The City With A Death Wish In Its Eye and Response by Dallas Morning News

November 19, 2013

James McCauley gets it right, the Mayor of Dallas has planned a public relations event that will not address the darkness of the past by ignoring the assassination and the unsolved murder of President Kennedy. This event does not address reality. The forum mentioned in defense by the Dallas morning news and the Sixth Floor Museum still show no real willingness by Dallas to come to terms with the historical and political reality of who killed President Kennedy and why.

While the culture of hate present in Dallas against President Kennedy in 1963 facilitated the plot to assassinate him there, and the Dallas Police Department and press failed to protect the suspect’s rights and life or to fully investigate the murder, the planning, execution and coverup in the assassination went to a much higher level of national government agencies. In a sense this is a false debate, since hatred alone did not kill John F. Kennedy, but hatred with power.

The City With a Death Wish in Its Eye
New York Times Sunday Review
November 16, 2013

FOR 50 years, Dallas has done its best to avoid coming to terms with the one event that made it famous: the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. That’s because, for the self-styled “Big D,” grappling with the assassination means reckoning with its own legacy as the “city of hate,” the city that willed the death of the president.

It will miss yet another opportunity this year. On Nov. 22 the city, anticipating an international spotlight, will host an official commemoration ceremony. Dallas being Dallas, it will be quite the show: a jet flyover, a performance from the Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club and remarks from the historian David McCullough on Kennedy’s legacy.

But once again, spectacle is likely to trump substance: not one word will be said at this event about what exactly the city was in 1963, when the president arrived in what he called, just moments before his death, “nut country.”

Dallas — with no river, port or natural resources of its own — has always fashioned itself as a city with no reason for being, a city that triumphed against all odds, a city that validates the sheer power of individual will and the particular ideology that champions it above all else. “Dallas,” the journalist Holland McCombs observed in Fortune in 1949, “doesn’t owe a damn thing to accident, nature or inevitability. It is what it is … because the men of Dallas damn well planned it that way.”

Those “men of Dallas” — men like my grandfather, oil men and corporate executives, self-made but self-segregated in a white-collar enclave in a decidedly blue-collar state — often loathed the federal government at least as much as, if not more than, they did the Soviet Union or Communist China. The country musician Jimmie Dale Gilmore said it best in his song about the city: “Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eye … a rich man who tends to believe in his own lies.”

For those men, Kennedy was a veritable enemy of the state, which is why a group of them would commission and circulate “Wanted for Treason” pamphlets before the president’s arrival and fund the presciently black-rimmed “Welcome Mr. Kennedy” advertisement that ran in The Dallas Morning News on the morning of Nov. 22. It’s no surprise that four separate confidants warned the president not to come to Dallas: an incident was well within the realm of imagination.

The wives of these men — socialites and homemakers, Junior Leaguers and ex-debutantes — were no different; in fact, they were possibly even more extreme. (After all, there’s a reason Carol Burnett pulls a gun on Julie Andrews at the end of the famous “Big D” routine the two performed before the assassination in the early 1960s. “What are ya,” she screams, pulling the trigger, “some kinda nut?!”)

In the years before the second wave of the women’s movement, many of these women, affluent but frustrated in their exclusive neighborhoods like Preston Hollow and Highland Park, turned to politics as a means of garnering the validation they were otherwise denied. With time and money at their disposal, they would outdo their husbands, one another and even themselves.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, it was a well-heeled mob of Junior League women who heckled and spat on Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson outside the storied Adolphus Hotel downtown (a scandal that actually helped Johnson politically by showing the distance between the Texas senator and his more ardent constituents).

In October 1963, just weeks before the president’s visit, it was the wife of a downtown insurance executive, not a derelict, who struck Adlai E. Stevenson, then the United Nations ambassador, over the head with a picket sign.

And in the annals of my own family history, it was my charming grandmother, not some distant relation without a Neiman Marcus charge card, who nevertheless saw fit to found the “National Congress for Educational Excellence,” an organization that crusaded against such things as depictions of working women in Texas textbooks and the distribution of literature on homosexuality in Dallas public schools.

In a photograph taken not long after the assassination, my grandmother smiles a porcelain smile, poised and lovely in psychedelic purple Pucci, coiffure stacked high in what can only be described as a hairway to heaven. Her eyes, however, are intent, fixed on a target — liberalism, gender equality, gays.

