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On November 22, 1963, Mummy picked me up early from Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. Driving home to Hickory Hill in northern Virginia, I noticed that all the District flags were at half staff. Mummy told us that a bad man had shot Uncle Jack and that he was in heaven. Daddy's friend and former football teammate, Dean Markham, a Justice Department Rackets Division Attorney picked up my little brother David at Our Lady of Victory. "Why did they kill Uncle Jack?" David asked him. Dean, an ex-marine, combat veteran, known as the toughest linesmen on the "GI-Bill Squad," -- the toughest football team in Harvard University's history -- wasn't tough enough to field that question. He wept silently all the way to our driveway. When I got home, Daddy was walking in the yard with Brumus, our giant black Newfoundland and Rusty, the Irish Setter. We ran and hugged him. We were all crying. He told us, "He had the most wonderful life, and he never had a sad day."
Neither Beck, Hannity nor Savage nor the hate merchants at Fox News and talk radio can claim to have invented their genre. Toxic right-wing vitriol so dominated the public airwaves from the McCarthy era until 1963 that President Kennedy, that year, launched a citizen's campaign to enforce the Fairness Doctrine, which required accuracy and balance in the broadcast media. Students, civic and religious groups filed more than 500 complaints against right-wing extremists and hate-mongering commentators before the FCC.
The Dallas, Texas, airwaves were particularly radioactive; preachers and political leaders and local businessmen spewed extremist vitriol on the city's radio and TV stations, inflaming the passions of the city's legions of unhinged fanatics. There was something about the city -- a rage or craziness, that, whether sensible or not, seemed to have set the stage for Jack's murder. The Voice of America, half an hour after the assassination, described Dallas as "the center of extreme right wing." The Texas town was such a seething cauldron of right-wing depravity that historian William Manchester portrayed it as recalling the final days of the Weimar Republic. "Mad things happened," reported Manchester. "Huge billboards screamed 'Impeach Earl Warren.'" Jewish stores were smeared with crude swastikas. Fanatical young matrons swayed in public to the chant "Stevenson's going to die -- his heart will stop stop stop and he will burn burn burn!" The mercantile elite that ruled the city carefully cultivated the seeds of hate. Radical-right broadsides were distributed in public schools; the Kennedy name was booed in classrooms; junior executives who refused to attend radical seminars were blackballed and fired. Manchester continued:
Dallas had become the mecca for medicine show evangelists of the National Independence Convention, the Christian Crusades, the Minutemen, the John Birch Society and Patrick Henry Societies and the headquarters of right wing oil man H.L. Hunt and his dubious activities... The city's mayor, Earl Carroll, a right wing co-founder of the John Birch Society, was known as 'the socialist mayor of Dallas' because he maintained his affiliation with the Democratic Party.
Dallas's oil and gas barons who routinely denounced JFK as a "comsymp" had unbottled the genie of populist rage and harnessed it to the cause of radical ideology, anti-government fervor and corporate dominion.
Uncle Jack's speech in Dallas was to have been an explosive broadside against the right wing. He found Dallas' streets packed five deep with Kennedy Democrats, but among them were the familiar ornaments of presidential hatred; high-flying confederate flags and hundreds of posters adorning the walls and streets of Dallas showing Jack's picture inscribed with "Wanted for Treason." One man held a posterboard saying, "you a traitor [sic]." Other placards accused him of being a communist. When public school P.A. systems announced Jack's assassination, Dallas school children as young as the fourth grade applauded. A Birmingham radio caller declared that "any white man who did what he did for niggers should be shot." As my siblings and I visited the White House to console my cousins John and Caroline, a picket paraded out front with a sign, "God punished JFK."
Jack had received myriad warnings against visiting the right-wing Texas city. Indeed, there had been a sense of foreboding even within our family as he and Aunt Jackie prepared for the trip. Jack made an unscheduled trip to Cape Cod to say goodbye to my ailing grandfather. The night before the trip, Mummy found Jack distant and brooding at a dinner for the Supreme Court Justices. He was very fond of Mummy, but for the first time ever, he looked right through her.
Jack's death forced a national bout of self-examination. In 1964, Americans repudiated the forces of right-wing hatred and violence with an historic landslide in the presidential election between LBJ and Goldwater. For a while, the advocates of right-wing extremism receded from the public forum. Now they have returned with a vengeance -- to the broadcast media and to prominent positions in the political landscape.
Gabrielle Giffords lies in a hospital room fighting for her life, and a precious nine-year-old girl is dead along with five others. Let's pray for them and for our country and hope this tragedy prompts another round of examination of conscience.
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