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Hugh Aynesworth on JFK 50th Event: ‘I Don’t Think the City Understands What’s Going to Happen’

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For whatever reason, the most interesting parts of Saturday’s Mayborn conference panel discussion on the Kennedy assassination were missing in this online account of the session by Chris Vognar. Hugh Aynesworth, a member of the panel who’d covered the assassination for the Dallas Morning News back in 1963, expressed his fear that November’s 50th anniversary memorial in Dealey Plaza will be disrupted in an outlandish manner by conspiracy theorists. (He also told why he doesn’t put much stock in conspiracy theories.) Aynesworth described a small but “mean” group of right-wingers here who hated JFK in the early ’60s, and author Ben Fountain—another member of the panel—said certain elements of that era continue to exist in Dallas.

Aynesworth, a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, said the right-wing group consisted of people like H.L. Hunt, the Dallas oil baron who “had all the money in Texas and a little more. They were paying other people to hate Kennedy. … It was a very small cadre, but it was mean.” Aynesworth explained how then-U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been roughed up earlier during an appearance in Dallas, and how Vice President Lyndon Johnson had been “spat on” at The Adolphus Hotel.

He also recalled the infamous anti-JFK ad that appeared in the DMN on Nov. 22, 1963. It cost $1,475 to place, he said, and the Dallas Times Herald had refused to run it. “The News was not that arch-conservative, except at the very top,” Aynesworth said. ” … There was a mood in this town that something’s gonna happen. I figured there would be some embarrassment.”

All the post-assassination conspiracy theories, Aynesworth said, were spurred in part by mistakes made during the killing’s original investigation. He said then-District Attorney Henry Wade provided the wrong name of a cab driver who’d driven Lee Harvey Oswald that day, for example. The murder rifle was misidentified early on. And FBI director J. Edgar Hoover gave out erroneous information as well, Aynesworth said.

“I’ve probably knocked down at least 50” conspiracy theories myself, he went on. “There are over 200 of them now. There are still questions …” However, Aynesworth concluded, “I don’t believe you could prove conspiracy by any stretch of the imagination. But I keep an open mind.”

Fountain had a different take.

“The first piece of fiction to come out after the assassination was the Warren Report,” the acclaimed author said. “The panel was tasked with finding Oswald as the lone shooter.” Fountain then named several books about the assassination that he admires—Strange Peaches by Bud Shrake, for instance; Libra by Don DeLillo—and told how, post-assassination, writers and others struggled to “think about America in a new way,” with more introspection and subtlety than had been characteristic of the “Eisenhower ’50s.”

However, he added, “a big part of America has continued to think that way … and I think that part of America gets crazier and crazier every year.” Someone in the Mayborn audience pressed Fountain on this point, asking what has changed about Dallas specifically since the 1960s, when some labeled it “the city of hate.”

The question should be “what hasn’t changed,” Fountain replied, implying that some things remain the same. Back in 2003 or 2004, he recalled, he attended an event for the “establishment” candidate for Dallas mayor. Waiting in the valet line when it was over, he remembered seeing some people who were dressed formally, like they were on their way to some black-tie gala. “And, they’re telling racist jokes,” Fountain said. “I thought, I can’t believe this!”

Just like in the ’50s and ’60s, Dallas’s current “oligarchy” wants to keep things smooth, grey, and lifeless, he added: “Look what they’re doing for the 50th anniversary.”

Picking up on that theme, Aynesworth recalled when Larry Flynt visited Dealey Plaza on an earlier anniversary of the assassination. The Hustler publisher drove past the old Texas School Book Depository in an open car, fired a pistol in the air and poured ketchup on his head, Aynesworth said.

“I’m a little afraid that with the fervor we see in this case, something [like that] could happen again. These conspiracy theorists want to be known—it’s money in their pockets. I’m saying they’re gonna be here … What’s better than being arrested on the 50th anniversary?” Aynesworth concluded. ” I don’t think the city understands what’s going to happen.”