Visiting the Nixon and Reagan libraries
When Ronald Reagan finished his second term he rode off to his ranch in California, atop a wave of popularity that helped his vice president get elected to succeed him. Our last image of Richard Nixon was quite different. Forced to resign over the Watergate affair, he left office in disgrace. As he boarded the helicopter on the White House lawn he gave Americans a parting shot, his arms defiantly raised with his fingers spelling out “V” for victory as he too headed out to California.
Their presidential libraries are only 80 miles apart in the Los Angeles area. Reagan’s occupies a scenic hilltop with a commanding view over a valley that could stand in as a landscape double for Tuscany. Nixon’s is in his native town of Yorba Linda, perched next to the house in which he was born, a white clapboard cottage that his father built from a kit in 1912.
Both men led fascinating lives, but given how Nixon’s political career ended it’s assumed his library and museum would pale compared to Reagan’s. However, that is not the case. The Nixon museum devotes a great deal of space to his humble family roots and his substantial pre-and-post presidency careers.
A vintage black-and-white television runs an endless loop of Nixon’s “Checkers” speech; his prime-time response to charges that he had access to a secret political fund when he was Dwight Eisenhower’s vice presidential running mate in 1952. The half-hour address by the then 39-year-old candidate is pure Nixon. He lays out his case in lawyerly fashion, establishing his relative penury and uttering one of the all-time classic political lines about his wife Pat’s “Republican cloth coat.” The moment rescued his growing political career.
Nixon set a record with 54 Time magazine covers, 13 of them Watergate related.
Special exhibits highlight the leading moments in his presidency: man walking on the moon, the return of the POWs being held in Vietnam and the diplomatic breakthrough with China. There’s even a copy of the most requested photo in the history of the National Archives; Nixon greeting Elvis Presley in the Oval Office.
In compelling detail, an unvarnished timeline of Watergate is presented in a large gallery: the “dirty tricks” performed by Nixon campaigners in the 1972 election, the break-in of the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Hotel, the mysterious 18 ½ minute gap in the tape recordings of the Oval Office and the subsequent actions of Nixon during the cover-up that led to his resignation.
Headphones are available to listen to the 18 ½ minute gap in the first conversation Nixon had with top aide H.R. Haldeman after learning of the Watergate break-in. Clearly audible clicks signify where the tape was erased, probably on purpose but nobody knows by whom. Interested visitors can access the on-site archives and delve even deeper into Watergate and Nixon’s presidency.
In Nixon’s birthplace home most of the original furnishings are intact, including the bed on which he was born. In the pre-television era the young Nixon was an avid reader of National Geographic; an issue on display from 1920 is devoted completely to China, making one wonder if Nixon’s diplomatic moves to China were fostered at an early age. Right next door you can board Marine One, the same helicopter that whisked Nixon and his family away on August 9, 1974, his last day in office.
Visiting the Reagan Library
The hilltop site of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, about an hour‘s drive northwest of downtown Los Angeles, evokes one of Reagan’s favorite quotes about a “shining city on a hill.”
A timeline displays the achievements of Reagan’s first 70 days in office; seemingly an odd number to highlight. After viewing this section, visitors walk through a door marked “Hotel Exit.” Upon entering the next room one wall is taken up by a video of a crowd of people including policemen and Secret Service agents gathered outside the Washington Hilton as Reagan leaves after giving a speech. Suddenly shots ring out and the room descends into chaos. This was the attempted assassination of President Reagan on his 71st day in office.
A reenactment plays on the screen of the efforts made to keep the president alive. The suit he was wearing when he was shot is on display, the front of the jacket cut off by medical personnel to access his wound. An x-ray reveals how close the bullet that lodged in his lung came to his heart and almost killed him.
After this somber display, visitors stroll down a long corridor to an impressive sight; Air Force One is on view inside the museum. It’s the same Boeing 707 used by Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and H. W. Bush. Visitors board Air Force One and are somewhat surprised that it’s not that fancy. A jar of jelly beans, President Reagan’s favorite snack, sits on a desk.
The next few galleries cover both the high and low points of Reagan’s presidency; the televised speech he gave apologizing to the American people about the Iran-Contra arms for hostages scandal is prominently displayed. Memorabilia include the Gipper’s cowboy boots.
The Nixon and Reagan Presidential Libraries are compelling places for Americans to visit, no matter what their political leanings. They educate about recent American history made by the ones we elected to lead us. They also prove that anyone, no matter how humble their roots, can become the most powerful person on Earth.
Information for visiting the Nixon and Reagan libraries:
And now for some equal time, here’s our story about meeting former president Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia.
Larissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.