Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy
Edward H. Miller
The University of Chicago Press, 230 pp., $25
By Darwin Payne
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. Walker moved 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.