Hailing to the big chiefs

I probably never would have visited the Presidential Libraries in Southern California were it not for our friends Donna and Mike Guthrie. Donna is an imaginative traveler with a passion for big creative projects. To name just one, she and Mike recently visited every National Park in anticipation of a big birthday. Among their current missions, they are targeting all the Presidential Libraries. They started with Harry Truman’s (in Independence, MO) and Lyndon Johnson’s (in Austin, TX), then suggested that a few friends from San Diego might accompany them on a short excursion to all (two) of California’s Presidential Libraries. Steve and I privately wondered how much fun this would be. Those facilities celebrate the lives and administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, neither of whom we ever came close to idolizing. But we assented, and the experience surprised us.

It was so interesting and entertaining I felt driven to write this post (one of my rare reports on adventures At Home.) Three days into the new year, we left San Diego for the Reagan facility, located in Simi Valley (about 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.) Traffic was good and it took only about 2.5 hours to reach the sprawling property, set amidst lovely rolling hills. This is not the site of the famed Reagan Ranch (that’s further north, near Santa Barbara), but rather land acquired by Reagan supporters to house the complex. We grabbed a quick lunch in the cafeteria, then spent several hours making our way through the head-spinning concentration of films, photographs, artifacts, memorabilia, and exhibits documenting the 40th American president’s life.

What quickly charmed me was the fact that this facility is not merely a Great Man Monument but also an excellent history museum — one focused tightly on the 90-plus years when Ronald Reagan was alive in the United States of America (1911-2004). I was paying at least some attention to the world around me for at least part of that period, but it was amazing to see how much I’d forgotten, and fun to have it be brought back to life. The museum conjures up moments that shook the world — the internationally televised demand Mr. Gorbachev tear down “that wall” is an example.

A section of “that wall” stands outside the museum.

Others, like Reagan’s Golden Retriever, Victory, wagging his 3D tail next to his animatronic master on the ranch are sweetly mundane. I found almost everything engaging.

You can’t actually take a ride with Ronnie on the ranch, but you can say you did.

The Reagan museum/library also immerses visitors in some settings most of us have only glimpsed. You get to walk into a life-sized reproduction of the Oval Office the way it looked during the former movie star’s administration. Even better: you can board and stroll through the very first Air Force One. Kennedy rode in its presidential cabin on his way to that fateful rally in Dallas; LBJ was sworn in as his replacement on the return trip, JFK’s corpse close at hand. Nixon and Kissinger plotted their strategies on this plane when they journeyed to China for the first time.

After touring the Reagan site, we spent the night in Pasadena, then headed south the next day with Yorba Linda programmed into our Google maps. It was on a modest Yorba Linda ranch that Nixon’s father erected a home for his young family, using a mail-order construction kit. A year later the Nixons’ second son, Richard, was born in the building. It’s way too small to hold a Presidential Library; the large museum/library structure lies just a short walk away. But having the family home located on the property somehow makes it feel intimate and meaningful.

The Yorba Linda building in which President Nixon was born.

No one in our little group was ever much of a Nixon fan, and we’d thought we might breeze through the complex in an hour. To our surprise, we wound up staying for almost three hours and concluding it was the better of the two sites. The years when Nixon sat at the highest levels of American political power were at least as epic as the Reagan’ years, and the displays seemed better organized and more coherent. Moreover, the Nixon facility feels less hagiographic, more balanced, with extensive attention given to the Watergate break-in, the subsequent cover-up, and Nixon’s resignation in disgrace. No presidential aircraft live here, but in this Oval Office replica — decorated as it was when Nixon occupied it — no rope barriers prevent guests from strolling up to the replica of the room’s famous Resolute Desk and taking the helm, if just for a moment.

Here I recapture the moment when I find out I’m likely to be impeached.

If you had asked me on New Year’s Eve what I thought of both Reagan and Nixon, my reply would have been withering. But the libraries reminded me of what I can easily forget: both men were complex characters, brimming with qualities both admirable and odious. Here are two examples of things I learned about Richard Nixon that enriched the way I think of him. In a section filled with pictures of his early childhood, a display explained that by 14, the future president knew how to operate a motor vehicle, and every morning he would get up early, drive to the produce market in Los Angeles, stock up on fruit and vegetables, return to Whittier, and set up what he’d bought in his family’s fruit stand. Then he’d go to his classes at the high school. Caught up in the Watergate, he may have been vindictive and paranoid and conniving. But he was also once that spunky kid.

I found maybe an even better example at the display explaining the recording system Nixon ordered set up in the White House. It captured everything at all times. Visitors to the Yorba Linda facility can select various recordings to listen in on. The damning one in which President Nixon ordered the CIA to block the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate break-in is not among them. The one I chose instead captured one of Nixon’s daughters, I think Julie, calling him to talk about whether the family could go out to a restaurant for a dinner on Valentine’s Day. She sweetly suggests that Trader Vic’s has a nice secluded table and good food. He seems willing to make his girls happy, but kind of clueless. He says she should check with “Mommy,” and if Mommy wants, they can all go out to Trader Vic’s. The museum shares this absolutely private, pedestrian moment and reminds those who listen that Tricky Dick also could be a good dad and a nice guy. That’s some accomplishment.