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1963’s Familiar Bloodstains: Far Right Politics from JFK to Barack Obama

| November 3, 2013

JFK's presidency wasn't felled only by an assassin's bullets. (John Kennedy Library)

JFK’s presidency wasn’t felled only by an assassin’s bullets. (John Kennedy Library)

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.

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22 Responses for “1963’s Familiar Bloodstains: Far Right Politics from JFK to Barack Obama”

  1. A.S.F. says:

    very interesting article…Very depressing that we keep making the same mistakes over and over,,.If we could only learn from histories tragedies and remember those lessons, we might not be condemned to repeat them.

  2. Outsider says:

    The burden of restoring restraint and responsibility to our political discourse rests most heavily on the Republican mainstream? Why is that? Is it because you too have lost faith in the prsident’s ability to lead? Or, might it be he fired some of the earliest salvos, referring to fellow Americans as “enemies” who deserved to be punished, thus destroying any credibility as a “restorer of responsibility to our discourse?” Has his multiple claims of ignorance on numerous major issues, including the failed rollout of his signature healthcare plan shaken your confidence in his leadership skills? Are you just now waking up to the realization that simply being black, articulate, and, to use good ol’ Joe’s words, “clean and without a negro dialect” are not substitutes for verifiable credentials? He is supposed to be the quarterback, the one to moderate the debate, but his utter failure to lead on any level has even you punting to the Republicans in yet another effort to deflect attention from the president’s failings and put it on the Republican boogyman. Hopefully you are not too far away from joining Jimmy Carter in declaring to the world that this guy sucks.

    • A.S.F. says:

      @Outsider says–You must realize that my distaste for Republican policies has pre-dated the ACA roll-out. I can just imagine Conservatives rubbing their hands gleefully over the difficulties being encountered during these recent computer glinches. They much more interested, as always, in spitting on Obama than sympathizing with anyone in need, good citizens and upright Christians that they are. It is, sadly, not a surprise to see so many Conservative Republicans indulging in gloating, without being moved one inch to help anyone but themselves. They are too busy serving THEIR slave master–the almighty buck..

    • NortonSmitty says:

      Yes, Outsider, the responsibility lies squarely with the vile, win-at-all-cost Republicans. Not the original true intellectually secure Conservatives like Goldwater, Dirksen and Jackson, but with rabid political opportunists and the Big Money behind them.
      It started with Nixons Southern Strategy to divide the South due to Democratic support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. LBJ said on it’s passage “I have cost the Democratic Party the Southern White vote for a Generation”. But he underestimated how low and long the GOP would stoop to fan this racist flame,over forty years now with no end in site.
      From Dicky’s Hippies to Reagans fantasy Welfare Queens, this divisive yet undeniably effective tripe outraged and separated one citizen against another. The partisan propaganda that came from Pat Buchannan, Lee Atwater And Newt Gingrich poisoned the possibility of rational and respectful political debate forever in out country. And has turned us into the ungovernable police state, the Corporate wet dream that Carnegie, JP Morgan and Vanderbilt could only dream of.

      Atwater cried and repented on his deathbed for using the tactics of destruction that made him rich and won him so many elections. But Ol’ Newt made it Standard Operating Procedure with his “Words For Democrats” he pushed on his party in the ’90s. Remember this:

      “Often we search hard for words to define our opponents. Sometimes we are hesitant to use contrast. Remember that creating a difference helps you. These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.

      “Them” words

      Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.

      decay… failure (fail)… collapse(ing)… deeper… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… destroy… sick… pathetic… lie… liberal… they/them… unionized bureaucracy… “compassion” is not enough… betray… consequences… limit(s)… shallow… traitors… sensationalists…

      endanger… coercion… hypocrisy… radical… threaten… devour… waste… corruption… incompetent… permissive attitudes… destructive… impose… self-serving… greed… ideological… insecure… anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs… pessimistic… excuses… intolerant…

      stagnation… welfare… corrupt… selfish… insensitive… status quo… mandate(s)… taxes… spend(ing)… shame… disgrace… punish (poor…)… bizarre… cynicism… cheat… steal… abuse of power… machine… bosses… obsolete… criminal rights… red tape… patronage

      “Us” words

      …these words help develop the positive side of the contrast…

      share… change… opportunity… legacy… challenge… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… crusade… movement… children… family… debate… compete… active(ly)… we/us/our… candid(ly)… humane… pristine… provide…

      liberty… commitment… principle(d)… unique… duty… precious… premise… care(ing)… tough… listen… learn… help… lead… vision… success… empower(ment)… citizen… activist… mobilize… conflict… light… dream… freedom…

      peace… rights… pioneer… proud/pride… building… preserve… pro-(issue): flag, children, environment… reform… workfare… eliminate good-time in prison… strength… choice/choose… fair… protect… confident… incentive… hard work… initiative… common sense… passionate

      Now start developing your “us” words and “them” words. Don’t necessarily use his, as his are meant to work for his disposition as a “conservative” specifically. Find your “us” and “them” words and use them in your letters to the editor and your facebook posts. But be careful with THE POWER…

      Smitty again. Yea, THE POWER. To destroy, divide and demean. Not one word about convince, educate or build, just destroy. Above all just win, at all costs.

