I’m getting very familiar with Miami Airport. Passing through it on my way to Dallas, I exchange travel stories with an older American couple who are on their way to Ecuador – they are waiting for their delayed pane to arrive from Bogatoa. I discover that my flight has been cancelled due to mechanical problems so I have to queue up to get re routed via Orlando. Horray, I’ve always wanted to go to Orlando … not. Fortunately I don’t have to go out of the airport, just cross over the lounge to another gate – easy. I’m staying with my niece in the suburb of Highland Park an area of very posh houses on tree-lined streets. There’s not a lot to do in Dallas, according to my niece. I’ve identified a little-used swimming pool but she belongs to the Four Seasons Golf & Sports Club in Irving and arranges for me to go.
There’s a pool there with only one other swimmer, so it’s perfect. The changing rooms and spa area are plush and almost deserted – it’s Friday morning. I’m the only one in the lunch bar afterwards and take advantage of the plentiful supply of Uber taxis in this city. On Saturday we go into town as I want to see architecture. Dallas has some spectacular pieces, but we’re also here to see the Kennedy 6th floor museum.
This is the former University Book depository from where Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. There’s no photography allowed on the 6th floor, but I highly recommend this well curated exhibition. The narrative is mater of fact, which I find more moving than schmaltz. Dallas has struggled with the reputation for being the place where a president was assassinated, and the exhibit does not shy away from mentioning Kennedy’s detractors here. I was only 12 years old at the time, but remember all the coverage – this brings it all back and I’m able to look down and photograph the spot from the 7th floor. Conspiracy theories still abound but all the evidence is presented and I’m fairly certain that Oswald did it.
Later we all take a ride on my hosts Vespa scooters and then walk along a disused rail line now paved over for runners, cyclists and dog walkers. There’s a beer at the end before we return to the scooters.
The other thing to do is visit the George W Bush Library. I’m sceptical about this as He definitely wasn’t a favourite of mine at the time. Every president since Hoover has one of these so-called libraries around the country. George W’s Library is accommodated on the site of the Methodist University – it’s very grand.
Trying to maintain some sort of neutrality in the face of the populist view of George W and all the accusations thrown at him during his presidency, I’m struck by the slickness of the presentation and suspect a gap between the fine and patriotic rhetoric and reality. A lot happened in this time: 9/11, the banking crisis, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, but the narrative starts at the beginning; His childhood, being the son of a former president, his marriage to a librarian and his decision to give up drinking and return to his church. This exhibition dwells on the positives and the ‘honour’ it is to ‘serve’ in public office. There is a strong sense of duty to the American people and he’s cut his teeth on the governorship of Texas.
What is a surprise is that the first achievement is Education. A large display declares ‘No Child Left Behind’ – several times. George is quoted ‘to stand for office you must stand for something’, so I’m looking forward to finding that out. I’m also wondering about the legacy of this education policy and how many children are still being left behind. The passions of Laura Bush come to the fore here and it’s clear that her work as a librarian has been key.
The Bush’s are photographed often with black children and whilst George was famously photographed with a book upside-down (probably hastily put in his hands by a photographer) and there were various other gaffs in classrooms common to most politicians, I’m getting a feeling that he wasn’t quite as dumb as was rumoured. There is a statement he made whilst visiting Mexico.
‘The United States has no more important relationship in the world than our relationship with Mexico. Each of our countries is proud of our independence, our freedom and our democracy. We are united by values and carried forward by common humanity.’
Now, although this is the sort of diplomatic speech required for the occasion, It is strikingly different from the rhetoric coming out of the current administration regarding US/Mexico relations. No walls mentioned in this speech – note the underlined passages.
Next we get to 9/11 which seems to be accurately reported. It happened on his watch, and doesn’t mention his failure to turn up, but instead memorialises the event. 9/11 eventually leads to the Iraq war/invasion and here the justification is that although no weapons of mass destruction were found, they were convinced that Sadam had the ‘capability’. Hmm. This is of course leads to the launch of ‘The War on Terror’ which continued though his time and strangely, is on-going as I write in 2017.
I think Bush was probably unable to resist pressure from the military, pubic opinion etc urging him to go into Afghanistan and Iraq. I compare this decision with Obama’s not to put troops on the ground in Syria. Neither seems satisfactory. Moving on there are key policies in other areas: Expand Free Trade; Strengthen Alliances; Prevent the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction & Encourage Democracy.
I just get the impression that the current administration is going in the opposite direction. How did that happen? There’s some great photography here and walls of images depicting the US as multicultural, which is of course true, especially in the southernmost states where everyone seems to be speaking Spanish.
A replica of the Oval Office allows visitors to sit in the presidential chair and be photographed making a phone-call. There’s a replica of the rose garden, but the climate in Dallas doesn’t suit roses, so you have to look hard to see the few struggling specimens.
The second half of the exhibition gets more personal with an account of the visit of Elizabeth II, An interesting map on the incidence of HIV around the world and a section on Protecting the Environment – neither of these are supported by the Trump Administration. There’s a participatory game where we get to make presidential decisions. Each participant has a desk and console and first up we have to choose an issue for which Bush made a decision.
Thinking that my answers to things like the Iraq war might be pre-determined, I choose the banking crisis having momentarily forgotten the outcome. The majority of the players also go for this. They are mainly young people, so it’s interesting that that’s on their minds. The game involves listening to various different agencies and opinions and the basic question is weather to let the banks fail and cope as best they can or to throw federal dollars at them in the hope that they will recover and be able to repay. We have limited time and get interrupted with updated information from news sources. My decision is to use the Federal Dollars, but surprisingly the majority of players go for the Darwinian option. It is now revealed that saving the banks is what Bush did and I’m vindicated.
Finally we are treated to a cute video story fronted by the bush twin girls, showing family life and the importance of Camp David in entertaining and getting to know world leaders. The whole experience is a great example of storytelling from which the Museum of Revolution in Habana could learn.
On the other side of the huge entrance foyer are George W Bush’s portraits of Veterans of the Afghan and Iraqi wars. He’s had various tutors and you can see a development in the style. The images are confronting and often include full length representations showing prosthetic legs and wheel chairs.
I’m undecided about George as an artist, but the work is definitely superior to Churchill’s water colours, which were never meant for display. This project seems to be an act of atonement – to somehow apologise for the wars, without actually doing so. I find it quite gruesome and don’t want to spend too much time here – worth the look though.
My last evening in Dallas is another Vespa ride around the real estate of Highland Park – ranging from 2 – 10 million. I get to see some typical Texan homes – the contrast with Habana is dramatic.