J. R. is dead; long live Dallas

Larry Hagman
as “J. R. Ewing”
R.I.P.

There should be little doubt that Larry Hagman’s death this past week will adversely affect the prospects of the current revival of television’s Dallas. J. R. Ewing was Hagman’s character, and his alone, and J. R. was Dallas. Without J. R., the prime time soap opera is just another mediocre TV drama. His fictional double crossing, dirty dealing, and backstabbing was done with style and aplomb in a way that few actors could pull off. He was a villain, but a stylish, and even lovable one, in a more competent Wile E. Coyote (of Roadrunner fame) sort of way. I watched the original Dallas sporadically, as it came on Friday nights and I usually had something better to do in those pre-TiVo/pre-DVR days. I found it hugely entertaining when I did. The show’s international appeal was also evident. During a visit to Vienna in 1983 many guests in the small hotel where I was staying gathered around the lobby TV to watch the Ewing family’s imbroglios. The dub of J. R.’s voice in German sounded particularly menacing. As far as the image that the show gave of my hometown went, I did not care much then or now. Most people, I think, can separate real life from fiction, and anyway, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, detestation is homage paid by those who believe they are inferior in some ways.

One aspect to J. R. Ewing’s fictional villainy that made it somewhat appealing rather than odious was that the targets of his double-dealing and backstabbing were his peers, many of whom would do the same to him if they were as good at it as he was. I recall no time that he victimized or treated contemptuously his employees, house staff, or anyone who was weaker.

Coming as it did during the week of the 49th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas, Hagman’s death (or rather, the resulting death of his character) seems apropos to a reflection on the character of the city of Dallas. In the immediate aftermath of Kennedy’s murder, those pot-bellied pecksniffian pundits of the national media got plenty of their usual exercise of jumping to conclusions and flying off the handle. They were nearly beside themselves with glee that the perceived right-wing political climate could be blamed for the President’s death. (A number of their successors expressed similar joy over the timeliness of Hurricane Sandy to give favorable photo-ops and such to their current idol and possibly sway a close election.) Of course, we knew quickly that the assassin was a left-wing Marxist, who had defected to the Soviet Union and sympathized with Castro’s Cuba. All of Lee Harvey Oswald’s motivations for killing Kennedy will never be known, but it is certainly consistent with his support of Communist Cuba and that the President’s most significant foreign policy success was in the Cuban Missile Crisis of the previous year. That and Kennedy’s firm stand on the Western Allies’ status in Berlin made him a bona fide Cold Warrior. Jacqueline Kennedy’s remark at the time, quite understandable as a product of her shock and grief, that JFK’s death was devoid of meaning because the killer turned out to be a “silly little communist,” was awfully misplaced.

To the extent there was a “right-wing climate” or for that matter, a left-wing underground presence in Dallas, neither was responsible for JFK’s assassination. Oswald acted alone. Speculative hypotheses of conspiracy abound – some quite fantastic. Not one is supported by a scrap of evidence.

That a leftist fanatic killed the President did not stop those so disposed to vilify Dallas. There were plenty of op-eds, magazine articles, and books that came out with purported analyses of the city and focusing on a “climate of hate” said to exist. On of the most prominent was that of former Dallas Morning News reporter Warren Leslie entitled Dallas Public and Private published rather hastily in 1964. Having grown up in Dallas in the ‘50s and early ‘60s (and graduated from high school there in 1963), I recognize many of the historical facts and circumstances Leslie mentions. I generally disagree with his spin. Nevertheless, his book recognizes one salient point about the city: It has no geographical or environmental reason to exist. It was for a long time the largest city in the nation not located on a navigable waterway (though I understand that his recently been eclipsed by Phoenix). It exists because of the people, the men and women who founded and grew with it. Leslie quotes (with agreement, if not with approval) a 1949 article in Fortune magazine by Holland McCombs: “[Dallas] is finally a monument of sheer determination. Dallas doesn’t owe a thing to accident, nature or inevitability. It is what it is . . . because the men of Dallas damn well planned it that way.”

In the near half-century since the assassination Leslie’s book Dallas has continued to grow in the same vein. The opportunity of a robust free-market economy and entrepreneurial attitude attracts people from not just the U.S., but from the whole world. Back in the 1980s, a customer of mine, who was then a recent arrival from Chicago, related that his observation was that no one in Dallas wanted to work for a company, those not already self-employed were just biding their time until they got enough experience in their field and capital (though the latter did not always seem to be necessary) to start their own business. Hyperbolic as that statement was, it contained a solid core of truth.

Dallas has become more than just its core city, with expansion into far-flung suburbs, and even melding with neighboring cities. The Dallas Cowboys NFL team’s home venue is now in another city not even in the same county as most of the City of Dallas. J.R. Ewing’s Southfork Ranch is located, both in fiction and in fact as to the set, in yet another county. The city and the region, like all big cities, has numerous problem and challenges, many of which are products of the growth. Here’s hope those challenges can be met in ways that continue to foster rather than stifle the entrepreneurial spirit.

Leslie ends his book a personal note to which I add a counterpoint. He says that on a flight from Dallas he felt some sadness when the pilot announced that they would be landing early at Idlewild Airport, whose name had been changed to honor the fallen President. But right before arrival, the stewardess asked the passengers to fasten their seat belts because “‘We are making our approach now to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York,’ she said. Coming up from Dallas, some of us felt better.”

Last week, Martha and I flew from New York City to Dallas after a weekend sojourn in the Big Apple. I assure you we both felt much better when the flight crew announced our final approach to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

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