      And you Fascist bastards still live by those words, and cry crocodile tears about civility, discourse and the importance of honest debate whenever you get a chance. Right.

      I pray someday you either come to your senses about how you are being used or get the knife fight you think you are so good at with an equal foe. But I believe it’s too late to matter either way in America today, because all of you left or right idiots have let them steal our country away from us while we quibbled over bullshit like stem cells and Gay marriage. We’re doomed. Not much for any of us to look forward to. Except for me, because I do love a good knife fight. See you in the alley.

  3. djsii says:

    First of all, comparing Kennedy to Obama is like comparing a Kentucky Derby winner to a plow horse, they might both be horses but they aren’t even in the same league.

    I freely admit that I do not understand the social problems that arise with obtaining some form of ID for voter registration. Affluent, poor, young, or old; I do not know of anyone who can not come up with ID when it is needed.

    Social Security
    Income Tax (city, county, state, federal)
    Property Tax
    Drivers License
    Bank Accounts
    Credit/Debit Cards

    I guess not having an ID requirement would give those who are illegally in the country an opportunity to vote, but I don’t believe that they have that right.

    I totally agree with you that there is too, much paralysis in our Government today. Although I do not believe that paralysis is one sided. There seems to be no one in the middle, the majority of politicians are either far right or far left. The Democrats don’t want to compromise with Republicans and the Republicans won’t talk compromise with the Democrats. Both side are too deep into the pockets of their financial supporters to find any middle ground.

    There is an obvious total lack of leadership in the Legislative and Executive branches of Government. There are Republicans and Democrats alike who should not be in a position of leadership after the next elections. Hopefully we can find suitable qualified candidates to run for office that can unite our Government rather than polarize into the same mess we have today.

    Leadership all starts at the top. Obama ran on the premise that he was going to unite Republicans and Democrats but, his actions, as our leader had not lived up to that promise. For me, Obama was never close to being the unifying person we expected him to be; for me he turned out to be “The Great Divider”. I voted for Obama for his first term and feel that he is one of the biggest disappointments since Jimmy Carter.

  4. BIG JOHN says:

    Your comparison of JFK with Obama is not even close to the truth. JFK’s New Frontier was an attempt to revive FDR’s New Deal that had been derailed by Truman and, to a lesser extent, Eisenhower. JFK wanted to restore power to the presidency in order to accomplish these things. The ruling-class has never cared for strong presidents, and has always done all it could to weaken the presidency.
    Today, we have a 2-party system in which both parties are representing the ruling-class at the expense of the rest of the population. One the one hand, we have the Wall Street, neo-liberal Democrats led by Obama; and, on the other hand, we have the fascist-Republicans dedicated to genocidal austerity.
    FACT: 50 million Americans will have to make do with 5% to 8% cut in Food Stamps.
    A strong executive who actually cared about his people–a real president–would have declared a state of emergency to stop this genocidal insanity. While Obama fiddles the fascist Republicans are trying to burn down Rome by shutting down and bankrupting our nation so that they can carry out their genocidal plan to balance the budget…no matter how many Americans have to starve to death. These Republicans believe that all these lazy, poor people on Food Stamps should get jobs anyway. But, there are no jobs anymore!!
    Only low-wage jobs are available in our neo-feudal economy. WHY? Because there is NO MORE INDUSTRY…NO MORE UNIONS…NO MORE BENEFITS….and what this means is NO MORE AMERICA!
    Without good, high-wage jobs we will see our once great nation degenerate into a barbaric state of genocidal austerity, eventually leading to the elimination of our privacy and civil rights.

  5. Reaganomicon says:

    You don’t need to substitute ‘islam’ for ‘soviet communism’ here because “socialist” is still a charge that’s been consistently levied against obama since day one, never mind the vast number of “socialist” programs enjoyed by many of the people making exactly that charge – social security, medicare, etc. Really, it’s all just an extension of dixiecrat politics, who circa the 1950s found it politically unsavory to continue saying the word “nigger” when making political statements about the opposition and instead took the path of attacking the services people believed those lowly, horrible negroes exploited.

  6. Déjà vu says:

    JFK was a callous, evil, petty, vindictive, vile, nasty hypocrite deserving of the contempt and ridicule. Sad that people of such character is revered by people.

    RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882) — American writer and philosopher:

    “The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops – no, but the kind of man the country turns out.”
    “Our people are slow to learn the wisdom of sending character instead of talent to Congress. Again and again they have sent a man of great acuteness, a fine scholar, a fine forensic orator, and some master of the brawls has crunched him up in his hands like a bit of paper.”

  7. ohmy says:

    More of the same– if it isn’t liberal you shouldn’t read it, see it, or like it.

    Note: when Kennedy was President about 10% of folks paid no income tax. Now we are approaching 50%.

    Few, if any, conservatives are against helping the poor. How you do that is quite another issue. We are a Republic to limit Federal Government, not expand it. Most programs are better administered at the local level.

