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One of my “bucket list” items is to visit all 13 official presidential and museums/libraries, along with the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois.

Until about four years ago I’d visited only one, the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Then my wife and I, along with our daughter in law, visited the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. Outstanding. Still, it didn’t occur to me that visiting all of them might be fun.

A couple of years later Sarah and I went to Kansas City and took time to drive the short distance to Independence to visit the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. I had just finished reading David McCullough’s Truman, so my understanding of President’s Truman’s Administration and impact were fresh. He was a homespun but highly effective leader and the number of major decisions he made with long-term historical impact were amazing.

That did it. From there it dawned on me that visiting all the presidential museums might be both possible and fun. Since that time I’ve been able to visit a few more, including one in the past week. I recommend the same goal to you. Here’s a summary of what I’ve enjoyed so far:

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum – I always felt I had some distant emotional tie to Mr. Ford, largely because August 8, 1974, President Richard Nixon announced his intention to resign, August 9, 1974 President Nixon resigned and Mr. Ford took the oath of office as President, and August 10, 1974, Sarah and I got married. So it was a great weekend for a young man interested in politics and a certain young lady.

The museum is located along the river in Grand Rapids while the library is located at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The museum is not huge but nice, includes a replica of the Oval Office during the Ford Administration, and does a lot with the shortest presidency in history, focusing especially upon the Nixon Pardon. President Ford lived longer than any previous president, passed away at 93, and is buried on site.

Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library and Museum – For me so far, the Reagan Museum is the Gold Standard of presidential museums. It is located on a hilltop with a view of the Pacific in the distance, features a large section on Reagan’s Hollywood years and another large section on the presidency. All the president’s signatures are engraved in the wood-paneled walls of the entryway, which is a distinctive and intriguing feature. Nancy Reagan is given her due as is the Reagans’s love for their mountaintop ranch. Reagan’s gifts as the “Great Communicator” are available in audio and video throughout.

Without question, though, the most impressive exhibit in the museum is the jet that Reagan, along with Ford, Carter, both Bushes, Clinton, used as Air Force One. Alongside the jet in what amounts to a museum hanger is the helicopter Reagan used as Marine One, as well as his automobile. You can walk through the jet. I had walked through FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower’s planes years before, which are housed at Wright Patterson Air Force Museum in Dayton, but seeing Reagan’s jet is on another level. President Reagan is buried on site.

Harry S. Truman Library and Museum – Truman’s museum is small by comparison to others built today, but I doubt you can find more significant history per square foot than this museum offers. Surviving an assassination attempt, firing General Douglas MacArthur, ending WWII with the Atom Bomb, the United Nations, NATO, full renovation of the White House, recognition of Israel in 1948, the Marshall Plan, and more. My favorite presidential picture is featured here. It’s Truman in Independence walking away from the camera in topcoat and hat, out for his traditional morning walk—alone—the next morning after arriving home from relinquishing the most powerful office in the world. Truman retired with no pension—that came later for him and subsequent presidents due to the work of his friends in Congress—and no continuing Secret Service protection. He didn’t believe he should use the stature of the presidency to earn money after the presidency. It was a different era. President and Mrs. Truman are buried on site.

Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum – Nixon’s museum is also small by comparison to the ones being built today, is located along a main street in Yorba Linda, California, includes his boyhood home on the property, and one of his helicopters. Watergate is featured, but a debate is currently underway about how to portray associated events and with what tone or critique. President and Mrs. Nixon are buried on site. I enjoyed the visit because it brought back so many memories from my early college interest in politics, and 1972 was the first presidential election in which I voted. But I left feeling a bit down and realized it was a feeling of betrayal (I used this in an article I wrote about betrayal). Nixon’s is a leadership that might have been.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum – The Eisenhower Museum is located in his hometown, Abilene, Kansas, is small by present standards, is beginning to show its age so is in need of a facelift, and is, like the Truman Museum, packed with World War II history, including an amazing array of medals given to General Eisenhower by grateful nations of the world. A distinctive feature is Eisenhower’s boyhood home located on its original foundation. In other words, the museum, library, and chapel where the President and Mrs. Eisenhower are buried are located on the family and nearby property in Abilene. So Ike played in that yard, walked barefoot in that field, etc. Interesting.

Jimmy Carter Library and Museum – Mr. Carter’s Museum, Library, and the Carter Center are located in Atlanta on Freedom Parkway, not far from the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. The museum was closed for several months in summer 2009 for total renovation, reopening in October. The museum is first class, features cutting edge technology including a tabletop touch screen computer that amounts to a kind of 22 foot iPhone. President Carter’s Nobel Prize and he and Mrs. Carter’s Presidential Freedom Medals are on display and there are an abundant number of videos of Carter Administration events or interviews with the Carters. It is truly a beautiful museum and setting.

I have a few more to go.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2010

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