Summer 2000, Vol. 32, No. 2
The Hours before Dallas:
A Recollection by President Kennedy's Fort Worth Advance Man, Part 2
By Jeb Byrne
© 2000 by Jeb Byrne
Before leaving Washington, I had received the name of a Fort Worth attorney, David O. Belew, Jr., who was to be my local contact with Governor Connally. After leaving Raymond Buck's office, I went to see Belew at his office. He told me that his wife, Marjorie, was a Democratic state committeewoman and that both of them were being badgered by people seeking more information about the President's activities while in Fort Worth. He mentioned that many party regulars were indignant because of the visit's format, which they said seemed designed to keep the President away from rank-and-file Democrats. The Belews invited me to their home that night to meet with them and other interested parties whom they would assemble to discuss the President's visit.
The "others" at the Belew home, in addition to the pajama-clad Belew children who ducked in and out of the living room, were Garrett Morris, a Democratic state committeeman who was also introduced to me as a manager of Governor Connally's last campaign; Tarrant County Democratic Chairman William Potts; union representatives Garland Ham of the United Auto Workers and John Heath of the International Association of Machinists; and public relations practitioner Bill Haworth. The group was unanimous in pressing for increased public exposure of the President while in Fort Worth. Proposals were made that in addition to his chamber of commerce address, the President speak to a public gathering either in the parking lot next to the Hotel Texas, or four blocks from the hotel at Burnett Park (where he had spoken as a candidate in 1960), or at Carswell Air Force Base following the breakfast and before boarding Air Force One for Dallas. A fourth suggestion was for an extended motorcade "up and down the main streets."
I was a good listener. And in the following days it became clear that the gathering at the Belews' home had assessed accurately the widespread dissatisfaction among Democrats at the format of the presidential visit. As my name and mission became more widely known, the telephone in my hotel room rang with complaints. Labor leaders particularly were incensed by chamber of commerce sponsorship of the breakfast. I discussed the problem with Buck, and he assured me that he had no objection to a separate, public appearance of the President as long as it did not interfere with the nonpartisanship of the breakfast to which he had been committed before I came to town. I immediately passed along to Washington the suggestions that I had received, my own observations, and a recommendation that the President's schedule be revised to include a public appearance outside the hotel at which he would speak at least briefly.
In the next few days I began to receive overt reminders from Austin, the state capital, that the conflict between Governor Connally and Senator Yarborough had not appreciably diminished and was not being put aside for the presidential visit. First, it was a message that the governor wanted this order for the motorcade in Fort Worth:
Vice President's car
Senator Yarborough's car
Then there was a request from Austin that congressmen and senators be seated on the breakfast dais at a lower level than the President, vice president and governor. Connally aide Scott Sayers came to Fort Worth and asked me how these requests were faring. I told him that normal political protocol would be followed in Fort Worth. There were no repercussions-at least that I knew about. I had cleared my response with Washington before making it.
About this time, Bill Turner, exalted ruler of Fort Worth Lodge 124 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, appeared on the scene representing Senator Yarborough. Turner said the senator had instructed him to see that protocol was "strictly followed" on the Fort Worth leg of the trip. "If that means equal treatment," I told him, "the senator will get it." Later, as the dates approached for the presidential visit, Turner came to the hotel and showed me a telegram he had received after reporting to the senator's Washington office on the Fort Worth arrangements. Dated November 19, it read:
Seating, cars, head tables perfectly satisfactory.
Please do not object or complain, it is 100% perfect.
As to stopping at Elks lodge, will see what can be done.
The reference to the Elks lodge was an example of the many kinds of requests advance men receive for special appearances or actions by a President in a locality where preparations are being made for a presidential visit. This time, Yarborough's comment was in response to Turner's request that the President visit Turner's fraternal lodge and present it with an American flag. Turner pressed for such a presentation up to the time of the President's visit, but his request could not be accommodated.
