Defaming Dallas

At the same time President Obama was giving his talk to police officers and others in Dallas last week, I was a block away talking to lawyers and judges of the Dallas Bar Association. I was surprised anyone made it through the traffic cordon, but there was a good turn out in large part because I was talking about a subject that had suddenly become poignantly relevant. I was discussing my new book, The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle that Brought Down the Klan.

I spent most of my time talking about the 1981 killing in Mobile, Alabama of nineteen-year-old Michael Donald. At one point, I said that I wanted to talk a moment about something else. I explained how I had written three books on the Kennedys, and it was so extraordinary that twice in my lifetime Dallas should be the center of a tragedy truly not of its making.

The caricature of the Texas city after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 is one of the more shameful episodes in contemporary American journalism. It involves two of the most famous names in my profession: Dan Rather and William Manchester. They were both ambitious young men who used the death of President Kennedy as a device to catapult them to fame and fortune.

When Kennedy was shot, Rather rushed to the local CBS bureau where the correspondent went on the air immediately and stayed there as much as he could. He had heard a story that the students at University Park Elementary School had cheered and applauded when told the president had been assassinated. Eddie Barker, the news director at the CBS affiliate, had children at the school. He checked it out and it wasn't true, and he told Rather so.

According to Barker, the man who would become the anchor of the CBS Evening News said he would forget the story. Instead, he rushed on the air live telling a tale that seemed to confirm northern prejudices about a southern city and helped cement the idea that Dallas was another country in which even little children were taught to hate the president of the United States.

By the time William Manchester began researching The Death of a President, his authorized account of the last days of the 35th president of the United States, millions of Americans recoiled at the mention of the name of the Texas city. It was bizarre. No one suggested that Washington, D.C. murdered Abraham Lincoln or Los Angeles killed Bobby Kennedy, but Dallas took out John F. Kennedy.

Manchester, a talented and vivid writer, cemented that idea in the minds of Americans for a generation. In Manchester's epic, it is as if Dallas itself is the murderer. The author kills Dallas with innuendo. He tells us the city "had a history of ugly incidents" involving right-wingers attacking liberal Democratic members of the administration. UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been assaulted on a visit, and Stevenson "had been shocked by the current of hatred in Dallas. He seriously wondered whether the President should go there."

As we read on, we know the beloved President will meet his inevitable end in the evil city. It doesn't matter that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was a recent arrival to Dallas and could have performed his nefarious act anywhere. Or if one chooses to believe any of the myriad conspiracy theories, none of them have anything to do with Dallas other than as a convenient location for the crime.

The murder of five police officers by a fanatic in the streets of the city last week risked defaming Dallas's image all over again. But that isn't going to happen. Dallas has handled this terrible situation as well as it could be handled. It's a model for all of us. We have gotten to know and admire Police Chief David Brown and Mayor Mike Rawlings for their grace under pressure. But it isn't just then. In my two days in Dallas, it was almost everyone I met.