In their new book Dallas 1963, Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis carefully chronicle the story of Dallas in the years leading up to President John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. In this excerpt, they take us back to October 1961, when The Dallas Morning News' combative publisher helped cement the city's reputation as a conservative hotbed.
Ted Dealey considers the telegram that has just arrived at his office. It is addressed personally to him from President John F. Kennedy, but Dealey knows a form letter when he sees one. In fact, several other publishers in Texas are receiving the exact same message:
Dallas Morning News
"It would be useful to me to have an exchange of views with you on state, regional and national problems. Therefore I would be most pleased to have you as my guest at a luncheon on Friday, October 27th at 1:00 p.m. at the White House Washington. (Enter the Northwest Gate on Pennsylvania Avenue.) I hope it will be possible for you to attend. It would be appreciated if you would kindly reply to Press Secretary Pierre Salinger."
Dealey sets the telegram aside. He knows Kennedy has been playing the seduction game, hosting a series of similar meetings with publishers. The president's stated rationale may be a desire to "exchange views," but Dealey knows what he is really up to.
Kennedy is going to try to charm the press into giving him better coverage. He is going to peddle his soft soap, this time to a bunch of Texans.
Dealey has already made his own feelings about Kennedy quite clear in his newspaper. He heard from his sources in Washington that the Morning News' combative editorials are causing Kennedy pain. As Dealey will tell anyone who would listen, "I am not particularly fond of brother Kennedy."
Dealey quickly calculates the cost of a trip to Washington. With airfare, hotel, food and drink, it will cost several hundred dollars. It's easily worth it. Not many people are given the opportunity to tell the president of the United States to his face exactly how they feel about him.
His father, George B. Dealey, founded The Dallas Morning News in 1885, seven years before Ted was born. It was the dominant newspaper in Texas, and it was, really, the world the young Dealey grew up in. He always saw being publisher as a civic calling, as important as any elected office. Even when he left the city and played football for the University of Texas in Austin and then earned a master's in philosophy at Harvard, he knew he was destined to take control of his father's paper.
He made his first mark on the news venue back in the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan chose Dallas for its national headquarters. The Klan staged its grand parades down Main Street during the day and it terrorized at night, with cross burnings and whippings and unexplained disappearances of young black men. The city's establishment fell into line and Klansmen were elected to city offices. The managing editor of the competing newspaper, the Dallas Times Herald, resigned to become the Klan's public relations director. Dallas, never really known for much, earned a reputation as the KKK bulwark in America.
The young Dealey lobbied his father to stand up to the Klan. Thanks to his efforts, the Morning News led a public campaign against the KKK, even withstanding advertising boycotts and angry mobs gathering outside the paper's headquarters. It emerged stronger and more influential than ever. It had no rival as the state's leading newspaper. For the next 20 years, the News' politics was squarely within the traditions of mainstream America. The paper endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt for president and even supported his New Deal programs, one of which helped cement the Dealey family's legacy in Dallas: One of FDR's Works Progress Administration projects was a small park built in downtown Dallas, just three blocks from the Morning News building. It was named in honor of Ted Dealey's father, and it featured a 12-foot-tall bronze statue of the older man. It became known as Dealey Plaza.
Ted Dealey liked seeing the towering statue. Too, he liked that he had enshrined the family's vision for their newspaper in a quote carved into a panel four stories high above the front entrance to The Dallas Morning News building:
"Build The News upon the rock of truth and righteousness. Conduct it always upon the lines of fairness and integrity. Acknowledge the right of the people to get from the newspaper both sides of every important question."
Dealey's father had been a moderate man with a finely attuned sense of social decorum. Now, in 1961, the son is striking some people as occasionally caustic or even callous. He is, his friends say, fiercely intelligent and filled with a crackling wit. He is considered the paper's best writer, and he spends time with the editorials. But he is talking openly of his "masturbation period" and he tells one News executive, "Some day when you're sitting in that fancy new office of yours, keep in mind that at one time in that exact location stood the finest whorehouse in the entire city of Dallas."
