Perhaps the only thing more fantastical and bizarre than the 2016 Republican race itself is how the Kennedy assassination became part of the campaign news cycle in May, albeit fleetingly.
A false allegation, given prominence by the National Enquirer, was recycled by Donald Trump, the presumed GOP nominee, during an appearance on “Fox & Friends.” Per the article, Trump accused Rafael Cruz, father of candidate Ted, of consorting with the accused assassin of President Kennedy before November 1963: “You know, [Cruz’s] father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being, you know, shot . . . . I mean, what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death, before the shooting? It’s horrible.”
Putting aside the incoherence of Trump’s mind, as well as the frightening prospect of a US president who parrots the National Enquirer and listens to the likes of Roger Stone, a conspicuous conspiracy theorist, the kerfuffle did focus attention on a long-forgotten minor mystery: who was the “unidentified man” who distributed Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) handbills with Lee Harvey Oswald on the streets of New Orleans scarcely three months before John F. Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963?
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As Air Force One carried John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline on that short hop from Fort Worth to Dallas on November 22, 1963, the president turned to her and made a never-forgotten comment on this last morning of his life. “We’re heading into nut country today,” he said. In his hands the frowning young president held the infamous full-page, black-bordered advertisement in that day’s Dallas Morning News, an ad that effectively labeled him a communist. In Nut Country, author Edward H. Miller portrays those Dallas “nuts” and, as his subtitle elaborates, poses a provocative connection: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy.
Who knew that those nuts, in all their conspiratorial notions, foreshadowed the so-called “Southern strategy” that Richard M. Nixon followed to achieve his razor-thin victory in 1968 (Barry Goldwater having laid the groundwork four years earlier). Miller, beginning with those 1963 nuts and their antics, carries the story to the next level—how these conservatives (well, ultra-conservatives) transformed the beliefs of so many Dallasites into ballot box victories, and set a pattern for GOP successes throughout the once-Democratic Solid South that persists to this day, it’s latest permutation being the Tea Party.
First, let’s remind ourselves of a few of those best-known nuts who were making national headlines from Dallas in the early ‘60s. Army Major General Edwin A. Walkermoved to the more hospitable clime of Dallas after resigning under pressure from his military commission because he introduced an ultra-conservative program to his troops and urged them to read John Birch Society literature. Fundamentalist preacher W. A. Criswell, pastor of Dallas’s huge First Baptist Church (the Rev. Billy Graham was a proud member), said, among other things, that the election of a Catholic president would bring an end to religious freedom in America. The famous and wealthy oilman H. L. Hunt’s crude novel Alpaca advocated giving extra votes to those who paid the most taxes, and he sponsored numerous ultra-conservative broadcast programs and publications. Bruce Alger became in 1954 the first Republican congressman from Texas in many years, and was the only representative to vote against the school lunch program for children, calling it “socialized milk” (the measure passed by a 348 to 1 vote). Dallas Morning News publisher Edward M. “Ted” Dealey, at a White House reception, told President Kennedy to get off Caroline’s tricycle and act like a real man on horseback. Frank McGehee, founder of the rabidly anti-communist National Indignation Committee, packed the auditorium with zealots when UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson spoke on UN Day in 1963, attempted to keep him from speaking, and assaulted him afterwards in the parking lot. Less than a month later the president was assassinated a few blocks away.
These ’60s extremists shared a fundamentalist belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible as a guide for contemporary politics, and they didn’t hesitate to say so. Racist convictions were sometimes blatant but often semi-disguised in coded language. Inevitably, there was an unquestioned acceptance of the inherent wisdom of unfettered private enterprise, and a universal belief that states’ rights were being usurped by a power-hungry federal government. A widely-held conviction was that Earl Warren and his Supreme Court were usurping traditional American values (remember the “Impeach Earl Warren” signs along the highways?). If that sounds like an earlier version of Ted Cruz’s political platform, ‘tis no accident. Cruz is a lineal descendant of Walker and Alger, Dealey and McGehee.
Several factors made “Big D” especially receptive to ultra-conservative politics. In the 1952 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson took the side of the federal government in contending that oil-rich tidelands off the coast of Texas belonged to the nation instead of the state. The Republican candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower, favored state ownership. This issue was the proverbial last straw that prompted Texas Governor Allan Shivers to bolt from the party of Jefferson and Jackson; he was joined by a majority of Texans in both the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections, thus bringing an end to Texas’s role as a certain Democratic vote in the electoral college. Another milestone occurred when new President Lyndon B. Johnson revealed that he was no conservative when it came to civil rights, greatly hastening the exit of conservatives from the Democratic Party and to an embrace of the newly revived and increasingly right-wing GOP. Still, it took decades for the Texas’s transformation to filter down to state and local races.
