BASILE: Building memories by booking it to presidential libraries

November 28, 2009

After we visited the Hoover Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, in July of this year, Katrina asked, “How many presidential libraries do we have left to visit?”

I said, “One.”

She asked, “Which one?”


She said, “Where is that located?”

“Abilene, Kansas.”

She said, “How far is that from here?”

“About 450 miles.”

She said, “Let’s drive there now and be done with it!”

Yes, I’m thankful that I have a wife willing to tolerate my obsession. Not many would willingly go along to Abilene or West Branch in lieu of a beach or resort.

She has now near-willingly joined me at all 12 of the presidential libraries and museums, leaving none left until the George W. Bush Library in Dallas is completed. Of course, I’ll be there.

Why visit the libraries? For me—and other history addicts—they provide the opportunity to see, hear and interact with (in some cases) the events that changed our lives and made us who we are as a nation. A presidential library and museum is a rich resource about a particular president as well as about the times in which he lived.

Beginning a tradition that continues to this day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt raised private funds and built a library, which he gave to the U.S. government for operation through the National Archives and Records Administration. In 1955, this process became law when the U.S. Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act.

Here are some observations from along the presidential library trail:

The Johnson Library is the only one free of charge, which is what LBJ decreed when it was built. He wanted as many people as possible to visit without money as an obstacle. As a result, his is the most visited of all the libraries, which was undoubtedly also one of his goals.

The Kennedy Library is on a 10-acre park, overlooking the sea he loved and the city, Boston, that was his original power base. The recent memorial service for Sen. Edward Kennedy was conducted there, with the name of the library prominent on the lectern where each person spoke.

The Eisenhower Library seems to be the one most associated with its city. A prominent quote that we saw in at least three places: “The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.”

There’s a person, though, whom Eisenhower’s memorializers don’t seem to be too proud of. His vice president, who served with him during all eight years, was not mentioned or seen at all in the film in the visitor’s center. And he showed up only once in the entire building: Near the museum exit, we spotted the famous photograph of Richard Nixon and Khrushchev in the “kitchen debate.” On the other hand, there were several photos of John Kennedy in the museum. Interesting.

More skewed history: During our visit to the Nixon Library, in the abbreviated Watergate section, it would be easy to conclude that Watergate was the result of two overzealous Washington Post reporters using illegal means to obtain questionable information to bring about the president’s fall. On the other hand, Nixon’s China policy receives extensive coverage. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the library is 15 minutes from Disneyland.

(This all may have changed since the library was taken over by the federal government in 2007. When we visited, it was still privately funded and –operated.)

We arrived at the Reagan Library just before sunset and went straight to his gravesite overlooking the Simi Valley and saw why he fell in love with this spot. The view is magnificent. The hacienda-like library structure is set high on a hill, with a view that captures the sun setting in the west each evening. Appropriately, the main sculpture/photo of Reagan is not in a business suit, as with most of the presidents, but a life-size sculpture of him dressed in cowboy clothes and riding a horse.

This is the only museum that houses an Air Force One plane, which is the one he used during his eight years in the White House. The museum also contains a piece of the Berlin Wall, which he is credited with “tearing down”.

To answer the question of the voyeurs, Monica’s dress is not in the Clinton Library in Little Rock. This, the newest presidential library, was built in the general shape of a bridge next to the Arkansas River to represent the bridge to the 21st century theme.

The Clinton Library has the largest overall number of documents and artifacts, which might be due to the fact that he served eight years and also talked a lot. The Hoover Library has the smallest overall number of items in its holdings.

Unlike the other presidential libraries, the Bush Library in Austin, Texas, also contains the records of his vice president, our own Dan Quayle. Quayle’s vice presidential museum is in Huntington.

On another local note: While our own President Benjamin Harrison home is not a part of the presidential library network, in 1964 the U.S. Department of Interior named it a National Historic Landmark. The Harrison staff and board are in the process of assimilating a vast new collection of his documents that were recently purchased from a descendant, and the organization is soliciting private contributions to assist in this worthwhile endeavor. Consider it your way to be a part of history.

To find the location and other information about the presidential libraries, visit www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries.•


Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears occasionally. The next one will appear March 29. Basile can be reached at Frank_Basile@sbcglobal.net.


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