Was My Father the Reason JFK Got Shot?

The president had come to end a fight my dad had started. Yet the tragedy reshaped his life — and mine — for the better.

  Family idyll: The author and her father. Family idyll:The authorand her father.  
National Journal
Sophie Yarborough
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Sophie Yarborough
Nov. 11, 2013, 6 a.m.

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.

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.

THE UP­START

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 protégé of LBJ, 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.’ “

BE­ATI­FIC­A­TION

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.

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