Dallas is not, of course, “the city that killed Kennedy.” Nor does the city in which the president arrived 50 years ago bear much resemblance to Dallas today, the heart of a vibrant metroplex of 6.7 million people, most of whom have moved from elsewhere and have little or no connection to 1963.

But without question, these memories — and the remnants of the environment of extreme hatred the city’s elite actively cultivated before the president’s visit — have left an indelible mark on Dallas, the kind of mark that would never be left on Memphis or Los Angeles, which were stages rather than actors in the 1968 assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

For the last 50 years, a collective culpability has quietly propelled the city to outshine its troubled past without ever actually engaging with it. To be fair, pretending to forget has helped Dallas achieve some remarkable accomplishments in those years, like the completion of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the development of the astonishingly successful Cowboys franchise and the creation of what remains one of the country’s most electric local economies.

But those are transient triumphs in the face of what has always been left unsaid, what the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald once called the “dark night of the soul,” on which the bright Texas sun has yet to rise. The far right of 1963 and the radicalism of my grandparents’ generation may have faded in recent years, they remain very much alive in Dallas. Look no further than the troop of gun-rights activists who appeared just days ago, armed and silent, outside a meeting of local mothers concerned about gun violence. If this is what counts as responsible civic dialogue, then Dallas has a long way still to go.

This year Dallas has a chance to grapple with the painful legacy of 1963 in public and out loud. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen, although the city did quietly host a symposium on whether it really deserved to be labeled “the city of hate” earlier this month.

But when the national cameras start rolling on Nov. 22, Dealey Plaza, the abandoned, almost spectral site of the assassination and now of the commemoration, will have been retouched in a fresh coat of literal and figurative white paint. Cosmetics seem to be all we can expect.

“This is not a group psychology lesson,” Mike Rawlings, the mayor, told me over lunch recently. “We can do what we can do. I guess I could bring up all the relatives of the people that said bad things. But why would you do that?”

To which, of course, there is nothing to say.

James McAuley is a Marshall scholar studying history at the University of Oxford.

Editorial: Our response to NYT essay “The City With a Death Wish in Its Eye”
Dallas Morning News
19 November 2013 02:17 PM

The easy thing to do would be to let James McAuley’s Sunday essay in The New York Times about Dallas and the aftermath of Nov. 22, 1963, go without comment. But for our city’s sake, we feel compelled to respond to his piece, “The City With a Death Wish in Its Eye.”

McAuley, a Marshall scholar studying at Oxford University, accurately described how some Dallasites in the early 1960s possessed an ugly loathing of the federal government. They especially did not want Washington promoting equal rights for all, and McAuley remains troubled that his Dallas grandparents shared some of those sentiments.

We don’t quarrel with the fact that there was a radical right in Dallas. It was here.

But we take issue with McAuley’s false premises and stereotypes regarding what Dallas is like today. Most of all, we disagree with his assertion that Dallas is still not coming to terms with the magnitude of the events that took place here 50 years ago this week.

There would not be a Sixth Floor Museum if that were the case. This newspaper would not have devoted a significant amount of coverage the past year to this chapter in the city’s history. Nor would there be the public discussion that has taken place throughout the year about the assassination, what preceded it and what came after.

Throughout this year, events in the Arts District, at SMU and the World Affairs Council, among other venues, have allowed the city to talk about the assassination, the context of the times and Dallas’ uglier side. Among the leaders in putting together a public commemoration this Friday at Dealey Plaza is Mayor Mike Rawlings.

“I’m proud of all aspects of this city,” Rawlings says. “All have brought the assassination out into the open to talk about it and not try to hide from it.”

Earlier this month, the Dallas Institute of Humanities, this newspaper and other organizations hosted a daylong symposium to discuss the Kennedy assassination and its impact upon this city. Lawrence Wright, a New Yorker staff writer who grew up here, summarized the feelings of many when he acknowledged that Dallas had to change course after Kennedy’s death.

As Wright pointed out, we had institutional racism and fringe politics. But the city changed, a fact visible in its more diverse politics, bustling arts community and globally linked economy. “I often wonder what Dallas would have become if Kennedy didn’t die here,” Wright said.

This city and its residents have invested a lot of time and resources in self-examination. Perhaps Dallas has not done it all perfectly, but it’s important to acknowledge what, in fact, has been undertaken to own up to this city’s past, hate and all.

One Response to The City With A Death Wish In Its Eye and Response by Dallas Morning News

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