Decades After JFK’s Death – Extremism Lives On
By Mark Warren Letter from Dallas
A couple of years ago, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada told me something that shocked me, and that I will never forget. When Reid was a young man, he had worked his way through law school at George Washington University in Washington D.C. as a fulltime Capitol Hill cop, a patronage job accorded him by Nevada's lone member of the House at the time, a boozy old reactionary named Walter Baring. In the evenings, it was Reid's habit to take his break in the Congressman's office, as Baring held forth over his customary cocktail.
On the evening of November 22, 1963, as the nation and world began to absorb the murder that day in Dallas of President Kennedy, Reid sought solace with his congressman. Baring, Reid said, was "one of those guys for whom there was a Communist behind every bush. Fluoride was a Communist plot. And Kennedy, too, had been leading us down the path to Communism, Baring told me. It was probably a good thing that he was murdered."
Reid was stunned into silence, astonished that anyone, much less a sitting member of the United States Congress, would hold such a hideous position as to sanction the murder of anyone, much less the president.
Sunday, it will have been forty-six years since that day.
And lately, as the paranoid strain in the American polity has reasserted itself — that strain which ascribes the worst possible motives to one's political opponents, and where lies abound and violence becomes possible, I thought of the story that Senator Reid told me and wondered if a fool such as Baring now held office in the congress. As I am from Texas, home over the years to some of the most wonderful and ridiculous members of congress, sometimes situated in the same person, I thought of my home delegation, and in my mind formed the image of the skinhead reprobate from Tyler, Louie Gohmert.
Characterized chiefly by the blankness behind his eyes, Gohmert has the face of a hooligan and the politesse to match. Stinking of contempt, no greater reactionary is to be found in the Congress today. And certainly it is people like him who have abetted the toxic atmosphere that holds in our current politics. He has screamed that the president is a "socialist!" perhaps louder and longer than anyone else in his caucus (which is quite a distinction), he is a birther who believes that Obama is an alien Muslim, and he has said that the president’s health care plan will "absolutely kill senior citizens. They'll put them on lists and force them to die early."
So as I thought about Congressman Gohmert, I decided that he is either a demagogue, a fool, or both. Of course, and to be clear, it would be indecent to ascribe to him the insanity of Congressman Baring's position. But here I suppose I am addressing the law of unintended consequences. If you with abandon promulgate such outlandish distortions of the truth, and feel it your duty to stoke the fires of our baser instincts to the point of hysteria over the utter destruction of the American system, do you bear responsibility when someone who ingests your bile responds violently?
As I thought about this, I came upon a coincidence.
In Austin, doing some research at the LBJ Library, I found buried deep in the stacks a letter written to President Johnson by a woman who lived in the district now represented by Louie Gohmert (incidentally the same general area once represented by the great Sam Rayburn).
The letter, simply and beautifully written by a woman named Charlotte Essman, is dated November 24, 1963, two days after Kennedy's assassination. Were I to have come upon the letter ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, I would have read it as an interesting artifact from a troubled time, long since past.
Today as I read it, I cannot but think of it as a warning.
November 24, 1963
President Lyndon B Johnson
The White House
Dear Mr. President:
In this time of mourning and appreciating how very busy you are, I still must write about existing conditions here in East Texas, even if you are too busy to read this, because I feel it is my duty to do so. I wanted to write President Kennedy's staff and try to get them to persuade him not to go to Dallas but unfortunately didn't do it for fear of being that crank or busy–body. This time I will risk that appellation. I am frightened at conditions that prevail in East Texas.
Mr. President, the easy thing and what is desperately trying to be done [is] to convince a stunned nation and world that Mr. Kennedy's murder was the work of some deranged crackpot, and while the trigger was pulled by such a one, perhaps the atmosphere that made it inevitable was the hatred of the people (I don't mean every one of them but a big majority) who wanted Mr. Kennedy and any one connected with him out of the White House. A week ago this might have sounded ridiculous but subsequent events lend it credence, I believe. There is a virus of disrespect and hate spreading here very rapidly. And unless one lives right here with it, day in and day out, it is unbelievable how quickly and subtly it infects reasonably intelligent persons. This is not too hard to understand only if one recognizes the unremitting, deep, bitter religious and racial prejudice existing today in this section of our land — I don’t know if any of them are similarly infected in other sections, but I knowpersonally of what I speak as regards East Texas. In fact, although nearly every one indignantly denies having any racial or religious prejudice to the point where he deceives even himself in this matter, after listening seriously to protestations of horror and shock one can almost hear a collective sigh in essence, "Too bad he had to die but after all a Catholic is no longer in the White House and this ought to set the 'niggers' back on their heels for awhile!"
It is painful to some of us I know to give credence to such a condition so we blind ourselves and blame a mentally confused person — forgetting in our desire to remove the blame from ourselves that where religious and racial prejudice prevails, not just the killer but all are mentally confused. When this prejudice is played upon adroitly and exploited actively (as in our locality) by such groups as The American Fact-Finding Committee and many more [of] that ilk, for instance the John Birchers, etc., it soon fans into a situation as exists here, many, many citizens ridden by a vicious hate which inevitably erupts and expresses itself in violence — as in the case of Mr. Kennedy's murder in Dallas.
A strong evidence of this was the recent demonstration of violence against Ambassador Stevenson in Dallas, and even more clearly by an article carried in the Dallas News (a 100% anti-Kennedy sheet) stating that Mr. Bruce Alger [then-congressman from Dallas, and the only Republican in the Texas delegation] advised the citizens of Dallas there was absolutely no need to feel apologetic about this incident — everyone being free to express his opinion. He neglected to specify the degree of violence of such expression. And the citizens vote for Bruce Alger! So what can one expect? I just heard the flash about Oswald being shot and also the theory that is was caused by mass hysteria. That is here, all night, but I think rather there are certain groups and individuals who wish to insure Oswald's complete and continuing silence because, knowing the 'temper' of Dallas, I can’t believe a known police character of Ruby's caliber would risk his neck through any feeling of patriotism or love for Mr. Kennedy — can you?
I don’t know if anything can be done about the festering sore of prejudice and hatred on our social structure here, but I doubt if you can know its deadliness unless you are in constant, daily touch, and I thought it my duty to mention it, in that case, even though you may consider I am an alarmist and am exaggerating. I only wish I were.