J. David Woodard: America’s divide of red-blue has origins in Dallas

November 22, 2013 

On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy opened the Dallas Morning News to read a privately purchased, black-bordered, full-page advertisement accusing him of pro-communist views and similar policies. He looked over at his wife, shook his head, and said, “We’re really in ‘nut country’ now.”

The offhand comment might have been an early recognition of what became a permanent feature of American politics: conservative red states opposite liberal blue ones. Feelings of cultural and political polarization are characteristic of American politics today, and their beginning is traceable to the JFK assassination and its aftershock.

After Kennedy’s death, some in his circle, including sympathetic liberal journalists, unleashed a vitriolic storm on the city of Dallas, along with Texas and the South. Kennedy biographer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described Dallas as a city “longing for a dream world of no communism, no overseas entanglements, no United Nations, no federal government, no labor unions ...”

Even though JFK was killed by a communist sympathizer, not a conservative or right-wing extremist, the country held Dallas responsible. The city’s entrepreneurial sentiment and laissez-faire philosophy were said to have created a “climate of fear” that resulted in the death of the president. Words used to describe the place at the time included “racist,” “primitive,” “peculiar,” “plutocratic,” and “straitlaced.”

One criticism came from a visitor who said Dallas was a lousy location for conventions because pedestrians froze in place in front of a “Don’t Walk” sign on an empty street. New York writer Edna Ferber once went to jail for jaywalking in Dallas. It is legend that she wrote her bestseller “Giant,” about love, power, political corruption, cattle barons and oil tycoons in the Lone Star state, as a reprisal. In the 1956 movie by the same name, the stereotype of Texas is piqued when the protagonist says, “Money isn’t everything,” to which the response is, “Not when you’ve got it.”

Dallas did have money. It had Neiman Marcus stores with their outrageous Christmas catalogues that advertised “his” and “her” Beechcraft airplanes, Egyptian mummy cases, windmills, robots, Chinese junks and submarines. They sold out each year. It built the biggest airport in the country and bragged about its efficiency. It had bravura, brashness and a swagger no other city could match — or wanted to.

Dallas saw itself as Eisenhower conservative: a patriotic, pro-development city. People in Boston, New York and San Francisco had a different opinion. They saw the city of Dallas as stifling. They wanted nothing to do with the gauche image of the place. If it was as truly American as advertised, then they wanted new citizenship.

As such, the beginning of the “Red State/Blue State” divide was about Dallas.

It wasn’t until years later that it was about America.

Politically, the conservative Democrats in Texas, who were really Republicans at heart, began to change their allegiance in the post-assassination criticism. Texas stayed loyal to native son Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but in the presidential race four years later, the Democrats won the Lone Star state by only a 40,000-vote margin out of 2.5 million ballots. Since that time, Texas went Democratic only once, for southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976.

John Connally, who was wounded in the presidential motorcade when Kennedy was killed, changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in 1973. The governor of Texas in 1963, he later served as Richard Nixon’s Treasury secretary and ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 1980. Among the congressional and senatorial representatives, Texas changed from 88 percent Democratic in 1963 to 71 percent Republican 2012.

Dallas became a kind of “Camelot of the Right,” hosting the 1984 GOP convention for Ronald Reagan, who went on to win the presidency by the widest electoral margin in American political history.

The reasons for the change in Texas partisanship are many and varied. They include changing demographics, the rise of social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, a dissatisfaction of big government, and the Democratic embrace of centrally planned economic policies. The state also provided a number of native sons who sought, and sometimes won, the Republican nomination and the presidency. The aforementioned John Connally, Phil Gramm, George “Poppy” Bush and George W. Bush were sponsors of the new conservatism. Pundits declared in the 1990s that only Dallas could harbor a personality like Ross Perot, who could self-fund a run for the White House.

An overlooked element of the partisan switch in Texas is the criticism directed at the city and the state after Nov. 22, 1963. Voters in the rest of the country, and especially in the South, took offense at the unkind remarks, and the cultural divide widened.

Actor Patrick Duffy, who played the role of Bobby Ewing on the popular TV series “Dallas,” might have come the closest to explaining the political separation of red and blue when he was asked what the long-running series was all about. “We’re a dysfunctional family forced to stay together,” he said.

J. David Woodard teaches political science at Clemson University.

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