Since John F. Kennedy’s assassination, no U.S. president has visited fateful Dealey Plaza

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In the six decades since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, the United States has had 11 presidents. If any of them visited Dealey Plaza or even drove through the triple underpass, there’s no record of it.

For whatever reasons — be it superstition or coincidence — every presidential motorcade since Nov. 22, 1963, has steered clear of the site where a sniper ended Kennedy’s life.

Presidents have made dozens of visits to Dallas in the past 60 years. Many got very close to Dealey Plaza without driving through it.

“It seems to me it would have gotten some attention,” said Dallas historian Darwin Payne.

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No such headlines exist.

Gerald Ford led a parade in an open-top car barely a quarter-mile away, flanked by nervous Secret Service agents.

Barack Obama came within 1,000 feet, heading for the Omni hotel the night before the George W. Bush library opened in 2013. That motorcade exited the freeway onto Commerce Street but turned right and circled around the Hyatt Reunion rather than continuing through the triple underpass.

Bill Clinton watched a basketball game at Reunion Arena, and Ronald Reagan addressed a prayer breakfast there. Donald Trump held a campaign rally at the American Airlines Center. He, Reagan and others appeared at the Municipal Auditorium near City Hall.

There’s no record of any of them driving past the assassination site.

“I don’t know of any taboo per se unless it’s among the presidents themselves,” Payne said. But he’s nearly certain “no president has gone through Dealey Plaza since then.”

The Secret Service and Dallas Police Department did not respond to inquiries about any post-1963 policies related to dignitaries and Dealey Plaza.

No thanks

Kennedy’s successors haven’t lacked the opportunity to visit.

Just in time for the 30th anniversary on Nov. 22, 1993, Dealey Plaza was designated a national historic landmark.

Dallas officials invited the current president to attend the dedication.

Instead, Clinton held a White House news conference with the president of the Philippines and brokered an end to a strike by American Airlines flight attendants.

Clinton stayed several times at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, about two miles from Dealey Plaza.

On Oct. 16, 1995, he addressed a $1,000-a-plate luncheon only a mile away at Le Meridien hotel, where the Dallas Marriott Downtown now stands.

In March 1994, he served as best man at his brother Roger Clinton’s wedding at the Dallas Arboretum.

Even the three Texans who served as commander in chief since Kennedy — Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, a current Dallas resident — apparently kept clear of Dealey Plaza.

Johnson’s only visit

Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president, wouldn’t set foot in Dallas for over four years after taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One at Love Field after the shooting.

It was Feb. 27, 1968.

The secrecy was extraordinary.

The Secret Service gave Dallas police only one hour’s notice before LBJ’s 707 landed at Love Field.

“The man’s coming,” the agent-in-charge in Dallas, Forrest V. Sorrels, told police Chief Charles Batchelor, The Dallas Morning News reported the next day.

Johnson left his Hill Country ranch early that morning for a surprise appearance before 7,000 delegates to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association conference. Thousands of attendees, caught unawares, missed the speech.

The five-car motorcade sped past Dealey Plaza at 50 mph, exiting at Cadiz Street.

“On his Stemmons Freeway route from Love Field to Memorial Auditorium and back, President Johnson passed within easy sight of the Texas School Book Depository Building,” The News’ Kent Biffle reported.

That is to say, Johnson didn’t drive through the triple underpass.

Unbroken precedent

The precedent hasn’t been broken.

President Joe Biden campaigned in Dallas ahead of the Texas primary in 2020. Nearly three years into his term, he has yet to visit.

The others since Kennedy came dozens of times. Dallas is a major donor base for both parties and hosts huge conventions of the sort presidents like to address.

In July 2016, after a gunman ambushed five Dallas officers at a peaceful downtown protest march, Obama addressed the memorial service at the Meyerson Symphony Center.

That’s about a mile from Dealey Plaza.

Lots of presidents have come that close and no closer.

‘Disturbing … idea’

Reagan spent three days in Dallas in August 1984 during the Republican National Convention.

He shuttled between the Loews Anatole, where he spent three nights, and the Dallas Convention Center, where he accepted the GOP nomination for a second term on Aug. 23. He spoke at a prayer breakfast at Reunion Arena that morning.

