I always heard about the magic bullet that killed President Kennedy and wounded Texas Gov. John Connally. But it wasn't until a few years ago that I realized the same bullet also shattered the political dreams of my father.
My father was Don Yarborough, a charismatic, liberal lawyer who ran for governor of Texas three times. He wanted to make a difference, hoping to end the kind of entrenched poverty and racism he'd seen in Mississippi when he was a boy picking cotton on his aunt's farm. He had the self-confidence, courage, and ambition to believe he actually could—and that, if everything fell into place, he could even be president. He embraced JFK's New Frontier policies and was the first white Southern politician to voice support for the civil-rights bill, according to The Texas Observer, a progressive newspaper.
My father had never held elected office when he stunned pundits by forcing the conservative Connally, the candidate of big oil, into a white-knuckle runoff in the Democratic primary for governor in 1962. With the backing of labor unions, blacks, and Hispanics, my dad won 49 percent of the vote. Supporters were urging him to run again in 1964 (Texan governors were then elected every two years) when Kennedy showed up in Dallas, partly to pacify the internecine warfare. Then Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shot that altered America's destiny—and my father's as well.
A chain of events that began at Dealey Plaza eventually pushed him out of politics and convinced him that he could make a greater difference through science, leading to a career as an entrepreneur. And instead of a childhood defined by politics, a nation's tragedy gave me a devoted and inspiring father.
I was born in 1967, just a year before my father's final run for office, so I never got to see him on the campaign trail. But he was such a natural politician that, even after he'd abandoned the profession, he exuded warmth to every cab driver, waiter, and cashier he met. Instead of telling us not to talk to strangers, he encouraged it.
Luckily, he was a great storyteller about life in politics. One time, he said, he moved to greet a conservative politician he knew while TV cameras followed him at the state Capitol building in Austin. Not wanting to be filmed with a liberal, the man turned and ran as my father chased him, hand outstretched, cameras rolling. Dad also told us how he puddle-jumped between small towns around Texas in a tiny, stomach-churning Cessna.
I thought he would have been a phenomenal president, and it seemed impossible to me that someone like him could lose at anything. I hated that, when friends asked me what my father did, I had to tell them he had run for governor three times and lost. I finally began just describing him as an attorney.
Of the defining event in his professional life, he talked surprisingly little. After failing to end poverty and racism as a politician, his passion became science, which he believed could help more people than politics. As always, he dreamed big—setting out to cure aging, which he called "the only disease that kills everyone." We had moved to Cambridge, Mass., where my father befriended Harvard scientists, raising money for their research and, eventually, helping to launch a biotech company. He occasionally mentioned wistfully that, if he wanted to, he could still run for president. But he never did.
The first time I connected my father to Kennedy's assassination, I was a sophomore in a Cambridge high school. My history teacher, who was obsessed with JFK, paused his lesson one day to ask if I was one of the "Texas Yarboroughs." Yes, I told him, my father was Don Yarborough. "He's the reason Kennedy got shot!" my teacher exclaimed. I knew it was probably a joke, but the possibility horrified me.
I followed my mother into journalism but never thought to research my father's role in the Kennedy tragedy until after he died in 2009. His life, and my own, had been molded by that day, but I still knew almost nothing about it. I scanned book indexes for my father's name and read what I could find on the Internet. I even corresponded with some conspiracy theorists, trying to reconstruct what my father went through on Nov. 22, 1963. But when I started to delve into the assassination, I found that his part in the story had all but vanished. One reason was simple confusion: He shared a last name with Sen. Ralph Yarborough—a liberal legend and a prominent figure in the Kennedy tableau; although not related, the two were close political allies and friends.
But I found out through my research that Connally, a Johnson protégé, hoped to use his White House connections to get my father out of the race in return for his help in planning JFK's tour to Texas, according to James Reston Jr., author of two books on Connally. More than once, Connally asked about Kennedy's aides, "When are [they] going to get Don Yarborough off my back?" Just before Kennedy traveled to Dallas, my dad had told me, the LBJ camp presented him with an offer, tendered in a phone call from Sen. Yarborough: Johnson would guarantee my father an unopposed seat in the House if he would agree not to run against Connally for governor in 1964. Meanwhile, LBJ would endorse Sen. Yarborough, my dad's liberal mentor, for reelection, clearing the field. It was a deal aimed to heal the fractured Texas Democratic Party: Each wing would have a prominent winner—the senator for the liberals and the governor for the conservatives. The appearance of unity would strengthen LBJ's hand with Kennedy, who needed Texas to win reelection.
