only one to feel those concerns. In many ways 1960 was an ideological turning point for the United States, a moment when conservative and liberal impulses were in nearly perfect balance, with mainstream presidential candidates representing both parties. It should have been one of the great political contests. However, the most prominent issue in the televised debates between the candidates was the defense of Quemoy and Matsu, two negligible islands in the Formosa Strait. It was a campaign in which real issues scarcely figured at all. On the surface the campaign was merely a personality contest, and in that respect Nixon was absurdly overmatched; although he was an amateur actor himself, a veteran of community theater, he was sharing the stage with a Barrymore. But under the surface—down, down among the primitive fears and prejudices—there were warning sounds, and they came from Kennedy. It had little to do with his politics. It had to do with his family, his religion, his education, his taste, his looks, his wife. Kennedy gave off threatening emanations to millions of Americans, and no one was more finely attuned to that frequency than the right-wing Dallas housewife.
But Kennedy was not in Dallas today; Johnson was—Johnson, the “Texas Traitor”—and he made his way through the placards in Commerce Street with his wife practically buried under his arm. Lyndon, of course, loomed over the Tag Girls, his huge hound-dog face visible even at the farthest reaches of the mob; Lady Bird was on their level, however, and she could see the hatred raging in the faces around her. She started to answer one of the women, but Johnson put his hand over her mouth and guided her into the lobby of the Adolphus.
They were waiting there—the Tag Girls and the hangers-on but also the press photographers and television cameras. Even in that mob it would have been a short walk to the elevators if Johnson had pressed his way through. But instead of rushing to the elevators Johnson did something quite surprising. He slowed down. He moved with excruciating slowness through the chanting mob, through the placards and the spit, all the while staring at the television cameras with a martyr’s embarrassed smile. For thirty minutes Johnson and his wife withstood the harangue of the crowd.
It was the most triumphant half-hour of Johnson’s career, because that evening in the television news millions of Americans met the new Lyndon Johnson. They suddenly understood him exactly as he understood himself. H was a liberal—in the Southern context. Overnight he became an acceptable candidate to big-city northern Democrats who had automatically hated him, traditional Democrats who had not (they now admitted to themselves) seen past the corn-pone mannerisms of LBJ to the winking FDR inside him.
My mother and I watched the news together that night. Before then she had been coy about whom she was going to vote for; we teased her that she was falling for the Kennedy sex appeal, but she insisted it was his mind she admired—she had read Profiles in Courage, which had won Kennedy a Pulitzer prize. And yet the notion of voting for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket was almost heresy in our circles, so Mother was, until that moment, undecided. I remember her cry even now as we watched the humiliation at the Adolphus—“Shame! Shame!”
That evening thousands of Texans like my mother decided how to vote. Although Nixon carried Dallas County by a landslide, Texas went for the Kennedy-Johnson. (Johnson also beat Tower in the senatorial race, although Tower would win the subsequent special election.) It was the closest presidential election in the nation’s history, and it was decided that day in the lobby of the Adolphus Hotel. People said afterward that they were not voting for Kennedy so much as they were voting against Dallas.
Against us. For the first time people in the city learned about guilt by association. Until then Dallas had had very little national identity, but we found ourselves now with a new municipal image: a city of the angry nouveau riche, smug, doctrinaire, belligerent, a city with a taste for political violence. Many Dallasites were shocked to see our city represented that way, but it had little effect on the way we thought of ourselves.
There was, in fact, a chip of defiance on the city’s shoulder, encouraged by the Dallas Morning News. The News is the oldest business institution in the state, having been founded in 1842 when Texas was still a republic and Dallas little more than a heady presumption. Under George B. Dealey the News had been a progressive newspaper, leading the scourge that drove the Ku Klux Klan out of Texas. The name “Dealey” would become famous because of the queer, fan-shaped park known as Dealey Plaza, directly across the street from the Texas School Book Depository, where a bronze statue of G.B. Dealey stares at the now magnificent skyline of downtown Dallas. Many citizens believe it is perfectly appropriate that Dealey’s name should be irrevocably tied to the assassination, even though it is his son they blame.
E. M. “Ted” Dealey, the son, succeeded his father as publisher of the News, and in his hands it became the most strident, red-baiting daily paper in the country, excepting only occasionally William Loeb’s Union-Leader, in Manchester, New Hampshire. Like many intensely conservative people, he found his paragon in the movies and politics of John Wayne. As a matter of fact, reading the News each morning was like watching a brawl in a saloon, in which the newspaper’s editorials flattened the “socialists” (read: Democrats), the “perverts and subversives” (liberal Democrats), the “Judicial Kremlin” (the U.S. Supreme Court), and virtually every representative of the federal government whose views differed from those of Ted Dealey. Immediately after the election the News’ principal object of contempt became President John F. Kennedy, who the paper suggested was a crook, a communist sympathizer, a thief, and “fifty times a fool.”
Ted Dealey went to the White House in the fall of 1961 with a group of Texas publishers to meet the man he had maligned so frequently in his newspaper. He used the occasion to attack Kennedy in person. “We can annihilate Russia and should make that clear to the Soviet government,” he advised the president, to the discomfort of his colleagues in the room. He accused Kennedy and his administration of being weak sisters (a favorite Dealey phrase). “We need a man on horseback to lead this nation,” he concluded, “and many people in Texas and the Southwest think that you are riding Caroline’s tricycle.”
It was Dealey style: bluff, personally abusive, and preposterous. He reported in his paper on his interchange with the president (GRASSROOTS SENTIMENT TOLD), although he failed to include the president’s response. “Wars are easier to talk about than they are to fight,” Kennedy had told him. “I’m just as tough as you are, and I didn’t get elected president by arriving at soft judgments.”
Afterward, the editor of the Dallas Times Herald, the evening paper, wrote to the president to say that Dealey was speaking only for himself, not for the other Texans in the room. Kennedy responded with a snap of wit: “I’m sure the people of Dallas are glad when afternoon comes.”
Kennedy was still thinking of his encounter with Dealey when he spoke later that year of people who “call for ‘a man on horseback’ because they do not trust the people. They find treason in our churches, in our highest court, in our treatment of water. They equate the Democratic Party with the welfare state, the welfare state with socialism, socialism with communism.” With his prescient political eye Kennedy saw that the new world was being created, and it stood opposed to everything he represented: East Coast liberalism, mainstream Democratic party politics, Ivy League learning, the customary restraints of educated society. Although Kennedy was popularly understood as a man of his time, a thoroughly modern president, in many ways he was the last of the traditionalists. He called his administration the New Frontier, but his successors—Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan—would show that the real frontier in American politics lay for away in the new world.
During his presidency the atmosphere in Dallas approached hysteria. “The historical conservatism of the city,” wrote Dallas’ most prominent merchant, Stanley Marcus, “had been fanned to a raging fire by the combination of a number of elements: the far right daily radio ‘Facts Forum’ program by Dan Smoot sponsored by the ultraconservative wealthiest man in town, H. L. Hunt; the John Birch Society; the oil industry’s hysterical concern for the preservation of what they considered a biblical guarantee of their depletion allowance; the ‘National Indignation League’ founded by a local garageman, Frank McGeehee, in protest of the air force’s training of some Yugoslavian pilots at a nearby air base; the consistently one-sided attacks on the administration by the Dallas Morning News and the semi-acquiescent editorial policy of the Times Herald, which had previously been a middle-of-the-road, fair newspaper. For the lack of courageous firemen in the business and intellectual segments of the community, the fire raged on.”
