Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Convergences: Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis's Dallas 1963

Fifty years later and the assassination of President John Kennedy still hasn't been settled. Besides those who feel that there are still questions to be answered, people continuously reflect back to that November day as if they could change its outcome. Phil Dyess-Nugent suggested the other day in his sharply observed piece on JFK conspiracy films that our comfort zone gets severely rocked when a loner, a virtual nobody, can walk into history and completely alter it, as Lee Harvey Oswald most likely did. Yet the true mystery of the murder is that we can't resolve one simple question: How is it possible that our larger than life figures are never safe from the alienated souls who walk our city streets? Many of us found out on November 22, 1963 that they're not. These underground men and women who choose to change history by killing those who are making it go unnoticed, and they are lethal shadows we never see coming. Of course, political conspiracies do exist, but they operate more often in a chaotic world where plans are never so easily acted out. They emerge as much by accident as they do in the dark rooms where devious schemes get hatched. (Brian De Palma's 1981 conspiracy thriller Blow Out provides a perfect illustration of how happenstance undermines our ability to control and execute plans.) Nevertheless, Mark Lane, in his otherwise speculative JFK conspiracy book Rush to Judgement, was correct in saying that the variables in the murder of JFK delve into the primal taboo of parricide, where the father is murdered and we need to seek closure. This desire for quick and easy resolution as a means to appease our guilt over this family crime can be just as applicable to those who insist there are shooters on the grassy knoll as it is to folks who exalt the Warren Commission's findings.

One lingering query that does still emerge out of the assassination – by those who believe Kennedy's death was part of a plot and also by those who didn't – is why did the murder happen in Dallas? Arthur Penn thought he answered it in his 1966 politically paranoid assassination thriller The Chase, which takes place in a corrupted Texas town (obviously standing in for Dallas) that's overrun by right-wing zealots and Klansmen and climaxes with a political murder. Film critic Pauline Kael, though, in seeing through the literal metaphor, dismissed that idea and panned the picture while saying, "Many people all over the world blame Texas for the assassination of Kennedy – as if the murder had boiled up out of the unconscious of the people there – and the film confirms this hysterical view." There's no doubt that The Chase, made three years after the Kennedy killing, wallows in delirium and self-hatred. Still, Texas scholars Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis in their new book, Dallas 1963 (Grand Central Publishing), suggest that there might be good reasons why the murder of the President boiled up in Dallas, where a fermenting climate of violent right-wing extremism was consuming the city.

Beginning their book in January 1960, during Kennedy's election campaign, and writing in the present tense, they show how Dallas was accurately defined as a "City of Hate," containing a viciousness that would grow even uglier after JFK was elected. The authors recount this story by going month by month – through the eyes of a number of Dallas citizens – from the 1960 Presidential campaign until that fateful November weekend in 1963. And it reads with a rapt inevitability often found in thrillers such as novelist Stephen King's engrossing 11/22/63. But if that book functioned as a clever and exciting alternate history in which we eagerly follow one man back in time to stop the murder, Dallas 1963 is a suspense story with no mystery. We already know the outcome and there's nothing we can do to change it. The book instead instils in us a festering spore of growing dread, a helplessness borne from knowing what the people in the book don't, of what the convergences of violent intolerance will actually bring forth. Dallas 1963 reminds us of how America is a young country that remains in conflict with the promises inherent in its constitutional documents. Founded through a Revolutionary War for independence, but stained by a legacy of slavery, this conflict would evolve later into a bloody Civil War over the definition of the nation's identity. The irrational side of that quest would continue to be acted out by the voices of religious extremists and racists who claimed (even before the Tea Party) that they represented the true calling of the American spirit. These same zealots made up some of the civic leaders and leading citizens in Texas. They included Republican Congressman Bruce Alger, who led a violent protest against Lyndon Johnson in 1960 for being Kennedy's Vice-Presidential candidate and betraying the city and the state of Texas; H.L Hunt, an eccentric oilman and author, who fought against integration and funded radical anti-Communist groups; W.A. Criswell, a racist Baptist minister who told his white flock that they could no longer say "chiggers" when speaking of blacks, but must say, "chegroes"; Ted Dealey, who published The Dallas Morning News, and who came to confront Kennedy in the White House in 1961 at a luncheon where he talked of providing a real leader "on horseback" because the people in Texas believed Kennedy was "riding Caroline's tricycle."

