The fateful politics of November 22, 1963

JFK was in Dallas that day to pave the way for a smooth reelection in 1964

November 22, 2013|By Jules Witcover

Among the greatest ironies of President John F. Kennedy's fateful visit to Texas in late November 1963 was that it was a political mission to resolve a rift among Texas Democrats looking toward his own re-election bid in 1964.

The chief political beneficiary of Kennedy's assassination was the state's most prominent and powerful Democrat, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

LBJ did not favor the Kennedy trip and essentially was bypassed on the decision to make it. Until the fatal shots were fired as the Kennedy party was driven through downtown Dallas, the principal story line about the visit was whether a feud between liberal Texas Sen. Ralph Yarborough and Gov. John B. Connally, a close Johnson friend, could be smoothed over, to assure Kennedy's re-election in 1964.

Much of the political maneuvering involved trying to put a conciliatory face on the trip by having the irascible Yarborough ride with Johnson in the same motorcade limousine. Yarborough went out of his way to avoid it, to the point that Kennedy himself was obliged to order his top White House aides to see that it happened.

Just as Texas had been considered critical to JFK's election chances in 1960 (to the point that he took LBJ as his running mate), so it would be in 1964, and that is what drew Kennedy to make the late November trip. At his strong urging, his wife Jacqueline agreed to accompany him even though hitting the campaign trail was not one of her favorite pastimes.

Johnson had his last meeting with Kennedy in a Houston hotel suite and, according to William Manchester's exhaustive account in "The Death of a President: November 1963," Jackie in an adjoining room heard raised voices. When LBJ left, she entered the room and asked her husband: "What was that all about? He sounded mad."

The president replied: "That's just Lyndon. He's in trouble." Jackie, according to Manchester, "on a sudden impulse ... blurted out" that she disliked Connally. Kennedy tried to cool her down, finally saying, "But for heaven's sakes, don't get a thing on him, because that's what I came down here to heal. I'm trying to start by getting two people in the same car. If they start hating, nobody will ride with anybody."

But Yarborough refused to play ball. At a San Antonio stop, he balked again, and when the party got to Dallas, Secret Service Agent Rufus Youngblood, trying to steer him into LBJ's car, told him: "You were supposed to be with the vice president in San Antonio, Senator, and you're supposed to be there here, too."

But Yarborough brushed him off: "I'm riding with my wife if that's all right with you." The agent persisted, telling him "you're scheduled to ride in the vice president's car for the rest of the trip." The agent told Johnson: "I've bugged him enough." When the story of Yarborough's refusal appeared in a Dallas paper, according to Manchester, Kennedy instructed his aides that "either he rode with Lyndon or he walked."

When JFK encountered the senator himself, he reportedly told him: "For Christ's sake, cut it out, Ralph," and again ordered aide Larry O'Brien: "Get him in the car!" O'Brien finally grabbed Yarborough and shoved him into the LBJ limo next to Lady Bird Johnson in the rear seat.

In Dallas, the ambitious and strong-willed Connally rode in the passenger front seat of the presidential car with John and Mrs. Kennedy in the rear seat. He was seriously wounded in the shooting but survived. He later defected to the Republican Party, where he eventually served as secretary of the treasury in the presidency of Richard Nixon, who for a time considered making him his running mate in his 1972 re-election campaign.

Thus were shoddy political considerations the catalyst for perhaps America's most shocking and momentous public event of the 20th century. It left the legacy of John F. Kennedy the subject of endless speculation and dispute thereafter. Historians had to settle for his roughly thousand days in the Oval Office on which to make their appraisal, which continues to this day, half a century later.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is
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