The superheated political climate in the city brought ordinary life to a rolling boil. It was hysterical, yes, but after a point there seems to be a little difference between hysteria and festivity. One sensed the appeal of fanatical movements. They begin like this, in a city where the opposition is cowed, where there is only one public voice and it is full of certainty and hate. The brakes were off in Dallas. We had the feeling that we were careening toward some majestic crack-up, but it was an exciting ride, and who had the nerve to say slow down?
Dallas was gaining notice. The leader of the American Nazi party, George Lincoln Rockwell, opined that Dallas had “the most patriotic, pro-American people of any city in the country.” The compliment may have embarrassed a few, considering its source, but we believed that about ourselves. To the radical conservatives, Dallas had become a kind of shrine, a Camelot of the right.
Soon after Kennedy’s election a U.S. Army major general named Edwin A. Walker was relieved of his command when he was discovered to be proselytizing his troops with right-wing literature. Walker resigned and promptly moved to Dallas, where he expected that his politics would be more welcome. He was right. He became a leader in the local chapter of the John Birch Society and quickly became one of the city’s most prominent citizens—notable enough, at least in the mind of another citizen, Lee Harvey Oswald, to be worth assassinating. Here the story of Dallas begins, and might have ended.
On March 10, 1963, while Walker was out of town, Oswald went to the general’s home on Turtle Creek Boulevard and snapped some photos. He made some sketches of the placement of windows in the house. Two days later he sent a money order for $21.45, along with a coupon he clipped from the American Rifleman magazine, as payment for an antiquated Italian rifle known as a Mannlicher-Carcano. It came equipped with a four-power telescopic sight.
One month later Walker was back in town, seated at his desk in his study, working on his income tax returns. It was 9 p.m., and his head was in the sight of Oswald’s rifle, 120 feet away. Walker thought a firecracker had suddenly exploded directly above him; he turned and saw a hole in the window frame and realized that he was covered with bits of glass and wood and a pale wash of plaster.
The police said he had moved his head at the last moment. Walker disagreed. In his opinion the light in the room had flooded out the window frame from Oswald’s perspective. The bullet had struck the frame and been deflected. Later Walker showed the damaged window to newsmen and wryly remarked, “And the Kennedys say there is no internal threat to our freedom.”
Oswald told his wife, Marina, that he had shot at Walker because he thought the general was a fascist, another Hitler. At the time, I thought of General Walker as genial crackpot, and I think most people in Dallas felt the same. He had his appeal (a certain military rectitude and an air of command, which recalled General Douglas MacArthur, along with a Southern dignity of manner; he would have been well cast as a Confederate officer), but he played only a small role in the events of the moment, and in a few years he would be almost forgotten—an eccentric but, to some newsmen, rather dear old fellow who twice surfaced from obscurity in the late seventies when he was arrested on misdemeanor homosexual offenses.
And yet back then there was something scary brewing in my city. People were demanding certitudes that no sane man could offer them. Military solutions—invading Cuba, annihilating Russia—were crisp, definitive responses to problems that seemed too damned much trouble to understand. “Why don’t we just bomb the bastards back to the Stone Age?”—you could hear that hypothesis offered as a half-joke to most tangled questions of foreign policy, and people would half laugh, but the alternative solutions seemed so tentative, so compromised. “Fuzzy” was the word for any response other than a straightforward invasion of a foreign country when American interests—and there were always American interests—were threatened. Fuzzy responses were what you came to expect from the bow-tied intellectuals who filled the Kennedy cabinet. In that atmosphere strident attitudes, even crazy ones, were appealingly clear.
Once again—it wasn’t just Dallas. But we who lived there had the feeling that we were in the middle of a political caldera, a grumbling, reawakening fascist urge that was too hot to contain itself. I wonder what might have happened in Dallas if Kennedy hadn’t died there.
The most conspicuous and despised symbol of fuzzy intellectualism was Adlai Stevenson, a former Democratic presidential candidate and the current American ambassador to the United Nations. Stevenson stood hand in hand with the Kennedy boys, Bobby and Jack, and with Earl Warren as the most hated men in Dallas—with the difference that while the people who hated Warren and the Kennedys usually professed to admire the institutions those men represented, they simply couldn’t tolerate the U.N. It stood for one-worldism, which was nothing more than communism; it stood for talk, not action. Nearly every car in the city with an “Impeach Earl Warren” bumper sticker boasted its companion “Get US out of the UN.”
There was also something intensely personal about the hatred of Stevenson. He was the last word in eggheads, Mr. Humpty Dumpty himself. His urbanity didn’t wash in Dallas. Intellectual charm was suspect; besides if you took the trouble to be witty you probably didn’t have it where it counted. Stevenson was a weak sister.
In fact he was a sincerely courageous man, and he decided to beard his enemies by marching straight into their camp. He agreed to speak at the Dallas Memorial Auditorium on October 24, 1963—United Nations Day.
It was a dare that couldn’t be ignored. Some right-wingers persuaded Governor John Connally to declare October 23 U.S. Day, and the National Indignation Convention promoted it into a small event. Bumper stickers around town said, “U.S. Day or United Nations Day—There Must Be a Choice” and “You Cannot Ride Both Horses.” The night before the Stevenson speech General Walker hired the same auditorium for the U.S. Day rally. Lee Harvey Oswald, always interested in the activities of the man he had tried to kill, went to hear Walker speak.
The following night Stevenson arrived to find the auditorium surrounded with pickets. (Among them, perhaps, was Oswald, according to people who later thought they saw him holding a sign. Oswald himself said he had attended Stevenson’s speech.) Of the two thousand people inside, many were supporters of General Walker, and they had brought placards and Halloween noisemakers. When Stevenson stood to speak, the auditorium was filled with tooting, clanging, ratcheting sounds, as well as waving American and Confederate flags, stomping feet, and loud boos whenever Stevenson’s voice rose to make an audible point. One man screamed, again and again, “Kennedy will get his reward in hell. Stevenson is going to die. His heart will stop, stop, stop. And he will burn, burn, burn.”
For the majority of the audience, both the ardent Stevenson supporters and those nonpolitical people who simply wanted to hear him speak, it was the most embarrassing public display they had ever attended. If there is one thing Dallasites have pressed into their cortex, it is a concern about their city’s image. That concern would come under worldwide attack one month later, but in the context of the Stevenson speech that civic protectiveness showed its best side. They cheered Stevenson wildly when he was introduced and several times gave him a standing ovation. They did what they could to police the disrupters in the audience. When Frank McGeehee, the head of the National Indignation Convention, stood up during Stevenson’s speech and began a loud tirade, a small elderly man went over and tried to push the beefy McGeehee back into his seat. Police officers finally ejected McGeehee. In the face of the ruckus, Stevenson observed, “For my part, I believe in the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of ignorance.”
Policemen formed a cordon around Stevenson when he left the auditorium. Outside there were still more than a hundred pickets waiting for him. One woman was quite hysterical. Stevenson should have disregarded her, but he couldn’t; he had to wonder how his mere presence could bring this woman to such a flight of frustrated despair. His instinct was to reason with her, perhaps to exorcise the demon that he was in her mind. He might also learn what quality about himself drew up such hatred from these people. He stepped out of the police line.
