LBJ and Dallas's Mink Coat Mob
November 4, 1960, four days before the presidential election, LBJ travels to Dallas in a last-ditch effort to carry his home state. He is greeted at his hotel on Commerce Street by a group of angry protesters brought together by Republican Congressman Bruce Alger. The crowd, mostly women, is largely made up of Dallas high society—city leaders’ wives and daughters, former debutantes, and members of the Junior League. Several are wearing fur coats purchased at Nieman Marcus, just down the street. Onlookers joke that the unlikely gathering looks like a mink coat mob.
As the Johnson motorcade speeds into Downtown Dallas, escorted by motorcycle-riding policemen, one of the cops signals to LBJ’s driver.
“They’re having a little disturbance at the Baker Hotel,” the policeman says coolly.
The convoy decides to avoid the Baker’s front entrance and instead pulls to a side street.
Out in front of the hotel, Bruce Alger is whipping up the crowd: If Khrushchev could vote, he’d choose Kennedy-Johnson!
His women shout their agreement. Suddenly, someone yells that the Johnsons have been spotted, and the group rushes toward the black Lincoln.
As Johnson steps out of the car, a look of utter dismay washes over his hangdog face. Dozens of Alger’s Tag Girls are running toward him. They are screaming: “TRAITOR!” “JUDAS!”
The mob lurches to a halt just a few feet short of Johnson, jeering at him.
He turns to his wife, Lady Bird, helping her as she gingerly steps onto the sidewalk. She is fastidiously attired, wearing a lovely red suit from Neiman Marcus. She has a pair of white gloves in one hand. She stares at the protesters and seems to almost freeze.
She knows that her husband isn’t popular in Dallas. But she has always imagined the city to be a bastion of Southern gentility, possessed by a kind of Christian civility and even entrepreneurial formality. Now she is facing women of her same social class, and yet they are screaming red-faced insults at her and her husband.
The Johnsons and the protesters regard each other for a moment. Suddenly, one of the Tag Girls darts up and yanks Lady Bird’s gloves away, throwing them in the gutter. The women let out a cheer and begin pressing closer to the Johnsons.
Shouts fill the street. Two Dallas police officers and LBJ’s bodyguard encircle the couple, pushing the angry women out of the way. The Johnson group bustles its way into the Baker, with some of the Tag Girls in pursuit. They jeer, boo, and push against Johnson’s entourage as the senator aims for the hotel elevators.
When the elevator doors open, LBJ whirls to face the mob. He raises his hand and, almost oddly, it goes quiet.
He says: “I recognize that many of you are Republicans, and you have every right to be.”
From the crowd, a mocking voice emerges: “Louder!”
Johnson looks at the picket signs, the flushed faces: “I have many friends who are sincere and committed Republicans.”
The boos erupt again, echoing across the marble floors of the old hotel: “Socialist! Pinko!”
Finally, Johnson and his wife retreat into the open elevator. Johnson stares back at the women and summons his most commanding voice: “You ought to be glad you live in a country where you have the legal right to boo and hiss at a man who is running for the vice presidency of the United States.”
For a second, the mob seems stilled. Then someone in the back screams out: “Louder and funnier, Lyndon!”
Cheers and laughter bounce around the hotel lobby as the elevator doors close.
In the hotel suite, the frazzled Johnsons try to assess what the hell just happened to them in downtown Dallas. The campaign has been brutally intense, the rhetoric even more polarizing in the last week. Everyone is on edge, but this mob anger from Dallas’s leading citizens is surreal.
Johnson and his aides review the logistics: He is scheduled to go across the street to give a speech at the equally famous and plush Hotel Adolphus in fifteen minutes. Everyone knows that he will have to brave a gauntlet to get there. Should he even go? No one has to remind Johnson of the obvious. There is no choice.
There is a knock at the door. Johnson’s old friend Stanley Marcus walks in, visibly flustered. The well-dressed Marcus had walked excitedly over from Neiman Marcus to personally greet the Johnsons—but then he witnessed the sudden ambush.
Normally unflappable, Marcus is shaking. He has been very quietly supporting the Kennedy-Johnson ticket—and walking a fine line between his political inclinations and avoiding antagonizing his most prized customers. Yet he’s just seen his best customers, women who are personal friends, or daughters of good friends, many wearing mink coats that he has personally sold to them, and they all have come completely unhinged and are screaming at their senator…maybe the next vice president of the United States.