And, in 1961, under his leadership, the Morning News has clearly abandoned political moderation — or anything hinting at its old support of the progressive politics of the New Deal. The News began to describe Roosevelt's remedies for the Great Depression as the actual cause of the economic collapse. The News now refers to the New Deal as the "Queer Deal." It lashes out at any hint of government meddling, which it believes will sap Dallas' vitality and the economic miracle the city represents:
"When our forefathers stepped on the west bank of the Mississippi and headed west to carve an empire, did they look back over their shoulders to the National Government for 'welfare' and help? No — with an ax and a Bible and a wife, the pioneer did it himself."
The News is ferociously uncompromising. As one of its own reporters observed, the editorial page is "not just dissenting, but insulting." On the issue of welfare, the News asked: "Should we continue to spend tax money on illegitimate babies, when we need it for missiles?"
As his anti-Kennedy campaign marches on, Dealey has begun hearing from a few people in the city. Quietly, some of them are telling him that, in fact, Dealey is doing the very thing he always preaches against: He is ruining Dallas' image around the nation. He is polluting potential business deals.
Stanley Marcus, for one, has been talking to Dealey and saying that he doesn't like the way the paper is leaning ever harder to the right. It is a gingerly dance, because Dealey needs Marcus to continue to buy the big display advertisements in his paper. Marcus has been quite clear when it comes to his feelings about the paper: "An ultraconservative journal, opposed to social progress, the United Nations, the Democratic party, federal aid, welfare and virtually anything except the Dallas Zoo."
But Dealey has a ready answer when Marcus and other people complain that the News is imbalanced. Dealey counters that readers might "get confused" if they see a column advocating liberal ideas next to one promoting the conservative line: "We feel a duty along the lines of leading them in thought among the proper channels."
Besides, it isn't that he and his paper have changed.
"The left has just moved farther left," Dealey argues to men like Marcus. "The leftist influence has gotten so much stronger that we have got to holler louder to make ourselves heard."
As Dealey prepares to travel to Washington to have lunch with President Kennedy, he reviews his intelligence on JFK's previous meetings with other publishers. He has asked his Washington reporters to do some background research on what Kennedy does at these meetings, what Dealey can expect when he is in the room with Kennedy. For additional insight, he asks friends in the publishing fraternity who have already seen Kennedy at the White House.
And by now, he knows that the White House generously plies the newspaper guests with alcohol. One publisher, a close friend of Dealey's from Kentucky who is also a staunch segregationist, tells him that Kennedy "has Negroes ... all dressed up fancy."
Dealey's sleuthing confirms his suspicions about what the hell the invitation to lunch is really all about: While Kennedy is pretending to solicit the newspapermen's views, the meetings are just social affairs meant to seduce and mollify the media. There is little in the way of focused discussion. Instead, there is plenty of banter, served up with helpings of the famous Kennedy charm. The president is obviously using the occasion to lobby the newspapermen, to cajole them into going easy on him. And now it's time for the collection of Texas publishers, led by Dealey, to submit to Kennedy.
As he mulls over his trip to Washington, Dealey reads a letter he has just received from one of his readers in Dallas — one of the "grassroots" people:
"I want to be one of the many, many people of Dallas who congratulate you and the News for the type of news coverage that is being furnished to us ... it is only through making the public aware of our terrible danger from communism that we can preserve the American way of life and our wonderful heritage ... I can only hope that when you meet with the president that you will stand up for the rights of the Free Press."
Before catching his flight from Love Field, Dealey decides to write her back: "Just between you and me and the gatepost, I am not particularly fond of brother Kennedy ... You can bet your bottom dollar that I will stand up in the manner that you suggest."
Dealey and 18 other Texas publishers are gathered in the elegant red room, which has recently been redecorated at the behest of Jacqueline Kennedy. Cocktails are served by uniformed waiters. The visitors from Texas chat amiably under exquisite portrait paintings done by American masters. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is circulating, slapping people on the back and dominating the conversation, as always. He and Dealey barely acknowledge each other. The president has not yet arrived. Press Secretary Pierre Salinger steps forward to remind everyone of the ground rules for the luncheon. This is strictly an off-the-record event, in order to allow the president and the publishers to exchange frank views. The president will make some opening remarks, and then he will take questions.