The tempo of the final days before the President's arrival accelerated. I began to be in regular telephone contact with Bill Moyers, then-deputy director of the Peace Corps, who had been sent from Washington to Austin as an on-the-scene coordinator for the trip. His mission, I gathered, was to try to reduce discord in the planning process.
|(Courtesy of J. E. Byrne)|
I also had become, perforce, a ticket distribution agency. Twelve hundred tickets ultimately had been set aside for chamber of commerce members. The news that Jacqueline Kennedy would accompany the President on the trip had stimulated ticket sales to chamber members and their spouses. Buck kept control of the rest of the tickets. With his cooperation— we got along amiably— I allocated and distributed 550 tickets to various groups and persons outside the chamber's circle, requiring lists of names of those who were to receive the tickets.
While meeting with a labor delegation in my room at the Hotel Texas, I expressed concern about the extent of black attendance at the breakfast. One of the union leaders present told me that despite what I might have heard about the attendance of black persons "there will be damn few unless somebody does something." I asked if anyone knew the number of black people living in Tarrant County. When the figure seventy thousand was offered, I asked for the name of a leader in the black community. The name of Dr. Marion Brooks was suggested. As the labor delegation was going out the door, I was on the telephone with Dr. Brooks and with his assistance placed forty tickets directly with black people— in addition to those who might be included through labor and other connections.
With Latinos, I nearly struck out. The day before the breakfast, the county sheriff telephoned and said that a young man on his staff by the name of Jake Cardenas headed a local unit of the Political Organization of Spanish-Speaking People and was hurt that no one had made a move to involve his group in the breakfast event. I immediately talked to Cardenas and apologized.
"I didn't think of it," I said.
He was polite, but his voice was numb. "Nobody does."
I felt like kicking myself all the way back to Maine, where I had abandoned wire service journalism for politics and government. Although the ticket barrel was at rock bottom, I succeeded in retrieving ten tickets, which he picked up.
While I was engaged with my set of problems, Duncan, Hall, and Howard went about their business of providing for the safety of the President while he was in Fort Worth. They met with law enforcement agencies that would be involved in the visit, checked the backgrounds of hotel employees and others who would be in close contact with the presidential party, "ran out" and timed motorcade routes and alternatives, made arrangements for tight security on the President's quarters in the hotel, and went through the numerous other rituals peculiar to their calling. At night, we met to compare notes.
I also took the time to walk around downtown Fort Worth and get the feel of the city. On one walk, enticed by a sale, I entered a hat store and came out with a Stetson. I tried to appear accustomed to wearing this Western headgear but probably fooled no one. On my rambles I dropped in twice to The Cellar, a below-the-street place near the hotel, where strange drinks without alcohol were served to the heavy thrum of drums and guitars. The preferred dress style was 1960s Beatnik. The din did not encourage lengthy stays by visitors with unconditioned ears.
The Secret Service agents and I went out to Carswell Air Force Base for a meeting with the commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Howard W. Moore. He contended that because Carswell was a Strategic Air Command base, the public would not be able to enter to observe the President's arrival and departure. I argued that an exception should be made, that it was a highly unusual occasion, and that the people of the Fort Worth area should have the opportunity to see their President come and go. Eventually, Carswell was opened to the public for the visit; no doubt weightier voices than mine were responsible for the reversal of the original, negative decision that I had reported to Washington.
Was it inexperience as an advance man—this was my first presidential advance—or a sense that the Fort Worth arrangements were more accommodating to business interests than to the working man that led me to acquiesce so quickly in one demand by the local labor leadership?