As Marcus tries to calm himself, there is another knock on the hotel suite. A Dallas policeman enters and quickly outlines the situation: The ranks of protesters are swelling, and Commerce Street is now crammed full of people waiting for the Johnsons. The women have been joined by dozens of businessmen on their lunch hour, drawn by the spectacle they can see from their office windows.
All eyes turn to Lady Bird as she says she is not going to cross that street; she is staying in the room.
The policeman suggests a plan. He and other officers can sneak the Johnsons out a side door of the Baker and into the Adolphus through a back door.
Johnson doesn’t like the idea: “We will walk straight through the shouting crowd. We will contrast their boorishness with our civility. And I do not want a police escort.”
Then Johnson turns to the cop: “If it has come to the point in America where a citizen cannot walk a public street with his lady without being accosted, then I want to know it.”
With Lady Bird on his arm, Johnson steps grandly out of the suite, followed by his campaign aides and Stanley Marcus.
A thunderstorm of boos erupts as the elevator doors open to reveal the Johnsons. Hecklers fall in behind them, jeering as the Johnsons stolidly walk out the front door and onto Commerce Street.
Once the Johnsons appear, it is as if an electric current snakes through the streets. Alger’s women are bustling, waving signs, yelling louder. The crowd seems to be getting bigger, angrier. If John F. Kennedy’s triumphant motorcade a few weeks earlier summoned Dallas’s sunny side, Lyndon Johnson is now running into a full-fledged thunderstorm.
Catcalls cascade over the street. Some hear curses. The placards are being stabbed in the air: TEXAS TRAITOR. JUDAS JOHNSON: TURNCOAT TEXAN. LET’S BEAT JUDAS.
Alger stands a head taller than everyone around him. His sign reads: LBJ SOLD OUT TO YANKEE SOCIALISTS.
The crowd forms a rolling circle around the Johnsons. Someone swings a sign in close to Lady Bird’s head, brushing against her hat. The reddened faces are closing in. LBJ clutches his wife.
Another voice shouts: “Judas!”
Alger can be heard yelling: “We’re gonna show Johnson he’s not wanted in Dallas.”
One of Johnson’s party pushes desperately through the crowd, aiming for Alger: “It’s out of line for a U.S. Congressman to take part in this. Put a stop to this.”
Alger responds loud enough for his supporters to hear him: “I don’t think it’s rude to show a socialist and traitor what you think of him.”
Off to the side, Stanley Marcus watches in horror. He is devastated. He feels like every shout of traitor or Judas is aimed at him as well.
Marcus always had a vision for Dallas—a place of taste, culture, and refinement in the heart of Texas. A place where reason, art, and insight were the outgrowths of so much money pooling in one place on the planet. It would be a sort of beau ideal, a place where people relish and celebrate and share the finest things humankind can create.
In the background are the second-floor dives where $2 would earn you admission to one of nightclub owner Jack Ruby’s “exotic dance” joints. Down the block you could see the faint curl of the polluted Trinity River—and beyond it what some say are the worst inner-city slums in America.
Perhaps the gallant veneer Marcus has cultivated so assiduously for Dallas is dissolving right before his eyes, right here on Commerce Street. Right now he knows what is happening: Longtime customers are spotting him and they are already deciding to close their charge accounts at his store.
Inside the Adolphus, the swanky Beaux-Arts hotel built by the founders of Anheuser-Busch, the gleaming wood-and-brass lobby is packed with sign-waving protesters. It is another gauntlet. There is shoving, jockeying, and elbows are flying. Some people are pulling off their Nixon buttons and using the pins to stab at the handful of pro-LBJ supporters. Two women from the Kennedy-Johnson campaign are clutching their faces, pressing their hands to their broken noses. Other people are limping, being helped outside and to hospitals.
Reporters and photographers push in to get a better view. The local NBC-TV affiliate, tipped off to Alger’s protest, has already set up a camera to capture the melee.
At six feet, four inches, Johnson towers over most of the throng in the normally hushed lobby. He can see the flashbulbs popping. He can see the eye of the television camera taking everything in. In an instant, just as the storm seems its darkest, his political instincts kick in. Johnson understands political theater. Suddenly, he orders the police to stand aside and waves at his aides and bodyguards to get out of the way.
