Sixty years to the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, the events of that traumatic moment continue to capture the imaginations of generations of people around the world— many of whom only knew JFK as the guy on the half dollar, the airport’s namesake, Ted Kennedy’s brother, or more recently, JFK Jr’s dad.
His rival, Richard Nixon, also happened to be in Dallas that day — an event that has led to countless conspiracy theories. Perhaps the most famous representation of these theories was a memorable scene in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), in which the former GOP standard bearer travels to Dallas, ostensibly on law firm business, but makes a detour to meet with a shadowy cabal led by a J.R. Ewing expy who also happens to be portrayed by Larry Hagman.
There’s no evidence that Nixon being in Dallas at that time was anything other than a coincidence. Nevertheless, in addition to mourning his former friend-turned-rival, Nixon was concerned with how he would be viewed following Kennedy’s assassination. His biggest client was also concerned…
As covered earlier, Nixon had no shortage of clients from the moment he hit Wall Street. However, his biggest and most public client was the one that helped pave the way for him to hit Wall Street in the first place. As promised, Pepsi had transferred its business to Nixon Mudge, and Nixon immediately went to work representing the cola giant’s interests throughout the world.
In one of his first major appearances for Pepsi, Nixon found himself in Dallas for a Pepsi bottlers’ convention on November 21, 1963. He had received a rude reminder of his diminished public status as he showed up in a city that was focused more on the president’s arrival the following day. In fact, Nixon wasn’t even the big cheese in his own entourage. The bodyguards stationed at Nixon’s hotel in downtown Dallas were there to protect Oscar-winning actress Joan Crawford, a member of the Pepsi board of directors and the widow of former Pepsi chairman Alfred Steele.
Despite the city’s fixation on Kennedy’s imminent arrival, Dallas wasn’t necessarily happy about the president coming to town. For one thing, Kennedy was highly unpopular in Dallas, as well as in Texas as a whole, and he was looking at an uphill battle to keep the state in his vote column in 1964.
The Lone Star State was still a Democratic stronghold, but the party’s grip on power had been slipping for several years as voters had begun gravitating toward the Republicans. Eisenhower had won the state in both 1952 and 1956, and after the formerly all-powerful Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson was elected vice president, it was a Republican, John Tower, that had won his former seat. Indeed, Nixon had actually won Dallas in 1960— garnering an impressive 62 percent of the vote there before narrowly losing the state.
In the years since the 1960 race, Kennedy seemed to have lost even more ground in the state. Most voters in Dallas, and Texas in general, distrusted the rich, preppy Kennedy and cared little about his New Frontier. Many were openly hostile to Kennedy’s embrace of civil rights and believed his administration wasn’t doing enough to fight communism.
“The general opinion of the grassroots thinking in this country is that you and your administration are weak sisters,” Ted Dealey, owner of the Dallas Morning News, told the president at the White House in 1961. “If we stand firm, there will be no war. The Russians will back down. We need a man on horseback to lead this nation, and many people in Texas and the South-West think that you are riding Caroline’s tricycle.”
A month before Kennedy’s trip to Dallas, his UN ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, found out just how angry many in the city were, having been hit by a placard and spit on during a protest.
There were a number of demonstrations planned for the president’s visit, and Dealey himself had run a full-page ad paid for by three local businessmen in the Dallas Morning News on the morning of November 22, 1963, criticizing the president and accusing him of being soft on communism—mere hours before Kennedy would be gunned down at the plaza that was named after Dealey’s father.
Stevenson had advised Kennedy against going to Dallas, and the president had seemed ambivalent about even making the trip. However, he felt an obligation to be there. Between jump-starting his reelection campaign and mediating a feud between the state’s two most powerful Democrats not named Johnson—conservative governor John Connally and liberal senator Ralph Yarborough—Kennedy felt he had no choice but to pay a visit to a state he had barely won in 1960 and would, most likely, need in 1964.
Otherwise, Kennedy had no desire to be in “nut country,” as he described Dallas to his wife on the morning of his last day on Earth.
Nixon, meanwhile, was already looking ahead to 1964 and was in attack mode. Sensing that there was trouble within the Democratic ranks, Nixon stirred the pot by acknowledging rumors that Johnson could be dropped from the ticket. “But we must remember that President Kennedy and his advisers are practical politicians,” Nixon said during a press conference in Dallas on November 21, the day before Kennedy’s scheduled arrival in the city. “I believe that, if they think the race is a shoo-in, they will keep Lyndon. Otherwise, I think they’ll choose someone who can help the Democratic ticket.”
Nixon couldn’t resist taking a slight dig at Johnson, pointing out that the Texas man had originally been chosen for his ability to deliver the South to the Democrats. “Now he is becoming a liability in the South, just as he is in the North,” Nixon said about the former Senate Majority Leader.