I had made provision for O. C. Yancey, Jr., president of the Tarrant County AFL-CIO, and his wife to represent labor on the reception and departure committees at the airport as well as at the head table for the breakfast. Suddenly, at a meeting in my hotel room, the labor leadership threatened to boycott the breakfast unless other Tarrant County union officials and their wives had the opportunity to meet the Kennedys. Although it was unlikely that the threat would be carried out, I gave in. An elongated reception committee greeted the presidential party on the night of November 21 and, as a departure committee, said farewell in the late morning of November 22. In the serpentine line, as I recall, were Raymond Buck and several other chamber of commerce officials, the Democratic state committeeman and committeewoman, General Moore, the mayor of Fort Worth, the Tarrant County administrative judge, the enlarged delegation from the county's AFL-CIO, and spouses of many of the members of this committee that welcomed and bid farewell to the Kennedys at Carswell.
The prudent presidential advance man tries to avoid getting his name in news reports. Announcements of arrangements are best left to the White House, members of Congress, and local leaders. But sometimes it is unavoidable. For instance, following the session with labor leaders that had ended with me on the telephone to Dr. Brooks, the Fort Worth Star Telegram ran a front-page story headlined "Negroes Invited to Breakfast for JFK" in its November 20 edition. An unnamed "organized labor spokesman" was credited with prodding "one of the White House aides at the Hotel Texas" into issuing invitations to black people. Reporters, of course, sought out the "aides" who were doing such things. Identified, I was contacted by reporters seeking the latest information about the coming presidential visit. On the subject of invitations to blacks to attend the breakfast, I was quoted in the November 21 Star Telegram as affirming my role but pointing out as well that "Mr. Buck was interested in getting an across-the-board turnout of Fort Worth at the breakfast."
Representative Jim Wright, the future Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives who was Fort Worth's congressman, moved into the hotel a few rooms down the hall from mine. He was constantly on the telephone, although we found time now and then to talk about arrangements. The young and personable Wright worked diligently for White House approval of a public appearance by the President in addition to the breakfast speech. I suspect that the acceptance by the White House of a revision in the President's schedule to permit a short talk to the public in the parking lot in front of the hotel owed much to the congressman's advocacy. Moreover, as Wright notes his 1996 book Balance of Power (p. 104), he and Governor Connally had to work hard to convince oilman William A. Moncrief, who owned the city block that included the parking lot, to allow the area to be used for the President's public appearance. Wright says that although the first reaction of Moncrief, no Kennedy supporter, was to decline the request, he "finally relented."
Overall schedules of the Texas trip were appearing in the newspapers for the last few days before the visit. On November 19 the Fort Worth newspapers published a map of the routes the President's motorcade would take, coming and going, between Carswell Air Force Base and the Hotel Texas. I worked with local organizations to encourage crowd turnout. High school bands were asked to play along the presidential route. Local art lovers furnished the Kennedy suite in the hotel with original paintings and sculptures. Raymond Buck obtained through me the hat and shoe sizes of President Kennedy so that a Texas hat and boots could be presented to him. I was aware of the President's aversion to hats, gift or otherwise, but let Raymond Buck convince me that such a presentation was a Texas custom and would do no harm.
After all, the President didn't have to wear the gifts.
I am indebted to Mike Howard, a retired Secret Service agent who lives in McKinney, Texas, for sharing with me details of some of the security measures taken for President Kennedy's visit to Fort Worth. Howard, from the service's Dallas office, notes that agent Duncan had assigned him as "law enforcement liaison." He visited Fort Worth Police Chief Cato Hightower to advise him of "what was about to fall upon him." Howard sought the chief's help in viewing records of persons in the area who might be threats to the presidential party. He says that thirty people were detained or placed under surveillance. The agent then called on Tarrant County Sheriff Lon Evans to contact all law enforcement agencies in the county to tell them "we needed every body that wore a badge to work November 21 and 22." The call was answered. Even firemen turned out, many of them assigned to posts in the hotel's exits and stairwells.
