Let’s turn our attention to a moment in our history: The President of the United States is under siege from extreme right-wing groups, their anger fueled by domestic divisions as well as fear of a foreign enemy that seems determined to gain a foothold on American soil. The young president is the first of his kind to occupy the White House, and, as a result, his patriotism and his fealty to the Constitution are publicly called into question. As the president contends with threats from abroad, he is struggling to move his nation forward with a momentous piece of domestic legislation that will benefit millions.
In the forefront of the battle against this president is a demagogue from Texas, an elected official with an Ivy League pedigree who is so extreme he is repudiated by members of his own party. Supporting this angry movement is a billionaire who believes that the votes of the poor should count less than the votes of plutocrats like him—and maybe not at all. And pouring gasoline on the embers of this right-wing fury is a powerful media baron, who uses his news organization to relentlessly attack the president with no pretense of objectivity.
Sounds like today’s front page? Actually, it is a portrait of John F. Kennedy and the fanatical hate groups that, consumed by opposition to integration and the belief that the U.S. was in imminent danger of being overrun by the Communist menace, openly accused Kennedy of treason.
The portrait is from a remarkable new book, “Dallas 1963,” written by two Texans, Bill Minutaglio, a journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Texas in Austin, and Steven L. Davis, an author, editor and curator of Texas literature. The 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination has unleashed a torrent of new books, most of them re-examining either the brief Kennedy presidency or the various theories surrounding his murder. “Dallas 1963” follows a different path. In a straightforward chronology, from January 1960 through the terrible events of November 22, 1963, the authors tell the story of a city convulsed by segregationist fury, anti-Communist hysteria, and almost pathological xenophobia.
Dallas was hardly alone in giving aid and comfort to hate groups during those years. But, as Minutaglio and Davis describe it, fear and suspicion across the land were carefully nurtured by a group of powerful Dallas citizens, united in their loathing of Kennedy.
The best examinations of history remind us that forces driving the events of, say, 50 years ago, are like tropical storms, likely to re-form and gather strength anew. Dallas in 1963 was the stage for Ted Dealey, the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, who used his newspaper to rail against racial integration and to assail Kennedy as an appeaser of communism. Providing the charismatic leadership for Dallas’s legions of hate was a U.S. Army general named Edwin Walker, a staunch segregationist who, before being stripped of his command, regaled his troops with dogma from the John Birch Society. In lockstep with Walker was a Dallas congressman named Bruce Alger, a Princeton-educated zealot, who distinguished himself by casting the lone vote in the House against a program to provide surplus milk, free of charge, to needy schoolchildren.
And bankrolling these extremists was the billionaire oilman H.L. Hunt, whose poisonous radio broadcasts reached millions and who believed, among other things, that a wealthy man was entitled to cast more votes than a poor working stiff. The story line composed by these Dallas-based wingnuts was ludicrous, but it found receptive ears. Minutaglio and Davis write of those times, “Birchers are convinced that a secret cadre of communists is taking over America through the guise of seemingly innocent programs: Social Security, the progressive income tax, membership in the United Nations.” John Birch Society founder Robert Welch accuses President Dwight Eisenhower of being a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy.”
Coursing through this fetid sea of hate and ignorance was the notion of Jack Kennedy as a traitor. The nation’s first—and still only—Catholic president, Kennedy was assailed as a “weak sister” doing the bidding of the Vatican, a man lacking the courage to stand up to the Soviet Union. Wrapped around this fury was the fear of a secret plot to drag the United States under the sway of a one-world government.
Substitute “Islam” for “Soviet Communism” and it’s no surprise that some of this sounds like today’s venom from the far right. To inflame people’s fears and prejudices, it was important for powerful men in Dallas to paint the president of the United States not simply as a political foe, but as treasonous. Compare this to the attacks on our country’s first black president. It’s not enough to assail Barack Obama for his policies—it’s important for the fringe right to portray him as the “other,” a quisling bent on undermining our country and its institutions.
In an email, Steven Davis says of Dallas’s right-wing point men, “When you aren’t content to simply disagree with a political opponent, and you instead condemn him or her as an enemy of the country, you’re no longer working within the fabric of a Democracy. You’re using the tools of a dictatorship. Because that’s what totalitarian societies do. So people who make those arguments shouldn’t ever be validated in any way. They should be called out, ridiculed, consigned to the dark shadows of our culture where they belong.”
So, is it a stretch to look at the men of Dallas in 1963—the demagogues, the media baron, the fabulously wealthy—and find their descendants among today’s far right? I don’t think so, and neither does Davis. He points out that one of the assaults on JFK’s Medicare plan—narrowly defeated in the Senate before being passed into law two years after the assassination—was that it would lead to “government death panels.” And where have we heard that?
The drumbeat of opposition to Obama, fueled by Fox News and talk radio, financed by the billionaire Koch Brothers, and shouted in the halls of Congress by the likes of Ted Cruz, is designed to vilify, not enlighten, and promotes a narrowing of the electorate as our nation is becoming more diverse. Writes Davis in his email to me: “Back in the early 1960s you had a coordinated conservative movement to depress poor and minority voting. Back then it was called the Poll Tax. Today, it’s Voter ID laws, which are being implemented in spite of the overwhelming evidence that one has a greater chance of winning the lottery than finding an authentic case of voter fraud.”
Where will this lead? It has already succeeded in paralyzing our government and rekindling on the Web the kind of hate speech that this country ought to have left behind decades ago. “In the short-term,” adds Davis, “Dallas failed to expand the movement much beyond the city’s borders. But in the long-term, their scorched- earth brand of politics in which you condemn your political opponent as an Enemy of the State seems to have ultimately been successful. That extremist virus that began in Dallas has now gone national.”
In the end, the burden of restoring restraint and responsibility to our political discourse rests most heavily on the Republican mainstream that has allowed its most extreme members to repeat an ugly chapter in our history.
Steve Robinson moved to Flagler County after a 30-year career in New York and Atlanta in print, TV and the Web. Reach him by email here.