The mob immediately closed him in. The hysterical woman, who was the wife of an insurance executive, brought her placard down on Stevenson’s head. A college student spat upon him. When the policeman finally rescued him, Stevenson wiped the spit off his face with a handkerchief and asked aloud, “Are these human beings or are these animals?”
Kennedy was proud of him. He had his speechwriter Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., call Stevenson and congratulate him on his courage. It was the quality Kennedy once called “that most admirable of human virtues.” Stevenson joked about the incident, but he had been badly shaken. “There was something very ugly and frightening about the atmosphere,” he told Schlesinger. He advised Schlesinger to discourage the president’s scheduled trip to Dallas. That Schlesinger decided not to do. It was impossible for Kennedy to go to Texas and bypass Dallas—that would suggest that Kennedy was afraid to go. The cult of courage in the Kennedy White House was such that even to suggest such a course would be evidence of cowardice. As Schlesinger recalled: “I was reluctant to pass on Stevenson’s message lest it convict him of undue apprehensiveness in the President’s eye.”
Yes, we were shocked by the Stevenson incident. The city’s leaders signed a wire of apology, the city council adopted an anti-harassment ordinance, and the mayor spoke out against the far right. On the other hand, Bruce Alger contended that the city had no reason to feel disgraced, that the protesters had lost their heads only because of their justified resentment of the U.N. General Walker put it more directly. He hung the American flag upside down outside his Turtle Creek home, signaling his distress at the city’s apology to Stevenson. “Adlai got what was coming to him,” he told reporters.
Since much of the country would hold the political atmosphere in Dallas responsible for the president’s assassination, it is interesting to discover how closely attuned Oswald was to the events of the moment. He was utterly out of place in Dallas. I recall that the biggest surprise of the assassination in my own mind was the evidence that the president had been shot by a Marxist. In Dallas? It was unusual to meet even a liberal Democrat. Oswald once related that he had become interested in Marxism when he was fifteen years old, after an old woman handed him a pamphlet protesting the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. That was 1954, the same year as the Army-McCarthy hearings. It was a time when anti-communism had reached a peak of hysteria unknown in America since the witchcraft trials in Salem, when there was talk in Congress of launching investigations not only against civil servants but against high school students and Christian ministers. And yet by 1954 communism as a political force was extinct in America. The anti-communists were railing at a phantom that was everywhere in their minds but nowhere in reality. At that point, fifteen-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald in New Orleans decided to give form to the fears: he would become a communist, the national enemy. Psychologists would say he had joined a pseudo community, one that existed only in his mind. He told acquaintances that he was looking everywhere for a Communist cell to join; he wrote letters to the Socialist party. But even after he defected to Russia, he testified to the solitariness of his political beliefs in a letter to his brother, Robert: “I have been a pro-communist for years and yet I have never met a communist.”
He had an admirable feeling for the underdog. In highly segregated New Orleans he once provoked a fight when he chose to sit in the Negro section of a city bus. A group of white boys attacked him. “People who saw the fight said that Lee seemed unafraid,” Robert Oswald has written. “His fists flew in all directions, but he was outnumbered and thoroughly beaten up.”
Oswald fled to Russia, married a Russian woman, returned to the United States, and settled in the city where he was most likely to be feared, despised and reviled. Like many villains he fantasized about being widely loved; he told his wife, Marina, that he would be president himself in twenty years (at 43, the same age Kennedy was when he was elected). And yet few people loved Oswald. “Everybody hated him,” Marina said after the assassination, “even in Russia.” In Oswald’s mind, hate was superior to indifference; he wanted people to feel strongly about him. In Dallas, they certainly would.
Like General Walker, Oswald was drawn to the volatile, violent politics of the new world. Such men always appear in the midst of social hysteria. Dallas would excuse itself because the assassin was not right wing—many of us could hardly believe our good fortune when we learned about Oswald—and yet the atmosphere of fanaticism in the city beckoned to chaotic and suggestible individuals and drew them near.
The new world was extending itself. What was happening in Dallas was spreading throughout Texas, pulling apart the ancient coalitions that constituted the Democratic party (since Reconstruction, the only real party in Texas). Two Democrats whose politics were widely disparate, Senator Ralph Yarborough and Governor John Connally, were engaged in a quarrel that would finish with the death of Texas liberalism and the birth of the Republican party in the state. But perhaps Kennedy could hold the state for the Democrats if he would just come to Texas. And bring his wife, Yarborough advised.
Crowds in San Antonio, Houston, and Fort Worth met the president with enthusiasm, but these receptions were eclipsed in the press, which was playing up the rift between Yarborough and Connally and, incidentally, between Yarborough and Johnson. Those men would all deny that Kennedy had come to Texas to pacify their quarrels, but it is certain that Kennedy did what he could to force a show of unity. And he had some success. By the time he had given his early-morning first speech in Fort Worth, the members of the presidential party were feeling triumphant. Dallas was next—Kennedy was going to speak at a luncheon for the city’s leaders at the Trade Mart—and although there was some worry about what might happen in that town, Kennedy seemed to be in terrific form, the audiences were enchanted, and his wife’s presence had caused a sensation. The relief people felt in the presidential party was like that of a coach who sees his best player at the top of his game and knows that on a good day his best player is unbeatable. After Dallas, the Kennedy’s were flying on to Austin. According to Stanley Marcus, Lyndon Johnson was going to conclude a welcoming speech the following night with the remark, “And thank God, Mr. President, that you came out of Dallas alive.”
After breakfast in Fort Worth, Kennedy was given a copy of the Dallas Morning News, which had front-page articles about the disputes among the Texas Democrats and full-page, black-bordered advertisement inside the front section. “Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas,” it read, “A city so disgraced by a recent Liberal smear attempt that its citizens have just elected two more Conservative Americans to public office. . . . A city that will continue to grow and prosper despite efforts by you and your administration to penalize it for its non-conformity to ‘New Frontierism.’” The advertisement included twelve rhetorical questions that accused the president of going soft on communism and betraying American allies. It was signed by Bernard Weissman, who was chairman of the American Fact-finding Committee, a completely fictitious entity. Weissman turned out to be a member of a right-wing coterie formed by three American servicemen in Germany; like Oswald and General Walker, the members of the group had gravitated to Dallas.
Kennedy read the advertisement and handed it to his wife. “Oh, you know,” he told her, “we’re heading into nut country today.”
My father had his own dark thoughts about Kennedy. As a younger man with some political ambition he had made preparations for Kennedy to speak in Oklahoma. At the time Kennedy was a congressman from Massachusetts, already cultivating a national constituency for his eventual run for the presidency; my father was a bank vice president, but like Kennedy he was a war hero, and bright possibilities were predicted for him in the political arena. Kennedy was a model for many men like my father who hoped to trade their wartime glory for public office; clearly there were advantages in an alliance with the young political star. My father was expected to supply whatever the congressman needed, and one thing he needed was an ample and varied selection of Oklahoma women—no, not dinner dates, my father was instructed, just sexual companions. It was the moment my father’s own political aspirations died. He did not even go to hear Kennedy speak.
In Dallas, however, he reached some grudging accommodation with Kennedy’s presidency. He saw political power and the aggrandizement of wealth at closer quarters; he came to understand men whose needs were greater than his own, men who made promises only to themselves. He could believe now that it was a divine failing in himself that kept him from being such a man. On November 22, 1963, he was invited to hear Kennedy speak at the Dallas Trade Mart, and this time he decided to go.
