Dallas knew it had an image problem before President John F. Kennedy’s fateful visit on Nov. 22, 1963.
Dallas knew it had an image problem before President John F.
Kennedy’s fateful visit on Nov. 22, 1963.
By the early 1960s, the city’s pillars of industry began losing control
of the unlikely metropolis they had molded on the North Texas
Bucking the one-party Southern political tradition, Dallas elected
Republican Bruce Alger to Congress in 1952. Alger - a tall, handsome,
charismatic man - attracted a devoted following of well-to-do housewives
who latched onto his ultraconservative ideology. ’They knew just
enough ... to be completely intolerant of any other point of view,’
Neiman Marcus heir Stanley Marcus, then one of the city’s few vocal
liberals, observed in a 1995 oral history for the Dallas County
The always-conservative Dallas Morning News took a hard swing to the
right, and factions like the Birch Society and the National Indignation
Society flocked to the city, according to Warren Leslie’s 1964 book
Dallas Public and Private. Radical military retiree Maj. Gen. Edwin
Walker chose Dallas as his home base. In 1960, a downtown mob jeered and
spat upon Senator Lyndon Johnson. United Nations Ambassador Adlai
Stevenson received similar treatment during a UN visit in October
Some warned Kennedy against coming, fearing the extreme minority. But
the need for Texas votes outweighed any concerns. Dallasites saw
Kennedy’s visit as an opportunity to polish their tarnished national
Those who pulled the strings in Dallas belonged to the Citizens Council,
a group of businessmen with the authority to commit their company’s
resources to various projects. When the Citizens Council needed PR help,
they turned to Sam Bloom of the Bloom Advertising Agency.
Helen Holmes directed the agency’s PR division in 1963. In the three
weeks prior to Kennedy’s trip, Holmes tried to convince Dallas citizens
to put aside politics and embrace the president. A string of leaders
issued statements encouraging tolerance and warmth. Sheriff William
Decker was featured last, stressing that civil unrest would be dealt
City leaders suggested education as a safe banner for Kennedy to wave,
and Bloom hoped the first lady’s style would subdue radical but
fashion-conscious women. Holmes coordinated all the necessary media
The efforts appeared to pay off. Only a few detractors displayed
negative signs when Kennedy arrived and hundreds shook the president’s
hand over a chain-link fence.
’There were people who I’m sure wouldn’t vote for him who were out there
waving flags, standing 20 deep,’ she recalls. ’We really felt like we
had reached the real Dallas.’
Ironically, the man who gave Dallas its unfortunate ’City of Hate’ label
embraced extreme left-wing politics. Not only was Lee Harvey Oswald a
card-carrying member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, but subsequent
investigations linked him to an unsolved attempt on Walker’s life,
according to displays in the Sixth Floor Museum, which now occupies part
of the Texas School Book Depository.
Kennedy’s assassination elicited ’visceral PR’ instincts within Holmes,
she says. Holmes interpreted the gunshots as firecracker pops. Later,
she couldn’t bring herself to repeat that the president had been shot in
the head. ’I could not have this happen,’ she says. Back at the Trade
Mart, where more than 2,500 Dallasites had expected to lunch with the
Kennedys, Citizens Council president Erik Jonsson and leaders of other
host organizations drafted an empathetic statement that Holmes hand
delivered to the local media.
For days, weeks, even years, city leaders pondered how to salvage
Dallas’ image. ’The ideas varied ... from establishing scholarships to
employing a PR firm,’ Marcus told researchers. ’The point that I made
was that the best PR was what you did, not what you talked about.’ Yet
Marcus published a newspaper advertisement around New Year’s Day titled
’What’s Right With Dallas,’ which highlighted the city’s strong points
and called for an end to absolutism.
But the damage was too deep to repair, especially after Jack Ruby
murdered Oswald. ’Dallas drew into itself, stunned to find that we
weren’t going to be allowed to grieve with the rest of country,’ Holmes
says. Perhaps because the nation already held an extremist perception of
Dallas, or because of the nonstop live TV coverage, outsiders would
focus intense blame on the city.
Criminal proceedings against Ruby kept the international media lens
focused on Dallas. In an unusual and some believe unprecedented move,
Bloom volunteered the services of his agency to presiding Judge Joe
Brown. Reporters criticized the arrangement, and Ruby’s flamboyant
attorney, Melvin Belli, loudly attacked it. Pushing for a change of
venue, Belli claimed Bloom would handpick reporters who would present
Dallas favorably. On appeal, Ruby was granted a new trial and change of
venue, but he died in prison before being retried.
Holmes’ involvement was low-key but crucial. She set up a credential
system and pressroom for reporters and subtly gave media relations
counsel to the judge. City leaders wanted the trial confined to Brown’s
60-seat courtroom, but Holmes successfully lobbied for a larger one. ’I
wanted them in the courtroom working and not out looking under the
boards for another way to trash Dallas.’
Despite early skepticism, the Bloom Agency earned kudos for its work,
while the media turned a critical eye on itself. Against Holmes’ advice,
Brown agreed to allow cameras into the courtroom for the final
sentencing verdict. Network TV reporters practically rushed the bench,
and Belli shouted his disdain for Dallas.
JR and the Cowboys
Ultimately, a strong football team and a popular TV series would pull
Dallas’ image out of the gutter. Sixth Floor Museum communications
director Bob Porter said he noticed the turn in the early 1980s when,
while in Europe, someone asked him if he knew the fictional Ewing family
from the TV show Dallas.
Holmes, now retired and working on a PR mystery novel, also did what she
could in the ’80s to boost Dallas’ reputation. Her own PR agency worked
on the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. She realized most
national news organizations planned to play up the 20th anniversary of
Kennedy’s assassination. So, she teamed with Clyde Hopkins to put out a
fact book on Dallas a year early. Holmes advised Dallasites not to be
defensive. Response by visiting journalists was overwhelmingly positive,
Today, the world generally has absolved Dallas. Subsequent tragedies
have brought home the point that violence can happen anywhere.
’Gradually, people began to accept the fact that someone shot the
president, but it wasn’t Dallas that pulled the trigger,’ Holmes says.
’It took a long time.’