When the Governor of Kentucky, William Goebel, was gunned down by an unknown assassin in February, 1900, four days after taking office (the assassin was likely an agent of the former governor, William Taylor, but the truth never came out), writer Ambrose Bierce penned a short satirical poem to capture the dark mood of the times:
The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.
President William McKinley was fatally wounded a little over eight months later, shot by a fringe participant in the anarchist movement, Leon Czolgosz. Bierce had meant the poem as satire, but critics read intent into the coincidence and accused his publisher of calling for the death of the president.
Sixty years later, when dark times claimed the life of another president, different strands wove together to bring John F. Kennedy to his fate in Dallas.
On an April night in 1963, Former Army Major General Edwin Walker sat working in his home office in Dallas when a bullet careened past his head and smashed into his wall. He had barely escaped death.
Walker had his share of enemies; a decorated soldier who had fought in World War II and Korea, he had started to doubt the establishment when President Eisenhower ordered him to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock Central in 1956. He began to gravitate toward the reactionary anti-communism of the far-right, led by organizations such as the John Birch Society, and by 1959 he believed America was under attack from an unholy cabal of Satan and his communist minions. He offered his resignation, but Eisenhower gave him a command in West Germany instead.
The Kennedy Administration saw to it that Walker was properly dismissed for attempting to indoctrinate the soldiers under his command in Germany to his beliefs. Walker resigned so as to intentionally refuse his retirement pension and settled in Dallas where he became a professional political fanatic, unsuccessfully running for the Democratic nomination for Governor in 1962, leading the deadly pro-segregation riots at the University of Mississippi and telling everyone who would listen that John F. Kennedy was an agent of Satan who was in league with the devilish minions who ran Moscow.
After his near death experience, Walker called the police. He was bleeding from being hit with multiple bullet fragments. Walker’s life was saved by his windowpane: It had knocked the bullet off its probably fatal trajectory. Walker would later hypothesize that the sniper had been unable to properly see the window due the contrast between the night’s darkness and the light from his house.
Walker would live to start another riot, this time on his home turf. The United Nations had begun to occupy a sinister place in the minds of certain segments of millenialist evangelical Christians, who saw the U.N. as a Trojan Horse to impose Godless, Satanic Communism on the American people. So when Adlai Stevenson, the American U.N. Ambassador, paid Dallas on Oct. 25, 1963 to mark United Nations Day, Walker and his followers were ready. As Walker watched from the safety of his living room, over one hundred of his followers hurled invectives at Stevenson, accusing him of being in league with the Devil and the Soviets. He was spit on and hit with a sign (the protestor with the sign would claim it as an accident). The powers-that-be in Dallas were not pleased. The city council sent their apologies to President Kennedy. The governor of Texas, James Connally voiced his disgust. Dallas wanted to make amends to the President and hoped, that when he next visited the city, he would find a far more cordial reception.
Walker and Kennedy’s serendipitous path grows all the wider as we fully examine the political and cultural forces that propelled the president to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
The Texas Two-Step
Let’s step back.
The 1960 Presidential Election was one of the closest on record. To help ensure victory, Kennedy selected Lyndon Baines Johnson, the powerful Senate Majority Leader from Texas and a former primary opponent, as his running mate. Relations between the two camps were far from warm: Robert Kennedy went behind his brother’s back and tried to block Johnson from the ticket. Johnson didn’t have a high opinion of the Kennedy people. He allegedly spent his time on the campaign trail pounding his drink of choice, Cutty Sark scotch whiskey.
Once in office, Johnson and Kennedy reached an agreement that Democrat Texas was Johnson’s turf. In 1962, Johnson’s protégé John Connally, who was serving as Secretary of the Navy (he was Johnson’s chief campaign manager and was known as “Lyndon’s boy”), ran for governor of Texas. Connally, was a moderate-to-right-wing Democrat and this did not sit well with Texas’s senior Senator Ralph Yarborough.
Yarborough had been the standard bearer of liberalism in Texas. He had almost won the governorship in 1954, losing to the race-baiting incumbent by a slim margin that many attributed to voter fraud. Yarborough was elected to the Senate in 1956, where he was steadfast in his support for civil rights legislation, one of the only Southern Senators to do so. So, when Connally threw his Stetson hat in the ring for governor in 1962, this was anathema to him. He endorsed a liberal Houston lawyer named Don Yarborough (no relation, believe it or not) for the Democratic nomination and campaigned hard against Connally. The primary was close, but Connally prevailed (Edwin Walker also ran, but finished in last place). He went on to win the governorship, more steadfast than ever in hatred for Ralph Yarborough.