One of my sisters recalls seeing that date written on a blackboard several days before—she had a school assignment due that day—and feeling an instantaneous surge of horror. There were other premonitory currents in the city. Later the guilt we felt for Kennedy’s death would have less to do with his assassination by a man only slightly associated with our city than it would have to do with our own feelings of anticipation. Something would happen—something. We expected to be disgraced. It had happened with Johnson, it had happened with Stevenson, it would happen again. There was a vague air of excitement in the city such as there might be in a movie audience when a gunfight is about to occur—it was that kind of secondary excitement, not the fear that someone would really die but an expectation that something dramatic would appear to happen, that we would see it or hear about it, probably talk about it later, and it would pass with no harm done. Political theater, in other words.
In the morning I went out to get the News and found on our doorstep a flyer that looked exactly like a wanted poster in the post office: it was John Kennedy, full face and profile, and the flyer said he was “Wanted for Treason.” Below that his crimes were listed, seven items such as: betraying the Constitution, giving support to communist-inspired racial riots, appointing anti-Christians to federal office, and lying to the American people about his previous marriage and divorce.
I brought the flyer in with the paper and read it on the way to the breakfast table. I had heard most of it before—who hadn’t?—the same old right-wing tirade, although I remember wondering about Kennedy’s “previous marriage and divorce.” Since I was already running late to school I didn’t read the News that morning, although later in the day one of my first instincts was to save the paper, as did many other people in Dallas. After all, it was now a historical document.
Although some kids were let out of school in Houston and San Antonio when the president’s motorcade passed through, in Dallas we had no such luck and could only be excused to the custody of a parent. So like most of my classmates I was in school when it happened. It was in algebra class right after lunch. Mr. Irvin Hill was describing a parabola on the blackboard when three tones came over the public address system and the principal started to speak. We actually knew something was wrong before he said a word, because there was a choked pause and we could hear a radio in the background.
“The president has been shot.”
It was only a fraction of a moment before he gave us details and then played the radio commentary into the P.A. for the remainder of the hour. But in that fraction the world we knew turned into ghosts and fled. It happened!—the thing we had been waiting for. We were dazed and excited. We turned in our chairs and looked in each other’s faces, finding grins of astonishment. Something happened! At that point in my life I knew no more about the nature of the tragedy than a blind man knows about the color blue. All I knew was that life could change, it had changed at last. Wasn’t this what we had been waiting for? We asked the question with our eyes, looking for some fixed response to this new flood of circumstance. We were giddy and scared, and as for me I was grateful for the loss of innocence.
“. . . shot in the head, Governor Connally wounded . . .”
Some of the details were off base. We heard that Johnson was shot too, he was seen entering Parkland Hospital holding his arm. Who else? Were they killing everybody? I don’t think I ever paused to think who they were; I knew. At that moment I supposed we were in the middle of a right-wing coup.
And as we sat there, gazing crazily at each other and at the P.A. box, I finally noticed Mr. Hill and realized that tears were streaming down his wrinkled cheeks. His chest was beginning to heave, then he sobbed in great barks, and everyone now was watching him, studying him as if he had the answer for our own reactions. But his grief was a private thing, and he picked it up like the greatest burden he had ever carried and walked out of the room. As he left I felt the first prodding overture of shame.
“The president is dead.”
It was a shock how much the world hated us—and why? Oswald was only dimly a Dallasite. He was a Marxist and an atheist; you could scarcely call him a product of the city. He was, if anything, the Anti-Dallas, the summation of everything we hated and feared. How could we be held responsible for him?
The world decided that Kennedy had died in enemy territory, that no matter who had killed him, we had willed him dead. And yet the truth is that we were under the spell of Camelot like everyone else. Although we were filled with resentment toward the privileged, arrogant East Coast society that Kennedy represented, it was a resentment born of envy and intense curiosity. We felt inferior. That Jacqueline Kennedy spoke French and some Spanish was impressive to us; the only people I knew who were bilingual were inner-city Mexican kids. We admired Mrs. Kennedy’s taste, we liked for her to be at home with the great musicians and artists of the world, and her breathless, Marilyn Monroe voice intimated that she was not all white gloves and pillbox hats. The Kennedys invested the country with a self-conscious eroticism that was nicely bridled by the presence of young children in the White House. In short, we had the ordinary human identification with the occupant of the presidency that most Americans did. I can even remember Kennedy phrases creeping into my father’s vocabulary. My father spoke of “moving ahead with vigor,” and when I’d ask him a question he was likely to preface his response with “Let me say this about that.” Kennedy hated wearing hats, and so my father, along with nearly every other male in the country, gave up wearing them.
We had drawn closer to Kennedy even as the rest of the country grew disenchanted. The disgrace of the Bay of Pigs actually helped him in Dallas; there was something noble and chastening about seeing Kennedy humbled. My father admired the way Kennedy accepted the blame. The Cuban missile crisis showed Dallas that Kennedy had learned the use of power; it also showed us the danger of Ted Dealey’s bluster. Mother bought canned goods and bottled water. We got an extra store of candles, flashlight batteries, and a transistor radio that had the Conelrad stations marked with nuclear triangles. I remember writing to my Italian pen pal that by the time he received my letter we would surely be at war with Cuba, probably Russia as well, and who knows? Perhaps the world would be destroyed before I got his response. The world survived—it is still chilling to think how close we passed to the brink—but I never got another letter from Italy.
And in fact when Kennedy came to Dallas we gave him his warmest reception so far, a perfect confrontation between Kennedy’s vaunted courage (walking into crowds, stopping the motorcade to shake hands) and Dallas’ new willingness to make friends. The last words Kennedy heard in life were spoken by Nellie Connally, who turned and said, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.” It was a true observation but also history’s goddamnedest irony, for an instant later Jacqueline Kennedy had to respond, “They’ve killed by husband, I have his brains in my hand.”
She said “they,” and I assumed she meant us. That was an assumption the whole world shared.
Dallas killed Kennedy; we heard it again and again. Dallas was “a city of hate, the only American city in which the president could have been shot” (this from our own Judge Sarah Hughes, who administered the oath of office to Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One). And yet the values of the city, which the world condemned, were more or less my values; the image of the city, which was white, middle-class, provincial, and conservative, more or less fit my family. I had been unacquainted with tragedy, and now the entire globe was convulsed in grief and held me responsible.
But Dallas had nothing to do with Kennedy’s death. The hatred directed at our city was retaliation for many previous grievances. The East hated us because we were part of the usurping West, liberals hated us because we were conservative, labor because we were nonlabor, intellectuals because we were raw, minorities because we were predominantly and conspicuously white, atheists and agnostics because we were strident believers, the poor because we were rich, the old because we were new. Indeed there were few of the world’s constituencies that we had failed to offend before the president came to our city, and hadn’t we compounded the offense again and again by boasting of those very qualities? In that case we were well silenced now.
In church that Sunday, November 24, my father and I heard our minister preach a sermon entitled “Let’s Change the Climate.” The word “climate” had already acquired a supercharged meaning in Dallas. Where once it had been used only to describe the abundant opportunities for business growth, now it was appropriated by the newscasters and magazine writers as a sort of net that would be tossed across the entire city, implicating everyone in the crime. Yes, there were fanatics in Dallas, but weren’t we all responsible for creating a climate in which fanaticism could take root? A climate of hate? A climate of intolerance? A climate of bigotry? It was an unanswerable charge. My father’s jaw set as we heard the minister accepting the blame on behalf of our city—his sermon was being broadcast nationally on ABC radio—the blame for the climate that was responsible for Kennedy’s death. At the end of the sermon, when we had sung the Doxology and were standing to leave, someone walked to the pulpit and handed the minister a message.