Howard says that every floor and window in a tall building facing the parking lot where the President was to speak on Friday morning was thoroughly checked. Occupants were asked to keep their windows closed on November 21 - 22, but on Thursday afternoon a policeman spotted an open window on an upper floor. Howard says that two teenage boys in a law office were using a scope to get a closer look at preparations in the parking lot. The problem was that the scope was mounted on a hunting rifle belonging to the father of one of the boys, an attorney in the office. The rifle, taken from an office gun case, was not loaded. It was determined that innocent curiosity had compelled the boys to take a magnified look at the parking lot activity through the scope. The father was notified and the weaponry in the office safely locked up. Howard also remembers that in another of his Secret Service capacities, protecting the nation's currency, he had to shut down the business of an entrepreneur who, from a table in the hotel lobby, was selling one-dollar bills with a picture of President and Mrs. Kennedy pasted over George Washington's image.
As time went on, two more telephones were installed in my hotel room. The constant ringing of three telephones made the place resound like the inside of a campanile, so I called for assistance. Ross Wilder, on the staff of the Dallas office of the General Services Administration, the agency for which I then was a political appointee in Washington, came over to Fort Worth on November 21 and again on November 22 to help me answer the calls.
On November 21, Thursday, the two of us ate a late dinner and drove to Carswell, where Air Force One was to land shortly after 11 p.m. Streams of cars were entering the gates. As arrival time approached, I lined up the welcoming committee in a hangar and led the long column outside to the light-splashed apron. The blue and white Boeing 707 landed and taxied. The waiting crowd cheered wildly as the pilot of the aircraft, which was marked with the American flag and the presidential seal, cut the plane's engines. The presidential party came down the steps and went through the receiving line. Marjorie Belew handed Mrs. Kennedy a dewy armful of three dozen roses. The President and Mrs. Kennedy moved toward the fences. Cheers rose to a roar. Hands reached for theirs. There were laughter and shouts and a crescendo of cheers as they walked the fences, then entered their car. The motorcade began to move. Wilder and I got into our car and headed for the Hotel Texas.
Downtown Fort Worth was alive with lights and people. After the Kennedys had arrived and had gone to their suite, and the crowd in the hotel lobby had begun to clear, I went up to the President's floor to report to Kenneth P. O'Donnell, the President's appointments secretary and final arbiter of advance arrangements. O'Donnell was standing in a doorway, laughing at the antics of another presidential aide, the ebullient David Powers, who was clowning inside their suite. O'Donnell looked at me.
"Why," he asked, "did the congressmen have to wait at the desk in the lobby instead of being escorted to their rooms when the motorcade got here?"
I told him it was a detail that had not occurred to me. I must have looked abashed because he followed up his abrupt greeting with "Well, it's okay. Everything's fine."
We talked about the morning program, and then I went downstairs to my room. It was after midnight. Passing a mirror, I noticed that I was still wearing the new Stetson that I had donned to go to the airport. I had a belated feeling that this hat was not the proper headgear for a Kennedy advance man to wear when talking shop with Kenny O'Donnell of Massachusetts, a man known for his political toughness as well as his devotion to JFK, on a trip beset by a Texas-sized political problem that clearly was interfering with the main purpose.
Despite O'Donnell's remark about the delay in getting the congressmen to their rooms, I was encouraged by the outcome of the visit thus far. The airport crowd had been large and enthusiastic, streets had been lined despite the late hour, the breach between Connally/Johnson and Yarborough had not been in evidence, and the presidential party was safely in the hotel. I was tired, though, and anxious about the morning events to come. I went to bed, declining an invitation to visit the Fort Worth Press Club, which was staying open late for the benefit of visiting journalists. Just as well. Among those who did go to the press club were some off-duty members of the Secret Service who had just arrived from Washington. A few also visited The Cellar, the aforementioned nightspot. After the Dallas catastrophe, they were pilloried by Drew Pearson, one of the most influential syndicated columnists of the day, for drinking and keeping late hours on a presidential trip. However, there was no evidence at all of extensive drinking by agents of the Secret Service. As one agent told me, they were much more interested in getting a bite to eat than a drink. Meals for Secret Service agents on presidential trips could be erratic.