Sunday, August 8, 2010

Reagan Library Has Hits, Misses

On a recent business trip, I had the opportunity to visit the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., with my family. I saw a lot of things, but the most memorable by far was one of the simplest. It was the quote on Reagan’s tombstone, which read:

“I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”

The quote was pure Reagan. It captured Reagan’s unbridled optimism. It was "The Great Communicator” at his best.

I wish the same could be said for the rest of the library. Don't get me wrong, the library does a lot of things right. The setting is beautiful. The food is good. And the exhibits are so approachable that even children enjoy them. However, aside from the tombstone, I was provided with little insight into what made Reagan into Reagan.

Much of the museum’s wow factor is more about the office of president, than specific to nation’s 40th president. For instance, the library’s centerpiece is a retired Air Force One. I’m not talking about a section either. I'm talking about the whole darned plane in all its glory. How they got that thing in there still puzzles me.

Additionally, the museum displays a retired presidential helicopter, Marine One, a retired fighter jet, a presidential motorcade and a model of the White House. It’s all cool stuff for someone like me with a great curiosity about the office. But -- like the out-of-place display of vintage motorcycles -- gives little insight into Reagan himself.

A couple of exceptions were an exhibit devoted to the Cold War that highlighted Reagan's belief in “peace through strength” and a piece of the Berlin Wall, which came down, in no small part, thanks to his leadership. The most jolting exhibit is the suit coat Reagan wore on the day he was shot, complete with bullet hole. The accompanying text tells visitors not only about the shooting, but Reagan's demeanor afterward, including the fact that he prayed for his attacker and cracked wise that he hoped the doctors were Republicans.

In contrast, I saw little to nothing about Reagan’s upbringing, his days as an actor, his stint as governor of California or even his family, friends and colleagues. As a result, I left having enjoyed a wonderful view, a good burrito and a great keepsake photo of my family on the doorstep of Air Force One, but without an understanding of the forces that shaped one of the nation’s greatest presidents.

I did note several signs about a renovation that will mark what would have been Reagan's 100th year, as well as a lot of signs warning about rattlesnakes. Hopefully this means some of this is being rectified -- at least the content, if not the snakes.

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