A woman holding a LET’S GROUND LADY BIRD sign jabs at Mrs. Johnson’s face.
Some are spitting. Johnson looks at the contorted faces and Lady Bird flinches. Suddenly, she loses composure and begins shouting back at the crowd, but her husband quickly presses his smothering hand over her face. He leans close to her ear.
“Let’s just let them do all the hollering,” he says.
With his arm securely around his wife, Lyndon Johnson assumes a pious look of supreme martyrdom as the couple inches forward, toward the elevator that will take them to the second-floor ballroom.
Lady Bird realizes what is happening. Her husband is purposely slowing down, allowing the crowd to press in to them. He’s a big man and could force his way through if he wanted to.
Johnson knows what the television images will show: the helpless vice presidential candidate and his demure wife trapped by an angry horde of hissing and spitting protesters.
As the mob closes in and the cameras click and whir, Johnson thinks of how the images will play on the television screens at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. No one can blame him now for losing Texas—not when they see just how crazed some of the people in his home state really are.
One of LBJ’s aides is a young Baptist minister named Bill Moyers. He understands exactly what Johnson is doing. “If he could have thought this up, he would have thought it up. Tried to invent it.”
Within hours, television newscasts around the nation are running footage showing Dallas’s best-dressed citizens rioting against Lyndon B. Johnson and his frightened wife. The images of Lady Bird being jeered at by Nixon supporters are particularly disturbing—especially egregious in the South, in places where attacking a candidate’s wife is considered truly off limits. The New York Times begins reporting that new signs are already appearing at campaign rallies: THE REPUBLICANS DECIDED FOR ME TODAY: I’M FOR KENNEDY AND JOHNSON.
And when reporters ask him to react to the uncontrolled mayhem in the finest hotels in the city of Dallas, Johnson summons some righteous indignation:
“No man is afraid to facing up to such people. But it is outrageous that in a large civilized city a man’s wife can be subjected to such treatment. Republicans are attacking the women, and the children will probably be next.”
The backlash against Dallas was just the beginning.
With only two days to the presidential election, Democrats feverishly circulate handbills featuring a photo of Bruce Alger at the protest, and prominent but reluctant Republicans are being forced to condemn the outburst. Momentum bleeds from the Nixon campaign, and Alger suddenly finds himself on the defensive. Perhaps he has unwittingly unleashed something welling, something ugly inside of Dallas that even he didn’t realize was there.
Alger decides to announce—in the newspaper, in a paid ad—that he personally witnessed no really unruly behavior. He is a Princeton man, after all, and he offers his “sincere apology” to Lady Bird in case she felt threatened by his supporters.
But he refuses to apologize to LBJ: “The sign I picked up and held aloft expressed my feelings precisely.”
In Dallas, the women who had formed his army are equally steadfast. One of them, a Dallas housewife, tells the Dallas Morning News:
“LBJ deserves a lot worse than he got.”
On November 8, Americans retire for the night not knowing who their next president will be. It is one of the closest presidential elections in the nation’s history. The final numbers come down to Illinois and Texas. By morning, the fog has cleared, and John F. Kennedy has carried Illinois by the slimmest of totals, thanks to some suspicious late returns from the Democratic-controlled Chicago region that he visited the same day LBJ went to Dallas.
Richard M. Nixon carries Dallas by nearly a two-to-one margin—his largest victory in any city in the country. But in the rest of Texas, the Kennedy-Johnson ticket stages a dramatic come-from-behind win, beating Nixon by a scant forty-six thousand votes.
The triumph in Texas seals John F. Kennedy’s election—and an irony begins to emerge:
Kennedy is being sent to the White House because of Dallas, Texas. Because a brawling mob in Dallas led last-minute voters to suddenly throw their support to Kennedy and Johnson.
Nixon watched and knew it: “We lost Texas…because of that asshole congressman, you know.”
It is, for many in Dallas, almost too much to bear.
The November attempt to crush Kennedy in Dallas has catapulted him to the presidency of the United States.
Excerpted from the book Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis. Copyright 2013 Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis. Reprinted by permission of Twelve. All rights reserved.
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