General Edwin A. Walker
The most troubling figure in Dallas 1963, though, is General Edwin A. Walker who would be the constellation that all others in this tragic story would revolve around. After being fired by JFK for preaching right-wing propaganda to his troops, General Walker went to Dallas where he became both a national hero and a potential political candidate destined for the White House. Beginning as a United States Army officer who fought in World War II and the Korean War, Walker soon became a rabid anti-communist who resigned his commission in 1961 when Kennedy admonished him for accusing Eleanor Roosevelt and former-President Harry Truman of being "pink." After running for Governor of Texas in 1962 (and losing to John Connally), Walker led riots against the admission of black student James Meredith into the all-white University of Mississippi in Oxford. He would also organize the infamous protest against United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson on "UN Day" in Dallas a month before the President was killed which lead to violent attacks on the Ambassador by supporters of the John Birch Society and the Minutemen. By professing the belief that Communists were inside the United States government, he found huge support in Dallas among people like H.L. Hunt. But Walker (who seems clearly to be the inspiration for the character General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove) not only galvanized the right, he also drew the ire of the extreme left – including Lee Harvey Oswald, who attempted to assassinate him in April 1963 with the same rifle he used to murder Kennedy seven months later. (In the Seventies, long past the times that enabled him, Walker would be arrested for two acts of public lewdness in a Dallas Park and would serve a 30-day jail sentence and be fined $1,000.)

Dallas 1963 doesn't just focus on the extremists who profess hate. There are also three heroic figures in the book who bravely rail against it. One is African American preacher H. Rhett James who not only worked to integrate the segregated lunch counters in Dallas, he also helped bring Martin Luther King Jr. to the city in January 1963 where he spoke without violent reprisal. Another is Juanita Craft, who headed up the local NAACP youth council. She not only fought against segregation but was also planning a "Bombingham Tea" demonstration to be held the Sunday after Kennedy's visit, which she was dedicating to the four black girls who were killed in the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama. Stanley Marcus, who founded Dallas's most prestigious retail business, Neiman-Marcus, brought a cosmopolitan liberalism to the largely racist city and would help Dallas transform itself after the Kennedy assassination. Minutaglio and Davis write very little about the aftermath of the assassination, nor do they speculate about any conspiracy, but rather they simply detail the factual events that led up to November 22.

Authors Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis

Their relatively dry journalistic approach might seem impersonal to some, but Dallas 1963 is about letting the city breathe its own air without the authors imposing their own perspective on the material, which may be why the book is written in the first person. It may also be that because Dallas is no longer the "City of Hate," the authors simply wanted to lay its ghosts to rest by letting them have their own voice. Their task may still be in vain since the assassination has its own way of locking the city in a time warp. In the present, Dallas may have had (as recounted by Craig Offman in the The Globe and Mail a couple of weeks ago) a number of Democratic mayors, "a Latino lesbian sheriff...a thriving Arts District, world-class museums...[and] a convention hub that challenges Las Vegas and Atlanta," but it remains the city that killed the country's 35th President. So as Dallas goes about its daily business in the present, each fall visitors pour into Dealey Plaza to trace the steps of a murder story its citizens can't erase. Dallas 1963 is something new and refreshing in the Kennedy assassination literary canon. It's a dark, foreboding tale about how a city's past comes with formidable chains that continue to imprison its future.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa,Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. On Monday evenings from 7pm-9pm at the Miles Nadel JCC, Kevin Courrier lectures on Robert Altman.

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