The Hours before Dallas
A Recollection by President Kennedy's Fort Worth Advance Man
Summer 2000, Vol. 32, No. 2
By Jeb Byrne
© 2000 by Jeb Byrne
|Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy, and President Kennedy at the breakfast in Fort Worth's Hotel Texas on November 22, 1963. (NARA, Kennedy Library)|
In November of 1963, to seek support for New Frontier policies and with an eye on the 1964 elections, President John F. Kennedy set out on what was planned as a two-day, five-city tour of Texas.
Well before the President departed for Texas, advance men were dispatched from Washington to make on-the-scene preparations. Among them was Jeb Byrne, who had been serving as a political appointee in the General Services Administration since the Kennedy administration began in 1961.
Byrne, a ten-year veteran of wire service journalism who more recently had been press secretary to a Democratic governor of Maine, was assigned to Fort Worth. His mission was to make sure that the President's stay in Fort Worth went off without a hitch.
In an account written for Prologue, the author relates how the President spent his time in Fort Worth. Byrne also details the challenges he faced as the Fort Worth advance man in making logistical arrangements, handling requests for access to the President, and navigating the shoal waters of the then-dominant Texas Democratic party.
Byrne draws his account in part from papers and other materials he kept from his duty in Fort Worth. He has donated those materials to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, which is opening them on publication of this article.
Kennedy's stay in Fort Worth came off as planned. His work done, Byrne watched as the President took off in Air Force One for the thirteen-minute flight to Love Field in Dallas— and into the realms of history, legend, and speculation.
Here is an advance man's account of JFK's final hours:
In the early morning of November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy spoke in a light drizzle to a crowd assembled in a downtown Fort Worth parking lot, and then, shortly thereafter, to a dressier audience at a chamber of commerce breakfast in the ballroom of the adjacent Hotel Texas. Although the two events were similar to many other Kennedy public appearances, their evocation carries a special poignancy because they took place in the final hours of his presidency and his life.
As a bit player sent from Washington with responsibility for non-security preparations in Fort Worth, I had stood watchfully on the peripheries of both events. Arrangements for this part of a two-day presidential visit to Texas had been my concern since I arrived in Fort Worth and moved into the hotel ten days earlier.
The story of President Kennedy's Texas trip has been told many times, concentrating inevitably on the tragic denouement in Dallas. This account, however, is simply an advance man's perspective on President Kennedy's stay, and the preparations that preceded it, in neighboring Fort Worth. There, he spent his last night and, on the morning of the day of his assassination, made his last public appearances before his short flight to Love Field in Dallas and the fatal motorcade through that city's streets.
Most of what I relate comes from memory, bolstered by the long-preserved paper detritus that I had swept into a briefcase while vacating a hotel room in a time of turmoil: the President's itinerary, flight manifests, an annotated breakfast program, a letter to chamber of commerce members describing how to obtain tickets to the breakfast, partial lists of the names of people I had given tickets to the breakfast, odd scraps of paper bearing names and telephone numbers or scrawled notes, copies of progress reports on the Fort Worth advance, a map of the city, and yellowed newspaper clippings. This memory-reinforcing residue of paper was supplemented later by photographs that had been taken of the formation of the presidential motorcade in front of the Hotel Texas in the late morning of November 22 and by an unpublished summary of the Fort Worth presidential visit I had written while the events were still fresh in mind. Because what follows is an account rooted in memory, I have eschewed the use of endnotes. Copies of relevant materials have been deposited in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.
Involvement in President Kennedy's Texas trip had begun for the assigned Secret Service agents, specialists of the White House Communication Agency, and a handful of advance men—myself among them—on November 12, when we gathered at Andrews Air Force Base on the outskirts of Washington. There we boarded a plane for Texas, where we would prepare the way for President Kennedy's visits on November 21-22 to five cities: San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, and Austin— in that order. Although all events except a Democratic fundraising dinner in Austin were organized on a nonpartisan basis, the tour was widely viewed as a prelude to the President's impending campaign to win reelection the following year. The political ticket of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had barely carried Texas in 1960, and success in this state would be important again if they were to be reelected in 1964.
There had been uncertainty in the White House about the efficacy of the tour because of disarray at the top levels of the Texas Democratic Party. The animosity between Senator Ralph W. Yarborough and the state's two other leading Democrats, Governor John B. Connally and Vice President Johnson, was well known. But Kennedy decided to make the trip despite any misgivings he had about factionalism in the Texas Democratic Party and the deep-seated antipathy of some conservative Texans toward his administration.
Our small advance party for Fort Worth was the next to last group to be dropped off in its assigned city when the flight from Washington reached Texas. The others were: William L. Duncan, the lithe and intense twenty-eight-year-old lead Secret Service agent for the Fort Worth visit who was a member of the White House detail; Ned Hall, a second Secret Service agent from the White House detail; army Maj. Jack Rubley, who was operations officer of the White House Communications Agency (WHCA); and army Capt. Bill Harnett, who was junior to Rubley at WHCA. Rubley was along on the trip to give Harnett his "check ride" in performing WHCA's duties on an overnight presidential stay. The Secret Service agents would, of course, provide security for the President. The communication specialists would set up the traveling "electronic White House," which would keep members of the presidential party in quick touch with Washington, the wider world, and each other.
