Should summer travel take you to Iowa, New York, Missouri, Kansas, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, Georgia, Texas or Arkansas, why not plan a visit to a presidential library?
For far less than the price of admission to a theme park, you can explore: the tiny farmhouse built by Richard M. Nixon’s father out of a kit he purchased from a catalog; Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s model ship collection; Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 5,100-pound presidential limousine; a piece of the Berlin Wall, a gift from the City of Berlin to George Herbert Walker Bush; the actual Air Force One that flew Ronald Reagan during his time in office; and the John F. Kennedy-era Mercury Freedom 7 capsule from the first American manned space mission.
You have 13 sites to chose from, which comprise the Presidential Libraries system, managed by the National Archives and Records Administration, and five more in Virginia, Illinois, Mississippi, Massachusetts, and Ohio, if you count the libraries that are independently operated.
Presidential libraries do more than house books and papers. As NARA explains on its website, “they are archives and museums, bringing together in one place the documents and artifacts of a president and his administration and presenting them to the public for study and discussion without regard for political considerations or affiliations.”
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Admission is a relative bargain. Disneyland costs $78.43 per day — a trip to a NARA library runs between $7 to $16 for adults; children are usually admitted free.
Presidential libraries are a relatively recent phenomena. FDR’s opened first, in 1941, in Hyde Park, N.Y. Today, it’s common for presidents to not only play an active role in their creation, but also to use their library as a post-White House working address.
“President Nixon played a very active, hands-on role for this library,” Michael Ellzey, executive director of the Nixon Library, told me about the Yorba Linda, Calif., site. “He was a part of the approval process and the curatorial effort. His legacy lives on inside the library that he helped build.”
Nixon’s library is one of six within NARA that also serves as the burial ground for its former chief executive. Reagan’s final resting place is one of the most poignant stops at his library. His funeral service in 2004 was bicoastal — ending with the casket’s transportation from Washington to a sunset service on the library’s breathtaking campus.
“His coffin descended into the earth at the time that the sun descended over the ocean. It is an unforgettable moment in many people’s lives,” John Heubusch, executive director of the Reagan Library, told me.
The men whose stories are told at each locale were by definition political animals, and based on my conversations with six of those who run the libraries, I sense their competitive spirit lives on insofar as each thinks their library is the one to see.
“There are lots of great presidential libraries to visit. I think this one happens to stand tall because of who it represents, President Reagan, who we consider to be one of the greatest presidents of our lifetime,” said Heubusch, whose favorite part of his own museum is the Air Force One exhibit, the Boeing 707 aircraft that flew Reagan 660,000 miles to 26 countries and 46 states.
“The neat thing about this, is it’s not like a space shuttle, where you go to a museum and you can’t touch it and you’re standing and looking at it from afar,” Heubusch said. “Here you can actually go on board Air Force One. You can walk through the aircraft and see history. It’s just an amazing experience.”
But Ellzey, who runs the Nixon Library, less than two hours south of Reagan’s, doesn’t cede any ground.
“This is a very unique space in that it has the birthplace of the 37th president and the resting place just a few feet away,” he said. “The homée was built out of a kit from Sears by Nixon’s father and it is located in precisely the location that it was when it was originally built: the cornerstone of a nine-acre presidential library venue.”
California may have two libraries in close proximity, but Warren Finch, the executive director of the George H.W. Bush Library, says Texas tops that.
“You can do three presidential libraries here in Texas and they’re all within driving distance,” he said. “There’s ours, 41, there’s 43 up in Dallas on the campus of (Southern Methodist University), and then the Johnson Library in Austin is just about two hours from here.”
But Finch is happy to add a reason for visiting his own: “I’m not sure there was another person who became president who had quite the experience and the résumé that George H.W. Bush had.”
Visitors to the George W. Bush Library often arrive with a quest for more information about a most consequential day.
“The Sept. 11 part of our exhibit we knew was important to do in an appropriate, respectful way,” said Alan Lowe, the director. “Another part of our museum that has proven to be very popular is called the Decision Points Theater. That’s where you go in, you act like the president, and make decisions on some of the more controversial topics of the Bush administration.”
Many of the library directors boast of their Oval Office replica, including Terri Garner, who runs the Clinton Library in Little Rock. “Ours, by the request of President Clinton, was an exact replica of one day in his administration,” she said.
In Boston, director Tom Putnam takes similar pride in what is represented at the JFK Library.
“Our entire museum is designed to put people back into the 1960s,” he said. “We use it to talk about the most dramatic speech JFK gave on civil rights in June 1963, where he called civil rights a moral crisis facing the country.”
President Obama’s foundation recently announced that his library will open after 2020 in his adopted hometown of Chicago. When constructed, rest assured its leader will tout it as the best.
Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is host of “Smerconish” on CNN. Readers may contact him at www.smerconish.com
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