The Call to Dallas
When John F. Kennedy boarded Air Force One to fly to Texas on November 21, the 1964 Presidential election was less than a year away. He needed to shore up support from the Texans and make sure that the Connally-Yarborough rivalry did not further harm Democratic Party interests. Even Lyndon Johnson was concerned about the conservative direction his former protégé was going in. Unbeknownst to the Democrats in Washington, Connally had made secret alliance with a new Republican player in Texas politics: George H.W. Bush. He was intriguing to help Bush win Yarborough’s Senate seat in 1964.
Kennedy and his party arrived in Dallas. Just a few hours before, his Republican rival in 1960, Richard Nixon, had departed from the same location back to New York after completing a business trip for Pepsi. Nixon was a private citizen, putting his law degree to work after losing the race for the Presidency in 1960 by 0.1 percent of the popular vote (303 to 219 in the Electoral College) and the Governorship of California in 1962 by 5 percent. It was a low point in a political career that had seen many before and would see many more to come. Nixon was safely in the air by the time his former rival arrived in Dallas.
Governor Connally had kept Yarborough away from Kennedy for the entire trip and the motorcade the Trade Market was no different: the presidential staff nearly had to violently force Yarborough into a car with Johnson. Kennedy and his wife Jacquelyn rode in a car with Govenor Connally and wife. The motorcade proceeded under heavy police escort through West Dallas. At 12:10, as it passed through Dealey Plaza a sniper opened fire, critically wounding Connally and mortally wounding President John F. Kennedy.
An Assassin’s Second Target
The shooter was Lee Harvey Oswald, an employee of the nearby Texas School Book Depository, a massive text book warehouse on the border of Dealy Plaza. Oswald spent his life drifting unsuccessfully between various organizations, jobs, and causes. He had been a teenage member of the Civil Air Patrol, a dishonorably discharged Marine, a factory worker in Minsk, the lone member of the New Orleans chapter of Fair Play for Cuba (a pro-Castro group), and a frequently-fired Dallas worker. He was also the man who had tried to kill Edwin Walker.
After failing to kill General Walker, Oswald had stashed his gun, an Italian rifle he had bought through the mail, at his house in Irving, Texas. In November 1963, he was living in a rented room in Dallas to be closer to work because he did not own a car. After seeing the details of the Presidential motorcade route, he took a rare midweek trip back to his house to get his gun, explaining it away as it curtain rod pick up. At 12:30 central time on Nov. 22, the gun was used to kill the president.
Kennedy passed away from his wounds in the emergency room at Parkland Hospital in Dallas (he may have been dead on arrival, based on eyewitness accounts). The Secret Service removed his body at gunpoint because Dallas officials wanted to conduct an autopsy on site for the District Attorney there who had jurisdiction on the case. His body was taken to Air Force One, where Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President in the early afternoon.
Oswald was arrested hours after the assassination, but not before killing a Dallas police officer, J.D. Tippit. Oswald denied his role in the murders, but before he could receive due process from the legal system, he was murdered by Jack Ruby, an angry local businessman, on national television on Nov. 24. Ruby’s business, operating a local strip club called the Carousel Club, brought him into contact with sleazy and dangerous figures in the world of organized crime. These connections have fueled conspiracy theories ever since.
The Debris of a Perfect Storm
Fifty years later, the complex forces that led to John F. Kennedy’s death seem unreal, from an assassin on the loose to the early stages of America’s next political dynasty to the political backstabbing and drama that necessitated the president’s trip to Dallas in the first place. James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy uses fiction to make this unreality palpable. Fifty years later, where all we are left with is facts, we have to grapple with the historical record.
Ralph Yarborough won reelection in 1964, defeating George H.W. Bush, but his continued drift toward the left wing of the Democratic Party (he supported Eugene McCarthy for President in 1968) would eventually lead to his defeat by moderate Democrate Lloyd Bentson in 1970.
Edwin Walker faded into obscurity in Dallas, as conservative leaders of the time such as William F. Buckley realized he was not the person to lead the conservative movement.
Richard Nixon returned from the wilderness of Pepsi business trips to win the Presidency in 1968.
John Connally saw the path to future success perhaps clearer than anyone. He became more overt in his support for conservative candidates through the rest of the ‘60s and ultimately won an appointment to the Nixon Administration as Secretary of Treasury as part of a shift to Republicanism. When his corrupt Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, Connally was Nixon’s first choice to succeed him. Unfortunately for Connally, his turncoat status with Democrats made him an unacceptable candidate and Nixon ultimately tabbed Gerald Ford for the Vice Presidency, in a move that would set for Ford to succeed him.
Kennedy-Johnson photo credit: Wikimedia Commons