    So that extremist had that ” Ivy League pedigree”. I would suggest you read the bios of most of our recent Presidential appointees and nominees.

  8. ken says:

    Obama is no Kennedy.

    Kennedy said ” ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
    Obama’s words and actions show him to be king of the government handout.

    • Steve says:

      Appreciate the thoughtful comments, though I sense some push-back on a point that I didn’t really make. History will ultimately judge Obama’s performance as president, as it has JFK’s truncated administration. I was not comparing their accomplishments, but rather comparing the venom directed against both men simply because of who they were/are–“others,” as defined by white, largely Protestant extremists. After JFK’s death, LBJ emerged as more liberal on domestic issues than his more tentative predecessor, but, as a good ol’ boy Texan he was never a lightning rod for the kind of hate that welled up around Kennedy. Obama is clearly a flawed leader, but keep in mind that Republican standard-bearer Mitch McConnell declared at the beginning of Obama’s first term that the GOPs goal was to make certain that Obama would be a failed president. And with those marching orders, we see how the GOP has been taken over by its far-right flank, portraying Obama not as a political adversary but as an “enemy.” There’s a big difference.

      • johnny taxpayer says:

        And Mitch McConnell’s ill worded statement differs from how Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi treated George Bush, how exactly?

        • A.S.F. says:

          @johnny taxpayer says– Here’s a big difference: While many of us Democrats disagreed (A LOT) with George Bush, his policies and perceptions of reality and the world, we didn’t boondogle everything single thing he tried to do (maybe we should have) and we didn’t automatically assume everything he and/or his administration said was either treasonous or an outright lie (again, maybe we should have.)

  9. confidential says:

    When are Republicans going to end this civil war and attacks to an administration that was elected by the people. Why don’t they take the good example of the majority Democrat house and senate collaborating with Bush and other GOP Presidents? America’s economy will continuo sinking given the ridiculous obstructionism imposed by these rabid extreme conservatives resuscitating the hatred of the early sixties for minorities, women, gays, poor, elderly, students, immigrants legal and illegal, government workers, labor and their unions, public education, teachers and any services to help the needy including Medicaid, health care for all and food stamps. The writer here is correct even Kennedy was not Obama and vice versa, the environment we live today is as virulent as was then. Real shame!

    • johnny taxpayer says:

      Are you suggesting that the people’s house, aka the house of representatives, was not elected by the people?

      • A.S.F. says:

        @johnny taxpayer says–Yes, the Tea Party whackadoodles were elected by a hardcore bunch of disgruntled people, fired up by the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. And I fervently hope that a majority of them will soon be looking for new jobs.

        • Genie says:

          ASF — Now THAT is NOT very charitable, is it??? Where is your compassion? Your caring, you unwavering concern for people?

  10. confidential says:

    You are suggesting that, while trying to distort my words. Hopefully in 2014 some house cleaning will materialize.

  11. Outsider says:

    I understood your point, Steve. I was just pointing out that there are very good reasons for the criticism Obama receives, and most of it doesn’t have anything to do with who he is (I.e. a black man.) I can also do without the false parallels with great historical figures that seem to be a weak attempt to cover up the fact that the guy just sucks at running the country.

  12. Sherry Epley says:

    Another excellent article Steve!

    While President Obama is different than President Kennedy, they both faced (and President Obama is still facing) a strident opposition that is NOT what the majority of our voters want. No intelligent, reasonable person wants a government that is so locked into their divided positions that:

    . NOTHING moves forward
    . NO compromise
    . ONE side hell bent on stopping anything suggested by the other
    . EVERY decision controlled by what is best for the wealthy and the biggest campaign contributors
    . TO hell with the citizens that voted them into office
    . TO hell with what is best for the future of the planet and our nation

    Divide and conquer is in full force! Hopefully our citizens will march to the polls, demand campaign finance reform, and take our country back before it is too late!

  13. I/M/O says:

    The story tool as to JFK is a myth.

    JFK was not a devout Catholic family man quite the contrary he was a sex addict who often engaged in orgies.

    While his wife loved him he had absolutely no respect or love for her. He used her as a prop.

    He lied about the Bay of Pigs and left those men to die.

    He was not the War Hawk of the Cuban Missile Crisis as depicted but rater used appeasement to settle the crisis trading our missiles in turkey for Khrushchev promise to remove Russian missiles from Cuba. From the moment those missiles were put in Turkey and aimed at the Soviet Union there was going to be a crisis.

    As President he ordered the assassination of a foreign leader Fidel Castro.

    He lied as to sending “Advisers” into Vietnam (20,000) while clandestinely sending them into actual battle. The body bags coming home exposed that.

    He lied to Dr. king as to supporting the Civil rights movement for well over 2 years because democrats in the south opposed the movement. He only moved to help the civil rights movement people when the media showed the nation the actual brutality of men like Bull Connors with his fire hoses and attack dogs. To the WWII vets what they saw happening to Black Americans in the democratic south reminded them of Hitler’s persecution in his concentration camps. Bull Connors turned the WWII Veterans stomachs.

    The man was a myth and a failed President.

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