Ronald Reagan Museum and Library
Simi Valley, California
These days, it's fashionable for public office seekers to cast themselves as Washington outsiders. But back in the 1970s, voters couldn't hold back the giggles when the (then) ultimate outsider, Hollywood B-movie actor Ronald Reagan, appeared on the national stage as a presidential candidate.
He had the last laugh. The Reagan Era (1981-1989) is part of history. The Ronald Reagan Museum and Presidential Library is an essential Republican shrine, but it can be savored by anyone. After Reagan's death in 2004, the museum added Air Force One, and in 2011 completed large new galleries. The folksy cruise missile, canoe, and cardboard cutout of dancing Ron and Nancy were stowed to make way for classier artifacts.
The museum starts with a stark white corridor leading to bronze statues of Mr. and Mrs. Reagan. Around the corner, a widescreen presentation introduces visitors to the man and his milestones.
Then it's on to the exhibit galleries. We learn about Reagan's small town roots as a child in Dixon and Tampico, Illinois. Reagan quotes are interspersed with images of family life and school. There's Reagan's mother's Bible (used for his swearing in), and the topper from the wedding cake for his 1952 marriage to Nancy Davis. A subsequent owner of Ron and Nancy's 1952-57 Pacific Palisades home donated a concrete slab, signed with an "N.D." and "R.R." heart. It's all sweet romance and simple American values (his first marriage to actress Jane Wyman seems barely mentioned).
In the Gallery of the Evolution of the Great Communicator, the General Electric Theater points out that RR hosted a popular TV program from 1954 to 1962. Exhibits chronicle his time as a radio sports announcer, a contract film actor for Warner Brothers (who infamously co-starred with a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo), and as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Visitors are invited to participate in a green screen experience, where they see themselves inserted into archival footage to trade lines with Reagan in "Knute Rockne: All American" or to host GE Theater, or to call a Chicago Cubs game in the 1935 World Series.
After a glance through the section on Reagan's time as Governor of California (1967-1975), we skipped ahead to his presidential years, starting with his landslide victory over Jimmy Carter. Reagan was the oldest person ever inaugurated as President. Visitors can stand at the inauguration podium to try their own teleprompter oath reading skills.
Instead of a First 100 Days snapshot, we see RR's First 70 Days. On Day 69, President Reagan was shot.
March 30, 1981 is when would-be assassin John Hinckley, Jr. blasted away outside the Washington Hilton, seriously wounding President Reagan and three others. A glass cabinet presents key artifacts: X-rays of RR's guts and a bullet, and a revolver "almost identical" to the .22 caliber Rohm RG-14 Hinckley used to fire five times at the President. Under glass, there it is: the "New Blue Suit" RR was wearing, bloody and perforated by the ricochet that zig-zagged through him, "cut from his body as doctors searched for wounds."
The injured Reagan lightened the grim mood by joking with his trauma surgeons, and telling his wife he "forgot to duck."
Duties and life in the Reagan White House are revealed through more displays and interactive games. Visitors can try to set the table for a State Dinner. Observant visitors will spot his signature Jelly Belly jars; there's one in the full-size Oval Office replica, and elsewhere a Reagan portrait made of jellybeans.
We enjoy the "gifts" section of any presidential collection, and quickly spotted a diplomatic gift portrait given by the President of the Central African Republic. It's of Reagan rendered in plucked butterfly wings, framed in cola nuts. It's not the first time we've seen presidents made of dead insect body parts.
Air Force One and Marine One
The biggest object in the museum collection is the Boeing 707 that shuttled the President (and six other presidents) around the world on his many diplomatic missions. Over 150 feet long and open for visitor walk-through, Air Force One is housed in a hangar-gallery with a wall of glass looking out onto the hills of Simi Valley. It's one of only two Air Force One aircraft on public display (the other is at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Ohio). It served as the dramatic backdrop for a 2015 Republican debate, though the stage resembled a game show with too many contestants trying to win a plane.
At Marine One, the Presidential helicopter, visitors pose on the steps next to a marine mannequin and wave to an imaginary press corps. Under Air Force One's left wing you'll discover The Ronald Reagan, the museum's pub and gift shop.
A wall in the hangar devoted to the Secret Service -- "Standing Next to History" -- marks a timeline connecting Lincoln's assassination to Reagan's near assassination. The Secret Service gets more appreciation here than at other Presidential museums.
The Air Traffic Controllers strike in 1981, when Reagan enforced the "no strike" contract and fired all the controllers, is unsurprisingly absent from the aviation exhibit. It's buried in a room about rebuilding America, an area that devotes most of its attention to the importance of home ownership and business entrepreneurship.
The Cold War
The Cold War galleries are somber and dark. On one end, a long fake Berlin Wall watched by an East German guard tower has an inviting hole chiseled into the concrete. Reagan fans crawl in, experiencing a personal flight to freedom. In the cramped space they might notice marked names of East Berliners shot making the dangerous crossing.
In the Crisis Corridor, the Soviet threat is further dramatized in a multi-screen show, where faces of red leaders loom over propaganda footage of weapons and totalitarian fists crushing liberty. And let's not forget all the other sinister despots and terror state leaders RR had to contend with -- Castro, Khomeini, Arafat, Khadafi, Assad -- presented in a henchmen's gallery of villainous evil.
We moved on to the Peace Through Strength gallery, packed with visuals of geopolitics: the Reagan Doctrine, detente, maps of every hot zone and little dust up (anyone remember Grenada?).
A bronze Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, sits with a bronze Gipper, encircled by photos of their summits and handshakes. Beyond that, a rusty World Trade Center structural beam is angled across the center of a room. We were puzzled by its presence, other than to illustrate that s**t still happens, and perhaps to imagine how a RR might have responded to 9/11 had he still been President.
The Golden Years
The mood changes near the end, as Ron and Nancy enter the golden glow of Simi Valley and retirement (and Ron is buried behind the museum). Their horse saddles and commemorative belt buckles are displayed. Visitors pose astride a fiberglass horse in front of a large photo of horseback Reagan at his ranch.
It's as if Americans can all be cowboys, riding off with their elder statesman into the cinematic sunset of his legacy.
March 6, 2016: Nancy Reagan passed away at age 94. The former First Lady will join her husband in the grave site behind the museum.