Situated in Simi Valley’s rolling hills, beautifully green in winter but brown in summer, amidst horse ranches, lemon and avocado groves and ever expanding tracts of homes lies a large compound atop a mesa. This large complex houses the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum and it’s a worthwhile stop for any tourist visiting Southern California.
The American Presidential library system, much like our system of politics, is unique. There are currently 13 sites in this network ranging from one for John Quincy Adams (6th President, library in Quincy, Mass) to George W. Bush (44th President, library currently under construction in Dallas, Texas). The Library system is administered by the National Archives as each houses all the documents of that’s president’s administration and is a repository for future scholars to study the details of a presidency.
The Presidential Libraries are also museums that offer windows into what America and the World were like during that President’s administration, making them all worth visiting. As a rule they feature exhibits of the President’s challenges and accomplishments, a biography of the President’s life, and much interesting memorabilia. Many feature a duplicate of the Oval Office as it was decorated during the President’s administration. It’s sad that our politics have become so partisan — I’ve visited Presidential libraries of both Democratic and Republican leaders and enjoyed all of them (and learned a lot at each).
The most popular of these libraries is that of President Ronald Reagan, the 40th President. It’s also the library I feel most attached to as we were living just 2 miles from it for many years (our home was in Thousand Oaks, just south of the library). We watched the construction of the complex and visited it a number of times in the early years. I was always hopeful to run into President Reagan, who frequently came to his library before his Alzheimer’s disease prevented him from doing so, but was never so lucky.
We moved from Southern California in 2004 and it had been a number of years since we visited the Reagan Library. We were aware that the building’s exhibits had been completely redone in honor of President Reagan’s 100th birthday in 2011, so this baited us into a return visit. Also, we were aware that a massive hanger had been added to the building to house Air Force One, the now-retired airplane that flew President Reagan on his official duties.
The magnificence of the setting had not changed but the library’s interior was redesigned with mostly new exhibits. As you enter the library you walk through the lobby where President Reagan’s body lay at state. Then the exhibits begin. Initially you stroll through displays of the early years of President Reagan’s life — from childhood in Dixon, Illinois, to his life as a radio announcer, to his career in Hollywood. Reagan’s film career and stint as president of the Screen Actors Guild are well but not exhaustively illustrated. And then one moves into Reagan’s political life — governor of California, failed presidential run of 1976 (Gerald Ford became the Republican nominee), to his successful 1980 Presidential campaign resulting in his election to the most powerful office in the world.
The challenges of Reagan’s Presidency were many and were for the most part successfully addressed. The economy was stagnant and inflation and unemployment were very high in 1980 but resolved by the end of his second term. The nation’s optimism was renewed, at least partially because of Reagan’s positive attitude and vision for his country. Perhaps the greatest achievement of President Reagan was his role in peacefully disbanding the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War (along with Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II and President Gorbachev). All of these phases of the President’s career were presented and discussed in the library. And there are personal sides of President Reagan’s life, such as how the assassination attempt affected his outlook, his deep love for his wife and his country, his fondness of his ranch in Santa Barbara county, and even his address to the nation when he first found out he had Alzheimer’s disease and would have to remove himself from the public’s eye.
A highlight of the Reagan Library is a newly built pavilion, with funding arranged by Reagan friend and billionaire T Boone Pickens, which houses the plane that served as Air Force One during President Reagan’s career. The hanger is modern and beautiful and provides a great overview of Simi Valley. Also housed here is Marine One (President’s helicopter) and an old Presidential limousine. Several Presidential election debates have been staged in this pavilion.
One exits the museum onto the back terrace of the library, again with magnificent views of Ventura County. Here you’ll find an actual portion of the Berlin Wall and, most poignant of all, President Reagan’s grave.
Regardless of your political or world view, I think everyone can learn something here and enjoy a visit to this thoughtful museum, especially if you lived through the tumultuous 1970s and ’80s.