Dallas 1963 stands out as a well-reported and unique contribution to a diverse and unwieldy canon of books about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, quite an accomplishment in a crowded field. Where some books offer painstaking detail of the event or the weeks after, authors Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis evoke the murky, paranoid racial and political climate in Dallas that preceded the assassination.
The Texans were working together on a previous book, In Search of the Blues: A Journey to the Soul of Black Dallas. The collection of Minutaglio's long-form journalism from his days at the Dallas Morning News tells the story of the usually ignored and traditionally black area of the city, South Dallas.
In Search of the Blues got Davis and Minutaglio talking about the uniqueness of Dallas. Davis, a native of the city, asked Minutaglio if he felt that writers had missed other stories about Dallas. True, no one had written the stories of black Dallas in mainstream media or other cities, for that matter, but the two discussed the other hidden stories, too: the racial unease and ambivalence, the way religion and politics were embroidered to create what Minutaglio calls a hothouse environment in the years before Kennedy was assassinated.
Davis and Minutaglio started writing an extended version of the newspaper tick-tock. Minutaglio had been a reporter at the Morning News for 18 years—long enough for him to get accustomed to the city, though the Queens native says he never felt like he knew Dallas. "I always felt that there were ghosts in the shadows of the city," he says. “I really felt like there was something I couldn't wrap my hands around. I would talk to people who had grown up there their whole lives and it was almost as if they didn't want to tell me the context.”
In the often captivating Dallas 1963, Minutaglio and Davis unveil a city that was perhaps unique in America in producing the toxic swirl of anti-communist fervor and Republican-funded right-wing extremism that led to the Kennedy assassination. This was the hostile place that harassed President Lyndon Baines and Lady Bird Johnson during a visit and where right-wing protesters spat in the face of Adlai Stevenson. Under the radar, Oswald moved in and out of the state, becoming increasingly influenced by political propaganda that slowly reached a fever pitch.
"We thought the book would serve as a cautionary tale that some powerful people could hijack the microphone and unleash part of a civil war of their own," Minutaglio says. "The toxic environment that was waiting for Kennedy when he got there, I can't help but think that Oswald was influenced by it." The political and social parallels with America's current national political landscape were not lost on Minutaglio, who also wrote a biography of George W. Bush, First Son. Noting the recent political challenges facing President Barack Obama, he says "the same things we were reading and writing about in Dallas 1963 are still in the air today. I wish it wasn't that way."
For a book about a well-documented and shocking part of American history, Dallas 1963 reads as part historical fiction, part political thriller. Their writing gives younger readers a context that is often missing in anniversary or commemorative coverage of the time period. Extreme political personalities like Bruce Alger, then-publisher of the Dallas Morning News, Ted Dealey and Oswald's killer, Jack Ruby, come alive as do more moderate figures like Stanley Marcus, H.L. Hunt and influential Baptist preachers W.A. Criswell and H. Rhett James. The composite of their stories delivers a biography of Dallas by way of what really makes cities come alive: its people.
He describes Ted Dealey, for instance, as an incredibly powerful media magnate with a foolhardy nature who traveled to the White House and called Kennedy a child. Alger, the most strident member of Congress, openly called Kennedy a communist. When Kennedy arrived in Dallas, 200,000 people were in the streets waiting for him, but there was also a full-page ad demeaning him in the Dallas Morning News before his arrival, and flyers that depicted him as an outlaw with the caption "Wanted for Treason" tucked under windshield wipers all over town. "I don't think that could have happened anywhere else, when you go back through American history," Minutaglio says. "I don't know that there was that kind of convergence of all these powerful forces in other places. In Dallas, there was a confederacy of likeminded and strong-willed people who were also intensely against someone in the highest office in the world."
The authors hoped that they could make history come alive differently for their own children as well as new audiences, Minutaglio says. "In 2013, we get preached to a lot, and young people get yelled at all day long. Here's a way to preach to them in a kind of palatable way." More than giving them a unique look at history, Minutaglio says he also hopes to resolve any ideas that the anger or political and racial divides in America are something new. "We want young people to know that the divide they feel in the country is something we've been wrestling with for a long time," he says.
Joshunda Sanders is a writer living in Austin.