“Oswald’s been shot!”
The congregation slumped back into the pews. The police told us to leave downtown, to evacuate the area. What now? What was going on?
It was simply too much—a psychological breaking point for many of us, like my father, who had held out against the insinuations of the press, who had refused to accept blame for the climate in Dallas. But the more we learned about the circumstances of Oswald’s death and the background of his killer, the more we had to acknowledge our responsibility. Jack Ruby was one of ours, he did his deed in the very bowels of our own city hall, and he did it in a spirit of horrified civic-mindedness. Our incompetent police force let him do it. The defense we had established for our city in the death of the president didn’t apply in the death of the president’s killer. Dallas didn’t kill Kennedy, but in an awful undeniable fashion it did kill Oswald.
A phenomenon remarked on by psychiatrists after the assassination was the dearth of dreams. The normal functions of the unconscious mind seemed to have been displaced by unending hours of television viewing. From 6 a.m. Sunday until 12:18 a.m. Tuesday the broadcasts never stopped, and as I play them back in my mind now—the death march, the half-stepping troops, the riderless horse, John-John’s salute—they have the quality of a remembered dream, haunting, full of meaning, experienced but unlived.
My mother and sisters stayed home on Sunday morning to watch the mass for the dead president. He was lying in state under the Capitol rotunda where Abraham Lincoln had lain nearly a century before. Americans have always had a secret love for pageantry, unfulfilled because of the absence of royalty, and it was this massive grandeur that made the experience strange and thrilling. I remember being struck by the vocabulary of the occasion, words like “bier” and “caisson” and “catafalque,” which had a sound of such special importance that they could be used only a few times in one’s life—like rare china dishes one sets out only for the king. Years later I happened to be looking over a list of names of children who were receiving government assistance, and I noted a child born in December 1963 whose mother must have been as enraptured as I was with the ceremonial language. She named her baby Rotunda Cathedral Jones.
After the mass the network switched to the Dallas City Hall, where the transfer of Oswald to the county jail was about to get under way. It was a scene of confusion and anticipation. Before now we had had only a brief glimpse of the accused killer (although according to our district attorney he was as good as convicted, so few of us doubted his guilt). Finally Oswald appeared in the doorway, dwarfed by the beefy detectives on either side of him but looking cool and in control of the situation while all around him chaos raged. I suppose it was the supreme moment of Oswald’s unhappy life, that instant before his death. He had always been the outsider, unaccepted, unloved, but he had turned the tables on the world. He was the man with the answers, his secrets were locked in his skull, and we were all outsiders now.
And as he entered the basement of the city hall, Oswald’s defiant glare seemed to fall directly on Jack Ruby. Was that an illusion, a coincidence? Or was there the surprised recognition of conspirators in that moment before Ruby stepped into Oswald’s path and gunned him down?
It is the irony of Jack Ruby’s life that he was the one to stop forever the answers to our questions, for he was himself both a lone nut (in my opinion) and the ultimate conspiracy buff. He was a compulsive glad-hander, a Big D booster who prided himself on knowing everybody in town—and on being known, especially to reporters and cops, who were always receiving free passes to Ruby’s strip joint, the Carousel Club. Psychiatrists at Ruby’s trial testified to his “voracious need to be accepted and admired . . . particularly by individuals in positions of authority and great social prestige,” and Ruby did seem to have at least a nodding acquaintance with most Dallas politicians. He was always reminding them, “You know me, I’m Jack Ruby!” He had a way of ingratiating himself. He once talked his way into a club sandwich with actress Rhonda Fleming at the Dallas airport. He liked to think of himself as a ladies’ man, and yet he dated only occasionally and had a reputation for being sexually prim. Although he dealt in flesh, he fired girls who agreed to go to bed with him. At the Carousel he was his own bouncer; he was heavyset but quick, and he kept in shape through constant dieting and frequent workouts at the YMCA. His mother had died in a Chicago insane asylum, and his father, a brother, and a sister had been treated for psychiatric disorders. Ruby may have been crazy as well, but he was also a shady character with mob connections, associations with anti-Castro Cubans, and a brief but ineffective history as an FBI informer.
Like many of us in Dallas, Ruby held the Morning News responsible for the president’s death. He was at the News placing an ad for his club when the bulletin came that Kennedy had been shot. “I left the building and I went down and I got in my car and I couldn’t stop crying,” Ruby later told the Warren Commission. In a fog he went back to his club and then to his sister’s house, where he turned on the television and cried again. He had an emotional attachment to the Kennedy family. A defense psychiatrist testified at his trial that Ruby’s “description of the President, of Mrs. Kennedy, of the former’s charm and manner cannot be reproduced in words here: essentially it was the speech of a man in love with another man. It was a love that passed beyond a rational appreciation of a great man, coming out of the unconscious. The prisoner [Ruby] said, ‘This is the end of my life’ when the President died, and in so doing he expressed more than mourning.”
Eventually Jack Ruby would come to the same conclusion that many other Americans reached when they looked at the White House and saw Lyndon Johnson. “If Adlai Stevenson had been vice president,” Ruby told a reporter, “there would have been no assassination.” Johnson, for his part, always thought there was something fishy about the conclusions of the Warren Commission—which he appointed—and he never satisfied his own doubts about a conspiracy.
For me, Johnson’s presidency was a long embarrassment, part of the shame of being Texan. Suddenly everyone was better than us. In those days Texas plates on your car were an invitation to rudeness, if not worse. When news of the assassination came over the radio, one Texas driver was paying for gas off the Pennsylvania Turnpike; the attendant threw his change in his face. That reaction endured, in less spontaneous fashion, for years, even after Memphis and Los Angeles had their own tragedies. Dallasites always begrudged the fact that those cities were never taken down, the way Dallas was, and made to feel at one with Birmingham and Selma.
Our family made a trip to Florida that summer. We stopped at a service station for gas and Cokes. It was blisteringly hot; auto air conditioning was still a rich man’s privilege, unknown in our family, so we sat in a sweat and drank our Cokes while my father paid for the gas. The attendant looked at us, and for a moment I was afraid the change-in-the-face-routine was going to make an encore.
“Where from in Texas?” he demanded.
“Dallas,” my father admitted.
The attendant nodded and stuck his face up to the window to get a closer look at us. His face was deeply tanned and cracked, like a dried-up creek bed. What strikes me now is the liberty he felt he could take with us, staring at us like that; I felt like a slave at auction. “You all killed our president,” he said in a wondering tone, as if he had surprised himself by catching us red-handed.
Daddy hit the accelerator in disgust.
After that I seldom told people where I was from. I had come to understand what discrimination meant, now that it was focused on me. Years later, when I thought the world might have forgotten, I was riding on the Orient Express en route to Istanbul. With me in the coach were two Greeks, two Turks, a Spaniard, and a Frenchwoman. We were trying to fill out the Bulgarian transit cards, which were written entirely in the Cyrillic alphabet. One of the Turks claimed experience in the matter and was filling out our cards. He interviewed us in Turkish while his companion translated his questions into Greek; one of the Greeks spoke Spanish, the other French. When they got to me the Spaniard asked in English, “Where you from?”
