Legend has it that when the creators of Dallas – the iconic 80s soap – named the show they’d never actually visited the city. It was only when they arrived in Texas that the show’s creators realised their mistake: it was Houston, some 300 miles south of here, where the oil barons roamed. Dallas, home to Texas’s finance industry, was a more sedate affair.
By then it was too late: the show had been greenlit. And as Dallas captivated Reagan’s America, it inevitably turned its namesake city into the capital of sex and swagger – or at least in the imaginations of viewers.
How does the real Dallas stack up? Size-wise at least it lives up to the legend. When I arrive for a 36-hr mini-break (one of several stops on a southwestern tour), I can’t get over just how big it is. Driving in from the airport, the city’s skyline – a mishmash of competing skyscrapers, jostling like paparazzi fighting for that perfect shot – looms over you for the whole journey. The bulbous Reunion Tower pulses in the sunlight.
Downtown is no less gigantic: everything from the trucks to the restaurants to the billboards is larger than life. Even the city’s public library – not typically a symbol of urban machismo – has been supersized (‘it’s big – even by Texas standards,’ boast the signs). At just over five-foot-six, I feel a total pipsqueak.
I’ve come to Dallas to indulge in that nerdiest of hobbies: political geekery. My first stop is the George W Bush Presidential Museum and Library, a leafy complex some five miles north of the city which stands as a living archive to America’s 43rd President. The man himself moved here shortly after leaving office, and hosts semi-regular gatherings at the complex. Rumour has it he’s in town right now for a charity golf tournament.
I’m a sucker for presidential libraries, having previously visited similar sites in Georgia (Pres 39) and Arkansas (42). But for any British visitor, even the most ardent current affairs junkie, there’s something odd about them. They’re just very – well, American. Can you imagine anyone travelling to Huddersfield to visit a Harold Wilson museum? Or purchasing John Major cufflinks from a gift shop? I rest my case.
Bush’s library is even weirder than most. Its centerpiece is a state-of-the-art cinematic war room – a sort of militaristic Tardis – where guests are bombarded with video briefings from presidential advisors before voting what to do on real Bush-era dilemmas: prop up failing banks or let them fall? Bolster troop numbers in Iraq or pull out altogether? Once you’ve made your choice, a gigantic projection of the President appears in front of you explaining his own decision.
The historical artefacts are a little thin on the ground. The loudspeaker (bullhorn, as they call it here) that the President used to address the grieving crowds at Ground Zero is the one which sticks in my mind afterwards. Elsewhere in the museum, I’m amused to read the cringeworthy correspondence between Bush and Bono which, even by the standards of the Trump/Kanye bromance, is enough to make anyone’s toes curl with embarrassment.
From there it’s on to the Sixth Floor Museum, which marks the assassination of John F Kennedy – America’s 35th president – here in 1963. The museum itself is situated in the old warehouse from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired his fatal shot. A white ‘X’ in the road outside shows where the President was hit. Tourists pose for photos at the infamous grassy knoll over the road.
Like the moon-landing, JFK’s assassination is loved by conspiracy theorists – something which isn’t lost on the museum. While the audio-guide (recorded by a local reporter who was there on the day) is excellent, much of the text assumes you have at least some doubts about the official narrative. Towards the end, there’s even a section dedicated to probing the ‘alternative’ theories. It’s proof, if nothing else, that ‘fake news’ is no new phenomenon.
For supper, I head to Deep Ellum, a creative neighbourhood known for its live music venues and sauce-smothered Texan cuisine. Pecan Lodge offers the full spectrum of local favourites: fried chicken, smoked sausages, collard greens and tamales. The food is great, but the dining experience veers a little too far into ‘American casual’. It doesn’t help that I’m sat next to the drinks refill station (the din of a dozen ice-cubes pounding into a 2-litre plastic cup never fails to ruin the ambience).
The next day I explore downtown. Dallas is proud to host one of the biggest (there’s that word again) arts districts in the US. With several uber-rich collectors resident here, its art museums are even compared to Washington DC and New York. The Crow Museum of Asian Art boasts beautiful pieces from the Tang and Ming dynasties (seventh and fourteenth centuries respectively). The most recent artist in town? George W Bush. His portrait of Winston Churchill hangs at the Dallas Country Club.
Having clocked up some 20,000 steps, I retire to my hotel – the Fairmont Dallas – and take in the skyline from the gorgeous poolside terrace with a whisky cocktail. This might not be the thrusting Dallas of JR Ewing – the only cowboy hats I see are in the tourist shops – but god knows it’s a city with its charms. And hey, if it’s good enough for a President who am I to argue.
Where to stay: Fairmont Dallas, a luxurious 4-star hotel in the heart of the arts district
Where to drink: The Meridian Room (3611 Parry Avenue) in Deep Ellum has rustic charm.
Where to eat: Off the Bone (1734 South Lamar Street) is said to have the best ribs in Dallas.
What to see: AT&T Stadium – the 100,000-capacity home of the Dallas Cowboys – offers guided tours.
More information about visiting Dallas can be found here where you can also purchase a CityPass for museums and attractions.