News media from around the world covered the convention. Reporters spent copious time at the assassination site interviewing GOP delegates and local residents.

If Reagan had gone to Dealey Plaza or through it, someone would have noticed.

Both the Anatole and the convention center have hosted numerous presidential visits.

Jimmy Carter addressed the National Association of Broadcasters at the convention center on March 25, 1979.

Trump spoke there to the National Rifle Association on May 4, 2018. His motorcades to and from the venue didn’t pass through Dealey Plaza, either, said Tristan Hallman, who rode in a press van behind the president’s armored vehicle that day as a reporter for The News.

“I am pretty sure I would have remembered something like that,” said Hallman, former chief of staff to Mayor Eric Johnson. “There is something disturbing about even the idea of driving in a presidential motorcade right past the old Texas Schoolbook Depository building and that ghoulish X on the street.”

Trump was about a mile away during two other visits: a rally of 20,000 people Oct. 17, 2019, at American Airlines Center and a $4 million fundraising stop at the Belo Mansion on Oct. 25, 2017, in the Arts District downtown.

Kennedy’s sister

Many assume that Kennedy’s kin have avoided Dealey Plaza, but his sister Eunice Shriver stopped by only nine years later.

It was Oct. 25, 1972. She’d just attended a campaign rally in Denton with husband Sargent Shriver, the Democratic nominee for vice president.

“Dallas has been very generous,” she told a throng of reporters, affirming she held no animosity toward the city. She said she appreciated “the support the people of Dallas have shown for my brother.”

Ford’s open-air parade

Gerald Ford made one of the most remarkable presidential visits when he led the State Fair of Texas parade in an open-top limousine — as unprotected by bulletproof glass as Kennedy had been.

Thousands of people lined downtown streets 10-deep that Saturday morning, Oct. 9, 1976.

The route took Ford within a quarter-mile of Dealey Plaza as it turned from Griffin onto Commerce.

The president’s media team used footage in a 4-minute campaign ad intended for prime time TV.

“When a limousine can parade openly through the streets of Dallas, after a decade of tension, the people and their president are back together again,” the narrator says.

Ford’s campaign manager, Texan James Baker, rejected the ad as “nutty,” historian Michael Beschloss recounted years later, and it never aired.

The next day, Ford attended a service at First Baptist Church, where the Rev. W.A. Criswell gave him a boost.

Ford had by then spent a great deal of time in Dallas. That April, he’d crisscrossed the state trying to fend off Reagan in the primaries, stumping in Dallas across four days.

That included April 9, when Ford committed one of the most famous faux pas in campaign history during a tour of the Alamo in San Antonio: He tried to eat a tamale without removing the corn husk.

In Dallas that afternoon, he gave an economic speech to 1,700 people at the Fairmont Hotel downtown and mingled with “250 business leaders and their wives” at a $250-per-person fundraising reception, as The News reported.

That night, he headed to Arlington and threw out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opener. He left early to address the Irving Bar Association; Dallas Cowboys Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Harvey Martin presented a team jersey.

Then it was back to the Fairmont for the night.

His presidential diary doesn’t indicate the route of any of the motorcades. But media covering the trip found nothing newsworthy enough to mention.

Ford was back three weeks later for a rally at NorthPark Center and a speech to the Dallas Chamber of Commerce — all far from downtown along North Central Expressway.

Typical visits and coincidences

That’s typical of many presidential visits — nowhere near Dealey Plaza.

On Oct. 28, 1970, for instance, Richard Nixon headlined a rally at Dallas Market Hall for Houston congressman George Bush, a future president who was about to lose a U.S. Senate race.

The News’ Washington Bureau chief at the time, Robert Baskin, flew in with Nixon from Florida that day and was in the motorcades. He’d been in Kennedy’s motorcade, too, and would certainly have mentioned another presidential drive through Dealey Plaza.

In one of history’s great coincidences, Nixon was in Dallas the day of Kennedy’s assassination. As a lawyer for Pepsi-Cola Corp., the former vice president had attended a convention of the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages.

He flew out of Love Field an hour before Air Force One arrived from Fort Worth.


©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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