The Turk nodded and said something else, which passed through the chain of tongues and came out, “What city you?”
I was universally understood. Everyone in the coach looked at me, and one by one they pointed their index fingers at me and said “Bang, bang, bang.” It’s the same word in every language.
In December 1963 Melvin Belli came to Dallas, ostensibly to defend Jack Ruby, but soon after his arrival it seemed that the real reason he had come was to indict Dallas for the murder of Kennedy. He wanted a change of venue, and he should have gotten it; eventually Ruby’s conviction would be reversed because the judge refused to let go of the case. Jack Ruby died with his guilt unproven.
It’s true we didn’t want to lose the trial. After the embarrassment of Oswald’s death we wanted to show the world that we were competent, that we knew how to administer justice. Besides, we had Henry Wade, the prosecutor who had asked for the death penalty 24 times and been denied only once. We looked forward to the trial as we might have a heavyweight fight. We were going to try, convict, and execute Jack Ruby; it was an open-and-shut case, even with Melvin Belli in charge of the defense team.
Belli was a short, flamboyant man in elevated “fruit boots”—as a member of the prosecution referred to them. He had a polysyllabic vocabulary and a taste for extravagant clothing—an easy mark for the hard-boiled country boys on the county side of the courtroom. Dallas was plainspoken and suspicious of fancy outsiders. Its style was glassy, modern, utilitarian, whereas Belli’s was rococo; they were bound to detest each other.
And Belli brought the accusing finger. He charged Dallas with killing Oswald. In particular he charged Henry Wade, who had made a number of poorly considered statements about Oswald’s guilt soon after his arrest. “I am convinced that after the official chorus, Wade in the forefront, already proclaimed him a fit subject for execution, Oswald became fair game for any crank who wanted to kill him,” Belli later wrote. His book was called Dallas Justice, and he wrote it (with Maurice C. Carroll) “to help Dallas face up to his failures.”
At first Jack Ruby was delighted to have the famous Melvin Belli defending him. After all, Ruby was himself a celebrity now; his cell was filled with congratulatory letters and telegrams. He was making plans for a public career, working on his diction and improving his vocabulary by playing Scrabble with his guards. “He would sit there dreaming absentmindedly and comb his hair for hours,” one of the guards told Garry Wills and Ovid Demaris, for their biography of Ruby. “He didn’t think we were going to do anything to him,” said Bill Alexander, Henry Wade’s chief prosecutor on the case. “He believed we were just going through the motions, because we had to. He was enjoying all that attention, just like a pig in slop.” It was only appropriate, from Ruby’s point of view, that he should be defended by a slick and glamorous California lawyer. “It made him feel good,” Belli related, “that I not only knew my law but was a sharp dresser and a great cocksman.”
Belli’s defense was to depict his client as a village idiot, a latent homosexual, an epileptic with possible brain damage (Ruby’s autopsy showed more than a dozen tumors in his brain). Belli produced a parade of psychiatrists who testified about Ruby’s “psychomotor epilepsy,” which they demonstrated in a six-hundred-foot chart of Ruby’s brain waves. The jury wasn’t interested. After hearing eight days of testimony they took less than two hours to decide Ruby’s guilt.
“What was the key that turned those friendly and polite people,” Belli wrote in revenge, “into a jury that could impassively reject testimony by some of the nation’s most brilliant medical men and, in an insultingly and unfeelingly brief one hour and fifty minutes decide that Ruby must die in the electric chair? In some fashion . . . the people in whatever passes for the Kremlin of Dallas could figuratively press a button and, as if it had signaled transistors in their brains, direct the thinking of this great city’s people.”
Ruby was devastated, not so much by the verdict as by Belli’s defense. He was ruined in Dallas, the city he loved. “I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in Dallas,” he had written. “I’m a Jew from the ghetto of Chicago. I came to Dallas and made a fine success.” Now he was a laughingstock, a village idiot, a queer. The worst blow was delivered before the trial even began, when Mayor Earle Cabell, who had known Ruby for four years, testified in a change-of-venue hearing that Ruby could not get a fair trial in Dallas because he had hurt the city too badly. Six weeks after the trial was over, Ruby backed up in his cell, lowered his head, and tried to brain himself against the concrete wall.
That day he met my cousin Don. Don was seventeen, newly orphaned. My father had gone to his brother’s funeral in Kansas, and at the ceremony he saw his nephew and his namesake standing alone, without prospects, like him in so many ways at that age. After the funeral he brought Don home with him, to the new world. Don was grateful but also independent. He got a job as an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant, and in the latter capacity he rode to the county jail to ferry Jack Ruby to Parkland Hospital.
They became friends, after a fashion. Ruby made frequent trips to Parkland, and he used those occasions to send additional messages to the outside world, through Don. “They’re killing me, Don,” he confided. “I know what they’re doing. They’re feeding me cancer.” Ruby was the first to diagnose his illness. Soon he began to deteriorate, and Don watched him waste away. It was sad, but Don had an orphan’s attitude toward death, and he wouldn’t waste his sentiment on a man he couldn’t save.
In the end Jack Ruby was swallowed up by the innumerable conspiracy theories linking him to the man he had killed. With the loss of weight caused by his disease, he even came to look like Oswald. Conspiracy was quicksand, and Ruby was trying desperately to extricate himself. He demanded lie-detector tests and truth serum, and he told his story again and again, but he was also struggling with conspiracies of his own imagining. He heard them torturing Jews in the basement of the jail. The country had been overthrown by Nazis. They know I know. I know they know. They know I know they know.
Jack Ruby died in January 3, 1967. He was buried in Chicago.
I was desperate to get out of Dallas. I hated Dallas for what it was (though it would never again be what it was), for its smugness (now shattered), for its politics (now discredited), and most of all for the burden of guilt that was my heritage as a Dallasite.
I went to Tulane University for the single reason that it was in the city most unlike Dallas that I knew of. New Orleans was old and rotten, corrupt, depraved, licentious, a grand old whore who enjoyed herself too much but was still generous enough to give pleasure to someone else, someone new. It was a Catholic town and indifferent to progress, whereas Dallas was the center of the Protestant universe and horrified by sensuality. After the charmlessness of Dallas, I fell in love with the overripe splendor of New Orleans. I walked its streets in a state of aesthetic liberation, every bit as much an émigré as Hemingway in Paris, and feeling at one with him and with all the great American writers. For hadn’t they all stopped in New Orleans on their way to immortality—Whitman, Twain, Faulkner, Anderson, Williams, Capote—and which of them had ever passed through Dallas?
But it was not only their city, it was Oswald’s city, his birthplace, and in coming to New Orleans I found that I had not left the assassination behind me. Rather, I had come into the heart of the madness. New Orleans was haunted by Oswald, and soon the city would be lit up in one of those queer American binges of lunacy, a paranoia of conspiracy that has become a part of the national psyche.
It was on Bourbon Street one day near the end of my freshman year that I met Delilah. I was making small talk on the sidewalk with a strip-joint pimp when I realized that the woman onstage was doing a belly dance to “Hava Nagila,” the Hebrew song of celebration. It was such a cultural malaprop that I demanded to be introduced to the dancer. In a moment she came out on the sidewalk to talk. I introduced myself as a representative of the Cosmopolitan Committee at Tulane University. One of the committee’s purposes, I explained, was to find interesting cultural acts—such as hers—for performances at the student center. I had the idea of billing her as an Egyption ethnic dancer. She led me to a table inside.