Kennedy enters the room with some aides, and the publishers quickly line up to shake hands with him. Dealey notices that Kennedy looks thin, but that his grip is strong. The group adjourns to lunch around a long, elegantly laid-out wooden dining table that stretches almost from one end of the room to the other. Waiters circle, filling water glasses. The publishers, all dressed in business suits, unfold linen napkins and drape them on their laps. Dealey is seated and picks up the menu: Gnocchi a la Parisienne, Truites Grenobloise, Haricots Vert au Beurre, Beignets de Salsify, Peche Melba, Petits Fours Secs, Demitasse. He puts the menu in his pocket.
Kennedy begins by offering some greetings, some welcomes, and then he segues into well-practiced comments, pleading for sympathy from the media because he feels like a "fugitive" in the White House. He offers a quick review of the foreign affairs priorities that the administration is handling — the Bay of Pigs, the Vienna Summit with Khrushchev, the crisis in Berlin.
As he gives his overview, the well-dressed waiters quietly circle the table and refill wineglasses. The publishers eat delicately while listening to Kennedy's talk. Some jot down notes. Some nod in assent as Kennedy speaks, and they chuckle at his splashes of self-deprecating wit.
Dealey stares at the president. Like a reporter, he takes note of the details: Kennedy is only picking at his food. He is sipping from a glass of tomato juice. He really does look awfully thin. Lyndon Johnson quietly excuses himself because he needs to fly out for a scheduled speech in Florida.
As Kennedy continues, Dealey glances at his watch impatiently. Hasn't the president invited us here to get our input? When is he going to quit monopolizing the conversation and listen to someone else for a change?
Dealey swivels and looks around the table. Kennedy is clearly charming the people from Texas, the ones Dealey has known for years.
They seem to be in awe, whether of the man or the office it is hard to say. Either way, it is disgusting. Texans aren't supposed to be so easily brainwashed.
Dealey can't stand it. Leaning forward, half out of his seat, he suddenly interrupts Kennedy and speaks forcefully across the elegant dining table:
"Isn't one of the purposes of this meeting to get an expression of grassroots thinking in Texas?"
Kennedy smiles, perhaps unsure where things are headed, and slowly nods in agreement.
Dealey abruptly growls: "Well ... That being the case, I will present the grassroots thinking in Texas as they have been presented to me and as I understand them."
The clinking and scraping of silverware against the china comes to a halt. The room is silent, except for the sound of Texas publishers shifting uneasily in their seats.
The entire room stares at Dealey, whose shoulders are hunched as he cradles a batch of papers he has pulled out of his suit jacket. Kennedy has a slight smile of amusement playing across his face as he regards the old man confronting him. Dealey holds a nine-page, 500-word statement he has written out that very morning on hotel stationery from the Statler Hilton in Washington. He begins reciting in a loud voice:
"The general opinion of the grassroots thinking in this country is that you and your administration are weak sisters. Particularly this is true in Texas right now.
"We need a man on horseback to lead this nation — and many people in Texas and the Southwest think that you are riding Caroline's tricycle."
Dealey pauses and looks around the room.
The other publishers are horrified, the blood draining from their faces. He looks at Kennedy. The president's smile has disappeared, and his face, it appears, is turning red.
Dealey keeps reading:
"The American people are aroused, and rightly so ... We should lead from strength, not from weakness ... We can annihilate Russia and should make that clear to the Soviet government. This means undoubtedly that they can simultaneously destroy us. But it is better to die than submit to communism and slavery."
Dealey rages on, and the room is as silent as stone.
"We want desperately to follow the administration as long as the administration displays courage, but we will not follow its policies like a bunch of driven sheep if it gives in to Russia one iota. The American people are sick and tired of being bluffed, of negotiations when there is nothing to negotiate.