A Washington Post headline just two days before the assassination declared, "JFK to Look in on Brewing Texas Fight." The article said that even though the president, the vice president, the governor, and a senator would be seated at the head tables of a dinner during Kennedy's visit, the vital decision to be made lay mainly with "a shrewd, evangelical Kennedy Democrat"—my 39-year-old father, the target of incredible Washington pressure to cede the race. He must have felt confident he could win (a poll the day Kennedy arrived showed my father ahead of Connally), because he refused the deal.
The assassination, obviously, changed everything. It didn't just kill the president; it made a martyr out of Connally, who had been wounded while riding with the nation's fallen hero. Nevertheless, my father shocked everyone by filing to run. He "was on the way to winning, but after Connally was shot, there was nothing but the assassination in the newspapers," says Ronnie Dugger, the author of that 1963 Post report. "There was no way he could win after that—no way." He lost 2-to-1, ending his best shot at the governorship. The assassination also squashed the liberal rebellion in Texas for decades. Reston writes that after Connally won in 1964, "there was talk of Oswald's gift to Connally of a 'silver bullet.' "
The assassinations of the 1960s—the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King Jr.—sent a demoralizing message to politicians: You could reach great heights in the pursuit of your ideals, as Kennedy did, and then a bullet could end everything. My father's brand of progressive politics had become dangerous. He told me more than once that, had he won in 1962, it could have been him in the car with Kennedy.
My father sat out the 1966 election. He had always wanted to see Europe, so in 1966 he moved my mother and three older siblings to Tours, France, where I was born, and then to Denia, a tiny Spanish town on the Mediterranean, where he could study Spanish and my mother could write. During this time, he began to shift his focus to science. Yet, urged by his supporters and pulled by dreams he hadn't entirely given up, he returned to Texas to run for the final time in 1968. But by then, his momentum and his passion for politics were gone, and he lost for the last time as Lone Star liberalism faded away. "I got it out of my blood," he told me.
The morning after my father's funeral in Houston, I went to a bookstore to pick up copies of his obituaries from the national and local papers. As I walked out with a tall stack of newsprint, an older man regarded my purchase curiously. I told him I was the daughter of Don Yarborough, who had just died. He hesitated and then told me this: "Someone like your father wouldn't be necessary today, because he gave a voice to the people who didn't have one back then—blacks, Hispanics, and the poor. Now they have a voice of their own. They can win elected offices and speak for themselves. It wasn't like that back then."
Back then, speaking up was courageous. Despite intense pressure, my father refused to surrender his ideals and cut a deal, because he believed Connally would never support civil rights—and, in persisting (yes, my history teacher was on to something), he may have inadvertently caused Kennedy's death. I'm still amazed that he never showed a trace of bitterness about becoming a victim of circumstance, and I'm incredibly proud of his political courage. This helped shape my personality, too. If he could fight for his beliefs against such long odds, then surely I can tackle my own considerably more mundane challenges. As one person wrote in the comments section of Texas Monthly after he died, "Don Yarborough stormed the gates of Hell with a bucket of water."
I always considered the Kennedy assassination to be an American tragedy. In some ways, I now see it as a personal tragedy, too. Oswald killed politics for my father. But when his political life ended, another life began, and that is the one that I remember. Science became his greatest love, and the biotech company he helped to launch is still searching for cures for Alzheimer's, cancer, and other diseases. He liked to say, "We are either the last generation to die, or the first one to live forever." Also, his new pursuit let him spend nights and weekends with his family. Meanwhile, although my dad never stopped racism, ended poverty, or cured aging, he brought hope and inspiration to people who needed it, and the liberal coalition he helped to build lives on. The message of his life is: Big dreams are never wasted.
One of the most meaningful letters I received after my father's 2009 death from Parkinson's disease came from an editor at The Texas Observer. He said his own father had urged him to read about my dad and other liberal Texans when he was a young boy in the 1960s, and that my father would always be one of his political heroes.
He's one of mine, too.
This article appears in the November 9, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as A Violent Climax, a Happy Denouement.