She was in her mid-thirties, I calculated, with black hair and olive-toned skin, which was probably the inspiration for casting herself as a Middle Easterner. To complete the role she spoke with an accent borrowed from Zsa Zsa Gabor. “Vere are you from, dahlink?” she asked.
I admitted I was from Dallas.
“Oh, no kidding? Dallas?”
I noticed that her Hungarian accent had fallen away, replaced by the familiar nasal tones of North Texas. I asked if she knew Dallas. “Yeah,” she said, “I know that goddamn town too well.” We sat quietly for a moment. Being from Dallas was an awkward bond to share.
“I used to work for Jack Ruby,” she told me. He was a nice man, she remembered, but “a little crazy.” It was Ruby, the Jewish impresario, who had put her together with “Hava Nagila.” We exchanged telephone numbers, and I told her I would call next semester concerning her performance at Tulane. She said I could come to her apartment for coffee. All summer long I thought about that invitation.
I was more than a little alarmed about the direction my life was taking. When I left Dallas for the university I left behind a sweet Christian girlfriend. She had given me a Bible for my eighteenth birthday. “Cherish this book always, Larry, and diligently read it,” she admonished me on the flyleaf, but I had fallen into the hands of Sybarites and existentialists, and when I returned to Dallas that summer I felt like a moral double agent. Half of me was sitting with my girlfriend in church, underlining Scripture with a red pen, and half (more than half) was scheming of ways to lead my little Christian exemplar into one of life’s dark passageways.
I was lying on her lap, with that thought in mind, watching the ten o’clock news, when a photograph of a woman in a belly dancing costume flashed on the screen.
“That’s Delilah!” I said, sitting up.
“Shh. I know her.”
Her name, it turned out, was Marilyn Walle. She had just been murdered in Omaha, shot six times by a man she had been married to for a month. Her association with Jack Ruby was noted. My girlfriend looked at me with an expression of puzzled decency. “Do you have something you want to tell me, Larry?”
I wasn’t the only one who marked Delilah’s death. The conspiracists were keeping a list of “witnesses” who had died since the assassination; by February 1967 seventeen other people had died, including two more strippers who had worked for Ruby (one was shot to death, the other was found hanging by her toreador pants in a Dallas jail cell). The deaths were all incorporated into the evidence for the great conspiracy, and soon they found their redeemer in the person of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison.
At the heart of Garrison’s theory was the unoriginal notion that Dallas killed Kennedy: the city’s millionaire right-wingers financed the plot with the collusion of the Dallas police force and the technical advice of the CIA. Garrison’s investigation opened up a shaft into the crazed underside of American society, filled with mercenaries and mobsters, CIA agents, YMCA homosexuals, Cubans both pro- and anti-Castro, Russians both White and Red, Nazis, disaffected priests—all of whom seemed to a Dallas boy like the population of a Hieronymus Bosch painting let loose from the canvas, but which was, in New Orleans, an unsurprising sampling of characters ladled out of the New Orleans underworld. The most respectable person in the affair was the defendant, Clay Shaw, a wealthy, homosexual New Orleans businessman who was charged with conspiracy to murder the president. His trial made New Orleans the laughingstock of the nation. There was the feeling that this travesty could only have happened there, with a cast of characters that only New Orleans could have supplied. Like Dallas, the entire city was made to feel responsible for a tragic event—an unfair charge that was somehow too appropriate to deny.
Political murder has been a feature of American life since 1835, when Richard Lawrence tried to shoot Andrew Jackson, and between that time and Oswald’s murder of Kennedy, three presidents were killed and three others were the objects of assassination attempts. And yet there was a common assumption, frequently stated, that it all started in Dallas. The Dallas-killed-Kennedy theory swelled into metaphysics, until Dallas became responsible for assassination itself, as if we were the motive force that toppled the first domino in the murderous chain, as if the trail of bodies that have fallen all across America could somehow be traced back to the Texas School Book Depository.
Perhaps an outsider can understand how each new assassination was greeted with relief and resentment in Dallas—relief, of course, that it hadn’t happened in Dallas and resentment that no other city would ever know the opprobrium Dallas had endured. It was as if we had let the genie out of the bottle, as if we had provided the catalyst that caused Southern racism to kill Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis and California political craziness to murder Robert Kennedy and to try twice to kill Gerald Ford. You could walk through the world announcing “I’m from Los Angeles” or “I’m from Laurel, Maryland,” and receive an occasional dim acknowledgement that something tragic had happened in your town, but even then you would never expect to be held responsible. Waiters would not give you reluctant service. Telephone operators would not refuse to place your calls. But for years after President Kennedy’s murder, saying you were from Dallas was like saying you were from Nazi Germany. It had absurd power.
To be from Dallas meant, in the eyes of the world, that you were inherently more inclined toward murder than the next fellow. The assumption was unconscious, a stereotype, no different really from a racial prejudice. It’s no wonder that Dallasites were defensive and angry—people were telling loud lies about our city. It’s no wonder, either, that behind our anger was the fear that there must be a whisper of truth in those lies.
I happened to be in Washington in 1976 during Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, a frigid, brilliant day, the ground covered with new snow and the sky nearly Texas blue. I stood on Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the parade. At that point in my life I had seen only one American president, Dwight Eisenhower, who had ridden in a motorcade in the Boy Scout Jamboree. Eisenhower went by so quickly that I hardly got an impression of him, other than a smiling man standing in an open convertible, waving his arms over his head as he raced past thousands of silent boy scouts. But the power of the presidency is such that I doubt there is a single one of those scouts who does not remember nearly a quarter of a century later that he saw Eisenhower.
But now the simple American action of watching a presidential parade drummed up old and complex fears in me, and an instinctive defensiveness. As we waited for Carter I prepared to make a quick snapshot in my mind of the passing limousine and to note the president’s face. The bands came, and then the train of black Lincolns—and then a murmur in the crowd, a sound of astonishment that preceded the president and made people cry out excitedly, “He’s walking!” Before anyone could disbelieve it, there he was, holding his wife’s hand, walking down the center stripe of Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, only a few feet away from his amazed constituents. For many of us, it brought tears to our eyes. He was trusting us not to kill him.
In particular, I felt, he was trusting me. To grow up in Dallas, to have been accused as we all were of killing the president—however ridiculous that charge—was to know in some dark spot of your conscience what an assassin felt like inside. To be accused of a crime is a quick education in criminal psychology. It’s humiliating, but one of the lessons of humility is to learn how subtle and fragile are the differences between people. It is to realize that the distinctions that law and psychology so boldly define as right and wrong, sane and insane, are like signposts in a fog—little use to those of us who are lost. It is to know, as the preacher said, that we are all God’s children and that the child who grows up to be president and the child who grows up to kill the president are more alike in His eyes than we want to believe.
I was driving across the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin on March 30, 1981, when I learned that President Reagan had been shot. By the time I crossed the river I was sobbing and pounding the steering wheel. By now I was truly educated in tragedy and sick to death of the freewheeling lunatics thrown up by our rambunctious society. For a person who had grown up in Dallas, the shooting produced a horrifying sense of déjà vu, first when the president was shot in front of the TV cameras, the way Ruby shot Oswald, and then when the details began coming out about Hinckley’s Dallas background. I remember being furious but not surprised.
