On the sunshiny morning of Nov. 22, 1963, the legend goes, John F. Kennedy awoke in Fort Worth in a grimly realistic humor. The day before, the first Catholic president had touched down in Houston for a two-day trip to raise money and fire up loyal Democrats for the coming re-election campaign. Later that morning he’d be heading to Dallas, where some 5,000 handbills had been circulated featuring police-lineup-style photos of the president and the headline, “Wanted for Treason.”
In The Dallas Morning News, Kennedy perused a full-page ad purchased by a John Birch Society member, sarcastically headlined, “Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas.” It “demanded” that the president publicly answer 12 conspiratorial questions, including this one: “WHY have you ordered or permitted your brother Bobby, the Attorney General, to go soft on Communists, fellow-travelers, and ultra-leftists in America?”
“We’re really in nut country now,” the president told the first lady.
But JFK, for all his (actual and factual) faults, possessed an oversized set of cojones–too large, perhaps. After Air Force One landed in Dallas, he took his sweet time shaking hands along the crowded airport fence at Love Field, “showing he is not afraid,” as one reporter said. Twenty minutes later, the presidential limo he’d insisted on leaving open-topped was gliding toward the Dallas Trade Mart, where Kennedy planned to say a few choice things about right-wing fanaticism.
I think you can pick up the story from there.
The denizens of Texas nut country did not kill Kennedy that day. But many celebrated openly and joyously after Lee Harvey Oswald did. Birchers and Klansmen gloated. Elementary-school students in the Dallas ‘burbs broke into spontaneous applause. In Amarillo, a reporter witnessed jubilation in the streets, with men whooping and tossing their hats in the air and one woman crying out, “Hey, great, JFK’s croaked!”
Fast-forward 46 years and nine months. To a right-wing Texas that can once again be aptly described as “nut country.” To another presidential visit, slated for Aug. 9. To another time when a vocal minority of Texans are expressing open, slanderous and rhetorically violent hostility toward a president whose greatest crime is not being a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
Oh come on, you might say. That was half a century ago. Texas has evolved!
And you’d be right. Back then, the right-wing extremists were backed by ultraconservative newspaper publishers, oilmen and preachers. Nowadays, the White Right’s bigotry is openly shared and encouraged by the state’s highest official, Gov. Rick Perry. Another notable difference: In the Texas of today, most of the state’s leading Democrats are too puny and poll-driven to have their president’s back. Conservative Democratic Gov. John Connally, despite his opposition to Kennedy’s civil-rights agenda (and despite the president’s ominous poll numbers), rode with him in that ill-fated convertible and damn near paid for it with his life. Bill White, this year’s moderate Democratic candidate for governor, is too–ahem–pragmatic to even attend one of Obama’s private fundraisers.
Pragmatism is always the handiest excuse for cowardice. That hasn’t changed in 47 years.
Neither has the rhetoric used against non-WASP presidents. On July 31, the neo-Birchers rallied outside the state Capitol, cheering three hours’ worth of lightly updated versions of precisely the same charges being flung in 1963. Just one example: The Kennedy “treason” flyers accused him of “Betraying the Constitution,” abetting communism, and appointing “Anti-Christians to Federal Office.” At the Tea Party rally, speaker L. Scott Smith of Corpus Christi declared that Obama’s “goal is to do whatever he can to reinvent the United States of America into the aggressively, militantly, secular socialist and post-Christian state he wants it to be. This means … deconstructing the Constitution however he pleases.”
I’m not suggesting that Obama is risking his life by venturing into Texas. But that’s only true because presidents no longer take the security risks that Kennedy did. Obama will be kept safe and sealed off from our wingnuts. He’ll almost surely live to push America further down that slippery slope to atheistic socialism.
But that won’t change the fact that the sense of shame every decent Texan felt in late 1963–from the knowledge that plenty of folks in this state would have relished killing the president if they’d had the guts to do it–should be felt afresh in 2010. And it won’t change the fact that those who stay silent, in the face of this latest outbreak of un-American bigotry, are every bit as culpable as Perry and the Tea Partiers.