As for Kennedy, Nixon was no less critical, saying that the president had failed to deliver on his promises and had accomplished very little despite having a comfortable legislative majority. “President Kennedy’s stock is considerably lower today than it was in Texas in 1960 when I ran against him,” Nixon pointed out during his press conference. Among the reasons he listed for his erstwhile rival’s decline in popularity were persistent unemployment and the fact that Castro was still in power in Cuba.
Despite that, Nixon urged Dallas to give the president and First Lady a courteous reception. “Over-enthusiastic opponents really harm their own cause and help their opponents by showing discourtesy,” Nixon said. “On the other hand, peaceful picketing is in the American tradition.”
It was only after Nixon left Dallas and returned to New York that he realized that his words had not come true. He had flown out on the morning of November 22, 1963, having concluded his business for Pepsi, and was in a taxicab leaving New York’s Idlewild Airport (which would soon be renamed in honor of JFK) when he heard the news that Kennedy had been shot.
According to Nixon, the cab was stopped at a traffic light when a random man ran over and said he heard a rumor that Kennedy had been shot and asked the cab driver if he had a radio. Nixon dismissed the man as “one of the nuts” and thought nothing of it until he got home and his doorman told him that Kennedy had been killed. Nixon recalled that he rushed up to his apartment and immediately called FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to find out more about it.
“What happened?” Nixon asked. “Was it one of the nuts?”
“No,” Hoover replied. “It was an anti-Communist.”
Nearly fifteen years later, it was reported that the anti-Communist in question, Lee Harvey Oswald, had originally planned on assassinating Nixon after learning from the Dallas Morning News that he was in town, only to be talked out of it by his wife.
Nixon was shocked by the death of his longtime rival. However, in his memoirs and in interviews with reporters after the assassination, he claimed he never reflected on his own mortality—nor did he reflect on the simple twist of fate that had landed Kennedy in the White House after one of the closest elections in American history and Nixon in New York. “I never felt the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ reaction to Kennedy’s death that many people seemed to imagine I would,” Nixon wrote in his memoirs. “I did not think of Kennedy and myself as interchangeable. I did not think that if I had won in 1960, it would have been I rather than he riding through Dealey Plaza in Dallas at that time, at that day.”
A Nixon aide had a different take. Stephen Hess, who was at Nixon’s Fifth Avenue apartment that afternoon to speak with Nixon about a possible book project, recalled that Nixon seemed highly shaken about what had happened. “He told me how he had heard it, and I did feel there was a degree of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ there,” said Hess.
Nixon then showed Hess the Dallas Morning News articles covering his press conference and asking the city to give the Kennedys a warm reception. “He tried to make the point that he had tried to prevent it,” Hess recalled. “It was his way of saying ‘Look, I didn’t fuel this thing.’”
Of course, Nixon only focused on the few sentences he had uttered encouraging Dallas to treat the Kennedys warmly without focusing on all of the stuff he had said leading up to it, including Kennedy’s lack of accomplishments, being weak on Cuba, possibly dumping Johnson, and whatnot.
Others did not forget about his comments, and Pepsi received letters from outraged customers vowing never to drink their products again. While it’s unclear how many letters they actually received, Pepsi’s public relations officials saw fit to write up a form letter that they used to respond to the outraged writers:
Mr. Nixon’s statements regarding Pepsi-Cola Company were made in closed business meetings. They had nothing to do with the American political scene. It was this part of the trip—his meetings with bottlers and other executives—that was underwritten by Pepsi-Cola. His business advice is already being widely followed by the company.
It was inevitable that a national figure of Mr. Nixon’s stature would attract members of the press. It was equally inevitable that the press discussions would center around political questions, especially in light of Mr. Kennedy’s impending arrival the next day.
Mr. Nixon was interviewed as a former Vice President of the United States and a key member of the Republican Party. He was not representing Pepsi-Cola Company, but giving his views as a knowledgeable American citizen.
His views, as you know, have been widely sought after in the press, the radio and on television. His comments as an American are widely respected around the world.
His ideas and thoughts about the upcoming Presidential campaigns were, in the American tradition, objective statements. He was exercising the same right of freedom of expression that you or I use when we discuss politics, and when we go into the voting booth on Election Day.
Mr. Nixon’s statements were sought after as a politician, not as a lawyer representing this company or that. And, incidentally, his firm represents some of the finest and most respected business organizations in the country, in addition to Pepsi-Cola Company. The political statements that he made were based upon the best possible news and information being circulated on the political scene at that time.
We, naturally hope that you will reconsider your decision about not purchasing Pepsi-Cola in the future. We also hope that you will consider the aforementioned facts concerning the Dallas, Texas interview.