Who was John Hinckley, Jr.? He was eight years old when Kennedy was killed. He ran home from school to tell his mother the news and was disappointed that she already knew. Like me, he saved newspapers from that day; he knew history was being made.
The Hinckleys, like my own family, had come to the new world from a small town—Ardmore, Oklahoma—and like us they were blessed by the boom. Jack Hinckley, the father, was an oilman, an entrepreneur, exactly the kind of man Dallas celebrates and rewards with it admiration. He personified the city’s spirit—a stern, religious, political conservative who did good deeds and made money without apology. He worked hard, perhaps too hard, but if that was a sin, what hustling man in Dallas could blame him? He provided his family with comfort, opportunity, and eventually real wealth.
The Hinckleys moved to Highland Park, the most exclusive close-in neighborhood in the city. Many of Texas’ most prominent families live there, including Herbert Hunt and former Texas governor Bill Clements. The Hinckleys bought a yellow-brick home on Beverly Drive, with a swimming pool in the back yard and a private Coke machine. They played golf at the Dallas Country Club and socialized with the city’s elite. On Sundays they went to St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church. “The Hinckleys fit into the pattern of the parish—redneck Republican, ultraconservative, as I am,” remembered their pastor, Charlew V. Westapher. “A solid family. I can see them in my mind’s eye, standing there with their children around them. There was nothing outstanding about John Junior. He wasn’t an outstanding achiever. He was not in trouble. He just fades into the mist of time.”
Who was John Hinckley, Jr.? There was something too familiar about him. He was, in some respects, any kid from Dallas. His family may have been more successful than most, but the Hinckleys’ values—their religious materialism, for lack fo a better term—were characteristic of the city, and those people who didn’t live as well or as properly as the Hinckleys did at least aspire to.
After Hinckley graduated from Highland Park High School, his parents moved to Colorado and he went to Texas Tech. He was assigned a black roommate—a big shock to a boy from Highland Park. “My naïve, race-mixed ideology was forever lad [sic] to rest,” Hinckley wrote about himself. “By the summer of 1978, at the age of 23, I was an all-out anti-Semite and white racialist.” He read Mein Kampf and a lot of far-right literature, and then, like Oswald, he formed his own political group, with himself as the only member. Hinckley urged his prospective members to move to Dallas, where he kept his national headquarters. “There will be plenty of friendly help available to those of you who are unfamiliar with the city,” he wrote. “We are even considering opening a barracks.”
His parents were alarmed by their son’s inclination toward racism and Nazi thought, but the far right had always been a presence in Dallas; no one could say Hinckley’s politics were a great aberration there. Politically, he was little different from General Walker.
In 1980 Hinckley dropped out of school and told his family that he had a job on the copy desk of the Dallas Morning News. Instead, he soon began stalking President Carter. In Nashville he was arrested when he tried to slip through airport security with a suitcase full of guns. He paid a $62 fine and flew back to Dallas—“back,” one of his psychiatrists testified, “to replenish the arsenal.” He went to Rocky’s Pawn Shop on Elm, the same street that runs past the Texas School Book Depository. There he bought two .22-caliber revolvers for $47 each. He used one of them to shoot Ronald Reagan and three other men on a rainy sidewalk outside the Washington Hilton.
Who was John Hinckley, Jr.? In the minds of us who were in Dallas on November 22, 1963, John Hinckley was the assassin we had imagined for ourselves, the right-wing Dallas killer we had thought was in the Book Depository. He was the monster of our guilty dreams, and isn’t that the nature of tragedy, that all our dreams come true?
This time, however, Dallas was treated more kindly in the press, in part because too many cities had been host to similar tragedies and in part because the country had changed. If Dallas was still conservative, it was now no more conservative than the country that had elected Ronald Reagan. If Dallas was still religious—well, hadn’t everyone been born again with Jimmy Carter? If Dallas was still provincial, wasn’t the country itself decentralizing?
In all of those respects, the country had become more like Dallas, but Dallas had also become more like the rest of the nation. It was growing up, diversifying; it had become a city of fine restaurants and galleries, international flights, compelling architecture, but also a city of funky nightclubs, arty movies, experimental theater—a city with texture at last. In the conscience of its citizens, the Kennedy assassination was a critical correction, one that had kept the new world they were building from becoming a brave new world of technological fascism. The assassination had given Dallas a guilt complex, and as a result the city had become a more human and a more tolerant place to live.
Although I was still in flight from the city, I watched it grow and change and noted on my occasional visits that the city was not only bigger, it was better. The newspapers had become the best in the state, sophisticated, profound, exciting. Dissent spoke in a loud voice now. The old Dallas defensiveness had calmed down. I stood amazed when the television show Dallas appeared, with a right-wing millionaire villain as its protagonist. Smug and cruel, J.R. Ewing personifies the evil that people associate with the city—and yet people all over the world love him. He represents their own grasping ambitions; he has become a hero of the id. When Dallas laughed at Dallas it was a sign that the city was ready to forgive itself, to lay its burden down.
I remember my surprise at finding my father the object of community protests. When he first moved to Dallas he was dismayed, as everyone is, by its lack of natural beauty—physically, the city is like a mail-order bride. East Dallas, which stretches between Lakewood and downtown, had some of the most charming homes in the city, but they were decayed and chopped into tenements. My father decided to risk loan money in the area, which had been red-lined by every lending institution in the city. He made loans to young couples who had almost no equity except a willingness to rehabilitate those old homes. At the same time, the Lakewood Shopping Center, which encompassed his bank, was run-down and neglected, and my father went to every shopkeeper and asked him to spruce up his store, to remove the piles of trash in back, to consider planting trees and taking down obtrusive signs. He had an effect. He got the city to landscape the traffic islands. His lending program became a model for the nation. After a while Lakewood got to be a more attractive place to live, not lovely but respectable, with a small-town charm that was almost unique in the city, and to a considerable degree it was the result of my father’s efforts. So when he proposed to tear down a large portion of the shopping center to build a tower for his bank, he was stunned by the outcry he heard in the community. I listened to my father’s side of the story with mixed feelings, for I knew how much he had poured himself into his community, but I was also sympathetic with his opponents. They have a vision different from my father’s. The new world they want is not one of glassy office towers but of old stucco hardware stores. It is a sign, I think, of a better city that such arguments are taking place.
On the other hand—it is still Dallas, still a white man’s town, in a time when cities all over the nation are changing the guard. The political establishment in the city has been challenged, but it is essentially unchanged. Of course the office tower would be built, because Dallas is still an urge toward the future. There is a price to pay for living in a city that is continually being born, and it can be measured in the lost feeling of rootedness that old hardware stores provide. To love Dallas is to be able to live without the consolation of the past, without the feeling of history underfoot. To love Dallas is to celebrate the thrill of the new, to smile at the cranes always on the horizon and the bulldozers clearing the pasture beyond the last development. Dallas does not build itself incrementally but exponentially, and it takes a kind of courage to live in a city that never pauses. It’s a courage I don’t think I have.
And yet I have come to respect Dallas, in a way that I respect very few cities. In the melodrama that we made of Kennedy’s death it seemed that the promise of America had been extinguished in Dallas. But as I see that city now, I see the new world that Kennedy promised fulfilled in the place of his death. It is a human city, flawed and ambitious but with a self-knowledge that many another bustling town will never learn. It is both the burden and the nobility of Dallas that they shouldn’t have to.