'Nut Country' 48 Years Later

"We're heading into nut country today," President John F. Kennedy said to his wife on the morning of November 22, 1963, in the third year of his presidency, as he showed her an ad, bordered in the black of a funeral announcement, that the John Birch Society had placed in the Dallas Morning News, indicating that the Kennedys were pro-communist. "But, Jackie, if somebody wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?"

On this, the November 22nd of the third year of another President who has been demonized by some of the same forces of hate that demonized Kennedy, it is troubling to realize just how nutty large numbers of Americans are. What JFK said about Dallas on that fateful day 48 years ago can now be said about wide swaths of America (as, indeed, it could in 1963).

On Sunday, fans at a NASCAR event in Florida booed First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of the Vice President. Forwarded emails arrive daily saying that the president is all manner of evil things. The latest one to reach me is relatively mild in comparison with many of them. It says that Mr. Obama has cancelled National Prayer Day and prays with Muslims, but not with Christians.

And a deranged man who said that Barack Obama is the "Anti-Christ" or the devil fired an assault rifle at the White House on November 11.

Dallas did qualify as "nut country" in 1963. It was the home of Gen. Edwin Walker, who had been charged with insurrection against the United States during the riot over the integration of the University of Mississippi more than a year before. "Kennedy is a liability to the free world," Walker said not long before the President's scheduled trip to Walker's city. Adlai Stevenson had been loudly jeered and threatened physically by people associated with ultra-right wing groups during a visit to Dallas for United Nations Day a month before JFK's trip.

As far back as the 1960 campaign, a "mink coat mob" of right-wing high-society Dallas women led by Congressman Bruce Alger, then the only Republican in the Texas delegation, had given native Texan Lady Bird Johnson a similar treatment in and outside a Dallas hotel. Alger led the mob holding a sign reading "LBJ SOLD OUT TO YANKEE SOCIALISTS." One of the "ladies" pulled Lady Bird's white gloves out of her hands and threw them into a gutter. Then the well-heeled and high-heeled Junior League thugs encircled the vice-presidential candidate and his wife, jeering and cursing. One of these ladies of the right hit Mrs. Johnson over the head with a sign reading, "LET'S GROUND LADY BIRD" and then spit in her face. Primal rage was unmistakable on the faces of these Dallas matrons. "We're gonna show Johnson he's not wanted in Dallas," Representative Alger proudly proclaimed.

Nut country, indeed.

This is an appropriate day for considering how much of the United States today could accurately be classified as nut country -- and to remember the next time a vitriolic email with an admonishment to "forward this to 10 friends" arrives where such lies and hatred can lead.

Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm professor of arts & letters and Professor of History at Millsaps College, in Jackson, Miss. His books include The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. He is now writing "Oh, Freedom! -- The Young ' 60s."