Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

I first heard of Ronald Reagan in 1981, in first grade. The Weekly Reader we got every Friday during a mid-afternoon snack time had his face on the front with the headline: "Meet our Fortieth President!".

An unintentionally ironic exhibit in the "Legacy" room of the museum; a flat screen talking head of Reagan behind an empty podium; paging Gary Trudeau.

The Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley did not elevate my understanding of Reagan, his life, his administration, his policies, or his legacy much beyond that issue of Weekly Reader. That's probably not really the fault of the creators of this museum. Many have noted that it was hard to figure out what -- if anything -- was going on inside Reagan's head. In writing his deeply controversial biography of Reagan, Edmund Morris apparently became so frustrated trying to learn anything about the character or mind of his subject that he resorted to fiction. Morris complained that, in writing the book, he had begun to despair that there was nothing to say about the man and his character because there was nothing really there.

Reagan was, by all accounts, an exceedingly simple -- perhaps simplistic -- man, endowed with a Hollywood visage, excellent hair, and a child-like view of the world. The museum perfectly conveys these aspects of Reagan. Everything is surface level and elementary school fun. There is Air Force One (you can go inside!), there's Marine One, there are those big black Secret Service Suburbans, and, revealingly, there's even an LAPD police car and motorcycle, just because those kinds of things will excite people who get excited about Marine One. There's the "historical artifact" (perfectly encapsulating the story of Reagan) of the Notre Dame sweater worn by Knut Rockne given as a gift to Reagan at the end of his term in recognition of his role in the movie Knut Rockne - All American, playing George Gipp. There are the television clips from Reagan's time as a spokesperson for General Electric. There's a mock-up of his Oval Office. There's a six-minute movie about flying on Air Force One and Reagan marvelling how it's always on time. There's the hat he wore at Camp David. Etc.

"Peace Through Strength" hats and T-shirts in the gift shop. There were also lots of jellybeans.

For some reason, much of the museum and its exhibits emphasizes stuff Reagan ate. He (famously) ate jellybeans. This is mentioned many times. The short film on Air Force One has an interview with the Air Force One chef, who talks about how, before a long trip to a strange land (e.g., China, Russia, Korea), he would often prepare a "simple hamburger" for the President. During the walk-through on Air Force One, the docents make a point of pointing out the china used on the plane. There is, for some reason, a fake chocolate cake ready for serving at the back of the plane. There's a mock-up of some pub in Ireland where Reagan once drank a pint of ale while exploring his Irish roots. And so on. I found this emphasis on food interesting, and thought it was likely part of the museum's effort to present Reagan as a lovable, noncontroversial figure: everyone loves hamburgers, jellybeans, and cake. Better to talk about that than the S&L crisis or AIDS. (Also, in the official "Reagan Country Cafe", I had an order of "Stealth" fries, and Mrs. Octopus had an "F-14 Fighter Dog with Cheese".)

The ideological message of the museum (if not to say propaganda) is not as dramatic as I would've expected. There is no anger or harshness in the message; rather, Reagan's life and work is presented as if there could never be (or have been) any controversy involved. There is little to nothing about Iran-Contra. There is nothing about the controversies surrounding Reaganomics. There is, revealingly, scarce mention of his first marriage to Jane Wyman. (To this day, Reagan remains our first and only divorced President -- McCain would be the second.) Instead, this is a museum for the true believers, in which Reagan is an idealized, perfect figure. Which is appropriate. He was playing the President, and that role was designed to be a flawless one. So we get a piece of the Berlin Wall standing out with a rolling California valley and blue sky behind it; this is what Reagan did for us. He brought down the "Evil Empire" and allowed the world to be free -- for global capitalism and the invisible hand of the market. The menace of communism -- a threat to freedom, and, not to mention, the sponsors and corporate patrons to the Reagan museum and library (see, e.g., Boeing, Coca-Cola, et al.) -- was faced down by Reagan, and we, and the other beneficiaries of unbridled capitalism, are to be thankful for that.

A portion of the Berlin Wall on the museum grounds; perhaps neo-cons come up to the monolith and stroke it in hopes of learning how to defeat "Islamofascism".

It is undeniable, as Barack Obama controversially observed earlier this year, that Reagan had a profound influence on the course of American politics. And even liberals should be able to acknowledge that Reagan was able to have this effect because of his undeniable charisma, his ability to present his message, and his appeal to the native optimism of Americans.

More unintentional irony: a flower arrangement in the form of a nuclear fallout warning with a dancing elephant bush at the center.

With no doubt, the damage Reagan did was also profound: his radically conservative Supreme Court picks (see, e.g., Antonin Scalia), his war on regulation [warning: Cato Institute link], his regressive tax cuts, his slashing of the social safety net, his escalation of military spending, the illegal funding of the Contras in Nicaragua, etc.

But despite this troubling legacy, I suspect that, like myself, others in my generation who grew up in the 80's will always hold -- despite their better judgment -- a complicated affection for Reagan. He was an easy President for third graders to like. He had great hair, looked good on TV, and vowed to take down an Evil Empire. We all got that. Most of us are in a very different place now; we began to learn in junior high school of the depradations and darker sides of Morning in America (TM), and those lessons have been reinforced ever since. But, despite ourselves, I think many in my generation, like myself, were saddened when we read Reagan's November 5, 1994 letter about his Alzheimer's diagnosis, and heard of his death in the summer of 2004. For better or worse, Ronald Reagan was the face of America during our youth, and that cannot be changed; that will always be with us.

We're looking forward to our next Presidential library visit: the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda.

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