"These state meetings with the press should not be social meetings. You cannot proselyte the newspapers of America and win them to your side by soft soap ...
"We are not morons to be led around the nose by an invested bureaucracy."
Dealey finishes and leans back in deep satisfaction as the luncheon erupts.
Several people begin speaking at once. Some of the publishers rise to their feet and yell: "No, no."
Others begin shouting at, apologizing to, Kennedy: "We don't agree, he's not speaking for us."
One livid publisher lights directly into Dealey: "Ted, you're leading the worst fascist movement in the Southwest and you don't realize that nobody else is with you."
Another publisher is waving his arms, trying desperately to calm everyone down while his admonitions are lost in the din: "This is the dining room of the President of the United States!"
Finally, Dealey's voice rises above the commotion. He is turning back to Kennedy. The room, just as suddenly, is quiet again. Several of the publishers crane their necks, trying to get a good look at Dealey, trying to hear what he will say next.
"My remarks were not meant to be personal in nature," Dealey murmurs. "They are a reflection of public opinion in Texas as I understand it."
The men in the room swivel to look at Kennedy. The president has lost his smile. He is clearly no longer relaxed and friendly. He speaks quietly, forcefully, as he rebuts Dealey. When the stories about the luncheon appear, the two men will have vastly different memories of Kennedy's rejoinder.
As the luncheon breaks up, Kennedy turns to his press secretary. He is speaking half in jest, but the humor is cold.
"Don't subscribe to that newspaper," he tells Salinger, pointing toward Dealey. "I'm tired of reading its editorials."
Salinger shrugs: "But I have to read them."
News of Dealey's face-off with Kennedy sweeps the nation.
Dealey tells reporters: "I may have stuck my neck out, but the President wanted the grassroots opinion, so I gave it to him."
Privately, Dealey is happy with the notoriety. He'd used "weak sisters" and "Caroline's tricycle" in "a deliberate attempt to swipe some headlines." He tells a friend: "And apparently in that I was eminently successful."
The Morning News publishes the complete text of Dealey's statement along with a photo of Dealey offering a rare smile as he descends from his plane after returning to Dallas. Dealey prints his own version of events in the paper — there will be other versions, far different, in the upcoming days and weeks. Dealey leaves out any mention of a response by Kennedy. His account reinforces Dallasites' worst impressions of Kennedy: the boyish president, so flummoxed by Dealey's courageous attack, was apparently unable to muster a single word in his own defense.
Dealey eagerly follows the way other publications cover the incident, ordering his staff to send him updates of how the story is being reported around the country. But aside from a few sympathetic editorials in right-leaning papers, Dealey finds a wave of denunciation, even among other papers in Texas. He is derided as a boorish crank, a man so lacking in basic civility that he can't even be trusted to have lunch with the president of the United States.
Dealey fires off telegrams to the other Texas publishers, asking for their opinion of his behavior. The telegrams come roaring back, one after another, almost every single one of them critical.
"I think you were rude to President Kennedy," responds Jim Chambers, publisher of Dealey's major competitor, the Dallas Times Herald. "We were his guests in his home. You could have had your say in your paper, in a letter, or at a regular press conference without embarrassment to anyone." From Waco, Pat Taggart writes: "Your truculence and phrasing were inappropriate."
El Paso Times publisher Dorrance D. Roderick tells Dealey:
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"I did not vote for Mr. Kennedy but was encouraged that he did not blow his top at your remarks ... I think this restraint will stand the president in good stead in future prolonged negotiations with Khrushchev. Probably Harry Truman would have taken your [lunch] plate away from you."
Houston H. Harte, who owns a chain of newspapers across the state, writes, simply: "Please let the matter die. Texas has been embarrassed enough."
There is only one conclusion for Dealey to make: These other publishers in Texas are also weak sisters.
Excerpted from the book Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis. Copyright 2013 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis. Reprinted by permission of Twelve, New York, New York. All rights reserved.