Still, the headline-makers of the late ‘50s and ‘60s generally lacked the organizational abilities or aptitudes to create a political strategy capable of producing votes at the ballot box. When the aforementioned Walker ran for the governorship in 1962, he finished a dismal sixth in the Democratic primary won by John Connally. How was political ascension precisely achieved in Dallas? The more difficult but less visible business of translating an ideology into electoral victories would be left to others. Their names do not ring bells for today’s readers, but they are aptly described by Miller.
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A key indicator of where David Talbot is going in his portrait of CIA Director Allen W. Dulles comes from his treatment of C. Wright Mills and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Mills was a Columbia University sociologist whose 1956 book, The Power Elite, caused a minor sensation in the seemingly placid ‘50s. Liberal and conservative scholars alike depicted the American political process as a balancing act among competing interests, which included big business, organized labor, farmers, and professional groups. But Mills, as Talbot notes approvingly, did not believe such a perspective was “adequate even as an approximate model of how the American system of power works.” Instead, Mills posited a Marxist-lite critique that presented governance in the United States as an elaborate conspiracy theory of unaccountable elites. He argued that corporate, military, and governmental leaders worked hand-in-glove solely to enrich and empower themselves and the institutions they headed, and cast doubt on the belief that the United States was some version of a democracy.
How did presidents—America’s nominal leaders—fit into this system of elite control? According to the Millisian analysis, Eisenhower’s prime directive was to preserve an elite that benefited from a “permanent war economy.” That would seem to be at odds with Ike’s famous parting shot, in which he warned Americans that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist . . . . Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” Perhaps that portion of Eisenhower’s nationally-televised farewell address from January 1961 was a gaffe, which Michael Kinsley famously defined as a politician accidentally telling the truth.
Much more often, according to Talbot, President Eisenhower acted the role of an amiable dunce who followed the diktats of the power elite. Ike had been “a peace-loving warrior” during the great global conflict of the previous decade, but by the time he sought the presidency in 1952 he was an “aging general,” well-meaning perhaps but subject to manipulation and oftentimes just plain clueless. He obligingly took orders from the “Dulles-Dewey group” (a combination brain trust and bank consisting of future CIA Director Allen, his brother and future Secretary of State John Foster, and former GOP presidential nominee Thomas Dewey). These were the men, for example, who “tapped [Richard] Nixon for vice president.”
Unfortunately, as in so many episodes related in the book, the true story is at odds with Talbot’s invented version. After the GOP convention nominated Eisenhower, Herbert Brownell, Ike’s campaign manager (who would become attorney general), told Eisenhower the time had come to select a running mate. After ruminating for awhile, the nominee handed his short list to Brownell, who then consulted leading Republican pols, including Dewey, but not the Dulleses. How Nixon got picked is recounted in an exhaustively researched new book about Eisenhower and Nixon, The President and His Apprentice, by Irwin F. Gellman.
Talbot goes on to assert that during the eight-year Eisenhower presidency, no one in the administration—not even Ike himself—matched the Dulles brothers in power. In particular, the president is depicted as knowing shockingly little about what Allen Dulles and the CIA were up to, while lacking the intelligence and energy to insist on knowing. These portraits of Ike and the Dulleses are a graphic novel (comic book) rendering of the national and international politics of the 1950s, and not in a good way. The charge that Eisenhower was an amiable dunce is an old and political one, dating back to the time he was still in office. Eisenhower was so popular and scandal-free that Democrats had little choice but to claim he was more interested in playing golf than running the country. While researching The CIA and Congress, the majority of which dealt with the Eisenhower era, I saw some episodes of an out-of-touch Ike, especially during the last few years of his White House tenure, which were illness-plagued. But there was more frequent evidence of a shrewd political figure. It may be going a tad too far to claim that Eisenhower’s was a “hidden-hand” presidency, a revisionist argument political scientist Fred Greenstein first put forward in 1982. But the five-star general surely was not a cipher.
Talbot’s book, of course, really purports to be an expose about Allen Dulles’s directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency. Here there are serious problems, rooted in a number of bad choices by the author. Among them: