Driving down CA 118, the Ronald Reagan Freeway, across the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, doubt creeps into my mind. Why am I doing this? I am certainly not a fan of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, for a myriad of reasons that don’t have any bearing on this article. Furthermore, I have always sort of hated the concept of a presidential library, viewing them as vanity projects couched in the guise of a non-profit organization. So why am I on my way to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library?
A few hours later, driving back on the freeway bearing the 40th President’s name, I am only surprised it took me so long to finally visit. So what changed? How did this place win me over? And how is a guy who is about as liberal as they come able to recommend – strongly – that others follow and visit?
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library sits on a hilltop in Simi Valley, a one-time tiny ranch town turned major Los Angeles suburb of close to 150,000 people. From the site, views range from mountains to (on a clear day) the Pacific Ocean to housing developments of the rapidly growing area. The main building is constructed to resemble – in my mind – a ranch, maybe reminiscent of the Reagans’ Rancho del Cielo near Santa Barbara. Any way you look at it, the site makes a good first impression, and the natural beauty puts me a bit more at ease. (So, too, do the two people entering the spacious lobby behind me, wearing Biden Harris masks. I wonder what the bronze statue of Ronald Reagan outside would think, although I later come to realize he would have been welcoming to anyone, regardless of their political views.)
I am met in the lobby by Melissa Giller, the library’s Chief Marketing Officer and my host for the day. A veteran of twenty years at the library, Melissa is full of factoids and stories that bring Ronald Reagan and his presidency to life for me. It is a wonderful experience being toured by her, but the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library brings the man to life on its own just fine. Throughout the museum, which traces his life from childhood to death, visitors get a chance to actually interact with Ronald Reagan. In one room, a hologram of Reagan speaks to guests. In another, a green screen allows visitors to “star” opposite him in a movie. (Remember, Reagan was a movie star before launching his political career which saw him as California governor and US President.) Another exhibit, this one about his first inauguration, allows visitors to stand behind his inaugural lectern, and read his inaugural address from teleprompters. These interactive touches are everywhere, and add a personal feeling that is truly tangible.
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is, to my surprise, not at all about political propaganda. In fact, very little is overtly political at all. (An obvious, but completely appropriate, exception is the room dedicated to the Reagan campaign, but even that is just shown as campaign marketing, not as propaganda.) Foreign policy, one of Reagan’s most important platform pieces, is the only really shown portion of the presidency from a policy standpoint. And even that is done in a purely factual way, focusing on his summits with Gorbachov, the famous “tear down this wall” speech (a piece of the Berlin Wall is on display outside), and even talking about Iran Contra, one of the biggest scandals of the Reagan presidency.
Other than that, the museum is a glimpse into the life of Ronald Reagan (and his wife, Nancy) and into the office of the presidency during his tenure. Some fun exhibits include an interactive quiz on banquet etiquette done in conjunction with state dinner menus and clips of toasts, a complete replica of the Reagan Oval Office, and a digital – and searchable – copy of his private diaries, only twelve pages of which have been redacted for security reasons, according to Melissa.
Of course, other exhibits are more somber. One shows a clip of Reagan being shot, and his suit he was wearing. (His journal entry reads, “Getting shot hurts.”) Another discusses his Alzheimer’s. Yet another shows his funereal procession and speeches given by world leaders at his passing.
The highlight, though, of a visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is Air Force One. The predecessor of the current 747, this one, used by seven presidents (although George W. Bush only flew once for the sole purpose of getting it to seven), is a 707, and lacks nearly every luxury feature one would expect. You can enter through the front of the plane, and walk down the aisle, exiting through the back. The exhibit is stunning, featuring a glass wall overlooking the mountains, and containing LBJ’s Marine One helicopter, a presidential limo and Secret Service chase vehicle, and a relocated Irish pub. (The quick story: Reagan visited Ireland and went to a town that his family traced their history to. A bar there named a room for him. Fast forward decades and the CEO of the Reagan Foundation visited with his family, only to find the bar had just gone out of business. He arranged to fly the majority of the front room to Simi Valley to reconstruct it here in the library. So you can have a pint of Guinness and a sandwich in a Reagan-visited Irish pub from Ireland. Fascinating, no?)
Outside the museum, the library grounds contain the graves of both Ronald and Nancy Reagan. That is a testament to their love for this site, to which they had no connection before construction. Originally, the Reagan Library was supposed to be on the Stanford campus. However, pushback from students and faculty caused that to fall through. So the owner of this property called them up and offered it. Upon arriving, it reminded them so much of their ranch that they agreed, and the library was built on those 100 donated acres. (It has since added 200 more to protect some of the views from construction.)
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library also contains a rotating exhibit, as many other museums in the world do. At my visit, it was on the FBI and contained a ton of fascinating stories and artifacts from some of the most infamous cases the Bureau has dealt with. Future exhibits might call for a return trip!
Admission to the library is steep, at roughly $30 (although that does include the temporary exhibit, adding a significant value). However, it will easily eat up two to three hours – or more – of unique insights into Ronald Reagan and the office of the presidency that one can’t find elsewhere. And while, according to Melissa, a majority of visitors are either Reagan fans or presidential history buffs, there is something here even for liberal casual visitors like me. Would I visit yearly? Maybe not. Am I thrilled to have visited once? Most assuredly so.
Sorting my thoughts during my drive back home, I had to admit that my perceptions of what the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library would be were nearly entirely wrong. While I still might not be a fan of his from a policy standpoint, I got to know the 40th President in a way I couldn’t in any other context, and my life and mindset are better for it.
Thank you so much to Melissa Giller and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute for hosting me. I am grateful for the experience, for the insights, and for your work in making this place great.
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