I was to handle other aspects of the advance. Nonsecurity aspects of presidential advancing were much less structured in the early 1960s than in later years. Beginning with President Richard M. Nixon's administration, a permanent office within the White House has had overall responsibility for advancing presidential trips. No such formal unit existed within the White House in 1963. Advance men usually were enlisted on an ad hoc basis for individual trips. I was borrowed for the Fort Worth assignment, willingly enough on my part, from my less exciting regular job in a federal agency.
In Fort Worth, we were met by agent Mike Howard from the Secret Service's Dallas office, who was to work with Duncan and Hall on presidential security. We checked into the Hotel Texas, ate steaks together in the Cattlemen's Restaurant, and exchanged notes on our plans for the next day. Rubley and Harnett would be conferring with their contact at Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. I asked Duncan and Hall to come with me in the morning to meet Raymond E. Buck, president of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, which was sponsoring the breakfast that was the central event of the presidential visit. After dinner on the night of our arrival, the agents and I drove around Fort Worth to familiarize ourselves with street patterns.
|The Fort Worth Star-Telegram announces Kennedy's arrival. (Courtesy of J. E. Byrne)|
The next morning, I wondered for a brief moment if Raymond Buck manufactured shovels. There was a row of them along a wall of his spacious, ground floor offices. But these were not fated to gouge dirt more than once. Each of them, painted and bearing a plaque, had been used in a groundbreaking ceremony for a new building. Lawyer, president of insurance companies, and a past Democratic state chairman, Buck was a big man with white hair curling down the back of his neck.
"I'm the last of the long-haired Texas politicians since Tom Connally died," he told us as we sat around a conference table. This was a reference to former Texas Democratic Senator Thomas Connally (no relation to Governor Connally), who had died a few weeks earlier and whose Senate seat, which he had vacated in 1953, was now held by Yarborough.
Buck said that he was a longtime friend of Lyndon Johnson's. We discussed the basic program for the presidential visit. He said he had been waiting for guidance from Washington before making final arrangements for the November 22 breakfast event. The grand ballroom of the Hotel Texas had been reserved, but no invitations or tickets had been issued. The ballroom would hold two thousand persons, including members of the working press who would not be eating. The chamber of commerce planned to send out a letter to its members inviting them to apply for tickets. Buck said that there were about three thousand members of the chamber, and he expected that at least one thousand tickets would be requested, half for members and half for spouses. He added that Governor Connally wanted two hundred to three hundred tickets, Congressman Jim Wright of Fort Worth sought between three hundred and four hundred, and Senator Yarborough was expected to ask for a sizable number. Moreover, organized labor, the Democratic county organization, and a state senator were seeking blocs of tickets, and it had been tentatively arranged to set aside fifty for local federal officials, fifty for county officials, and twenty-five for city officials.
Visualizing the quick disappearance of all the tickets, I made haste to enter a White House claim for at least two hundred. Buck nodded his agreement. The letter to chamber members would say that tickets would be limited and would have to be picked up on a first-come, first-served basis. Members of the chamber were to pay three dollars a ticket. Buck said that he and "several others" would pay for the rest of the tickets. At this point I inquired to what extent the breakfast would be integrated. Buck said he understood that about thirty of those attending on labor tickets would be black.
Although the chamber president had indicated that little had been done about arrangements, a basic program had been developed and a head table proposed, neither of which required radical changes. The breakfast guests were to be served starting at 8 a.m. and would be finished with their meals by the time the Kennedys arrived in the ballroom. The four-piece Jimmy Ravitta orchestra and the Texas Boys' Choir would perform. A long head table would accommodate heads of local governments, officials of the chamber of commerce, and a labor union representative, as well as the political personages from Washington and Austin. Spouses also would be seated at the head table. Tactfully, Buck had not attempted to name the person who would introduce the President.
"You do it," I told him.
After the meeting with Buck, the Secret Service agents began to make their contacts. I knew they were busy, but it was not until years later that I read agent Duncan's "Final Survey Report" in the National Archives and found that 508 persons had participated in security at the Fort Worth stop (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233, Washington, D.C.). The Fort Worth Police Department assigned 300 officers, the Carswell Air Force Base Police 80, the Tarrant County Sheriff's Department 60, and the Texas State Police 5. The Secret Service, including agents who traveled with the President and those in the advance party, had 32 on hand. The Fort Worth Fire Department and the River Oaks Police Department also contributed personnel.
A former journalist, Jeb Byrne (John E. Byrne) was an appointee in the General Services Administration during the Kennedy administration. Later he joined the federal career service. He retired after serving as director of the Federal Register, 1980 - 1988. A Ph.D. in American Studies, he was a Fulbright Scholar in New Zealand in 1989.
|Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.|