Off-Topic Tuesday: Reagan

In the interest of getting some new content up this week, here’s another travel piece. In 2008, The Mrs. and I visited the Reagan Library and Museum in California. Before we got home, I started composing a piece about what I experienced there, thinking I’d try to get it published somewhere. I never did, of course, until now. It’s extremely long, and you can skip it if you want.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Thousand Oaks, California, is pretty fabulous. Little expense has been spared to honor the 40th president. The museum complex sits on a magnificent mountaintop, and its sprawling building houses, among other things, the actual Air Force One airplane used during Reagan’s term, and the actual pub in Ireland he famously visited while president, disassembled and rebuilt. Gallery after gallery is devoted to various phases of Reagan’s life and presidency, and there’s much emphasis on Nancy Reagan’s role in both. Reagan’s gravesite outside overlooks a spectacular mountain vista.

The museum is crowded with docents in jackets and ties. The men have the look and manner of prosperous retired executives, the women the look and manner of the wives of prosperous retired executives. They are extremely welcoming and helpful. They ask where visitors are from, they talk about the weather, they answer questions about the collections and the building itself. The gift shop is impressive. So is the cafeteria. There’s a lot to see. There are interesting artifacts of Reagan’s life, a massive collection of Nancy’s dresses, many video screens to watch.

But as a visitor walks along, he begins to feel as though something is missing.

Although the museum discusses Reagan’s Illinois upbringing and his Hollywood days, he seems to become president of the Screen Actors Guild rather suddenly. Just as suddenly, he’s an outspoken supporter of 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, then the governor of California, and finally president of the United States. Nowhere is there an attempt to explain why Reagan made the choices he made at the time he made them—why he repudiated New Deal liberalism for conservatism, which was, particularly in Hollywood and especially in 1964, a highly unfashionable thing to do. Neither is it explained why Goldwater conservatism was so thoroughly defeated in ’64, not even to highlight the incredible perseverance of Reagan and the rest of the true believers. What made them think they were right, despite being on the wrong end of the Johnson landslide? Their unwillingness to falter in that moment of ignominious defeat is the very foundation story of the conservative revolution, and marks the political birth of its greatest hero. Yet that story is nowhere told. Instead, a visitor walks on to the next gallery, where Reagan is governor of California. It’s not explained how it was that Reagan became governor of California—how he managed to defeat a once-popular two-term governor, Pat Brown, by criticizing the liberal welfare state and promising to crack down on protesters and other noisy minorities, or what he does while in office. He just wins the election, serves two terms, and leaps into the White House in 1980.

What’s missing is context.

It’s regarding the 1980 election that the lack of context becomes downright odd. Those who lived through the era remember it well—the aftermath of Vietnam, the oil shock, the Iran hostage crisis, the Great Inflation, the Carter malaise. Here would be a perfectly appropriate place to discuss all that, and to explain how and why Reagan was the perfect antidote. Such a discussion would neatly tie up the story that had begun in Reagan’s Goldwater days. But again, there’s nothing about it. Instead, his election is portrayed as an isolated event, as if he rode out of California like the Lone Ranger, an anonymous hero on a horse with his best girl at his side, to save a world that barely knew it needed saving.

The galleries devoted to Reagan’s presidency move from triumph to triumph—firing the air-traffic controllers, ending the recession, getting reelected, dealing with the Russians, winning the Cold War, knocking down the Berlin Wall. (The fall of the Wall is a recurring motif at the museum. The cumulative effect makes it seem as if Reagan himself swung the pickax that took out the first chunk of it, even though he had left office nearly a year before the Wall fell.) Reagan’s diplomatic achievements are celebrated in a gallery that overlooks the hangar containing Air Force One. Maps show where he went and who he talked to; displays rack up the number of miles he flew; video screens show him signing treaties and shaking hands.

As a visitor walks through the portion of the gallery dedicated to the summits with Mikhail Gorbachev, he hears an elderly docent talking to an elderly guest. She says to the guest, “The Democrats don’t get it,” and then she hisses, “Obama wants to negotiate with our enemies.” The eavesdropping visitor cannot help himself. He asks the docent, “Why is it wrong for Obama to talk to Iran and North Korea when Reagan talked to the Soviets?” That was different, comes the response through clenched teeth. “He talked to them, but he also sent more weapons to Europe to use on them if he needed to.” The visitor responds that no Democrat has ever disavowed using force against our enemies if it were necessary, but by this time, the docent has already made a face and waved him away. He stands there for a moment, his head nearly exploding from the irony: In the part of the museum dedicated to how great it is that Ronald Reagan talked with America’s mortal enemies, he was just told how terrible it is that Barack Obama wants to talk with America’s mortal enemies.

It’s all downhill from there. Pretty soon, a visitor is in the last gallery, which is devoted to Reagan’s legacy. And there, just like everywhere else, it’s not entirely clear why Reagan is worthy of all the veneration. The visitor decides that museum guests are just supposed to take it on faith and not question it.

Walking back out to the parking lot along flower-lined walkways (hung with small signs that say “Warning: natural habitat of rattlesnakes”), the visitor ponders Ronald Reagan, the man without a context.

Said pondering to be covered in the next installment.

3 responses

  1. Good piece. I’ve never been to a presidential library, and I think that the only one I’d really want to see is Harry Truman’s. As to Ronald Reagan, one of the great ironies of political history is that if he were alive today, he likely wouldn’t be conservative enough to be nominated by his own party.

    1. I’ve been to the Truman Library, which is just across the street from Harry’s house in Independence, Missouri, where his hat is still hanging by the back door. Have also visited library/museums for Ford, Lincoln, and McKinley, if I’m recalling correctly. High on the list of those I’d like to visit: FDR and Nixon.

  2. There should be a Harry “The Hat” Walker Museum, with Harry the Hat’s hat hanging by the door.

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