DALLAS — Two memorably tragic dates in American history — Nov. 22, 1963, and Sept. 11, 2001 — loom large at two presidential historical sites in Dallas.
Each year, thousands of visitors make the trip to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza to see the place from which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated almost 55 years ago.
And for more presidential history, Dallas visitors can stop at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, which, in part, explores another turning point in American history: The 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Dealey Plaza will probably look familiar to most Americans, even those making their first visit to Dallas. The site of Kennedy’s assassination, seen in countless photos and films from that fateful day almost 55 years ago, is remarkably unchanged.
Dealey Plaza is a public park constructed in 1940 near the site where the city was founded. Today, the plaza is usually full of visitors and of vendors hawking memorabilia and literature. The vendors also are responsible for placing two “X”s on Elm Street, marking the spots where Kennedy, riding in his presidential limousine, was struck by bullets.
I have “seen” the assassination many times in documentaries and pop-culture re-creations. But standing in the actual place was illuminating and even haunting, despite the hawkers and tourist crowds. The plaza, which I’d always envisioned as a small, almost claustrophobic space, is bigger and more open than I had imagined.
I was able to stand on the spot where Abraham Zapruder filmed his famous 26-second “home movie” that would be so important in the subsequent investigation, and on the “grassy knoll” where some investigators think a second assassin was hidden.
The former Texas School Book Depository, as much as it looms large in history, doesn’t physically dominate the plaza as I’d imagined. Instead, the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired his shots is just one rather nondescript building of many lining the streets. Today it’s the home of the Sixth Floor Museum, which looks at Kennedy’s life and mystique and, most prominently, his death and its aftermath.
Admission includes an indispensable audio guide, keyed to the various stops in the museum. The audio uses many historic broadcasts and the voices of actual reporters, police officers and witnesses who were at the scene in Dallas. It is narrated by reporter Pierce Allman, the first reporter to broadcast from the book depository following the assassination.
Exhibits examine Kennedy’s life and political accomplishments and the mood of America. But the focus of the museum is an extensive and sometimes intense recounting of the events before, during, and immediately after the assassination.
Visitors will hear many accounts of the day and see many actual and replica objects tied to the assassination, including Oswald’s rifle, Zapruder’s camera and a large-scale model of the area created for the FBI investigation.
They also will see the “sniper’s perch” — the spot where Oswald, hidden behind boxes of books, fired from a sixth-floor window.
Although the museum is a sober and sobering look at Kennedy and the assassination, it doesn’t shy from addressing some of the conspiracy theories that cling to the event.
Several exhibits deal with investigations into the assassination, including one by the Warren Commission, which determined that Oswald was a lone gunman, and one by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Assassinations, which concluded that at least one other gunman, located on the “grassy knoll,’’ was probably involved.
About two blocks from Dealey Plaza, visitors will find the JFK Memorial, a stark-white open cube designed by a Kennedy family friend, architect Philip Johnson. Also adjacent to the plaza is the Old Red Museum, a Dallas local-history museum in the former Dallas County Courthouse, a grand Richardson Romanesque-style building finished in 1892.
The Bush museum is on the campus of Southern Methodist University, about six miles from Dealey Plaza. Like other contemporary presidential libraries, the Bush museum offers extensive (and mostly flattering) exhibits about the former president’s life, family and administration.
Among the most interesting displays is the interactive Decision Points Theater, which explores some of Bush’s major decisions, such as his responses to Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis of 2008. Participants get video briefings from competing advisers and then must choose a course of action. Bush then appears on a video screen to explain his actual policy.
But a focal point of the museum is, of course, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a day that changed not just the course of the Bush administration but of all America and the world. Large girders from the fallen World Trade Center towers are displayed in a room with walls engraved with the names of those who died in the attack. Screens around the room loop video images of the immediate aftermath of the attacks, including the fall of the towers.
The “Responding to September 11” and “Defending Freedom” galleries look at the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and examine some of the other responses, such as passage of the USA Patriot Act and other such issues that remain central to American political debate.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.