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Presidential places offer insight about country's past leaders
America’s commanders-in-chief entrust their sometimes complicated legacies to their eponymous libraries and museums.
Associated Press | File Jan. 20, 2009
At the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Jerry Dessalines of Braintree, Mass., takes a photo of his son Jerry Jr. on their way to watch a broadcast of President Barack Obama’s first inaugural address. Dedicated to the memory of the 35th president, the center is located on a 10-acre park overlooking the sea.
MICHAEL SCHUMAN | Special to The Roanoke Times
President Truman on his 1948 whistle-stop campaign with his wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret.
MICHAEL SCHUMAN | Special to The Roanoke Times
President Reagan makes a campaign speech in 1976 surrounded by his family, including wife Nancy, daughter Maureen and son Ron Jr.
Photos by MICHAEL SCHUMAN | Special to The Roanoke Times
A gallery details President Eisenhower’s “military-industrial establishment” speech of 1961.
Sunday, March 17, 2013
Before he became president, the dour and disdained Herbert Hoover was known as The Great Humanitarian, an American hero who fed hundreds of thousands of starving Europeans in the wake of World War I.
Presidential libraries are here to inform us that we don’t know as much about history as we think we do. The realities manage to squash the fallacies. Witness the heroism of young Hoover.
The first U.S. presidential library and museum was the brainchild of Franklin Roosevelt. Previously, the fate of every president’s official papers had been at the mercy of the man or his heirs.
Following FDR, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower built presidential libraries. Then in 1962, Herbert Hoover built his, though he preceded Roosevelt in office. Since then, with a few exceptions, they have been built in chronological order.
Twelve libraries/museums are administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. George W. Bush’s is scheduled to open in Dallas in spring. A few are privately or state-run, such as those for Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes. Here is a rundown on those that are part of the NARA system.
So just what are presidential libraries/museums?
Unlike traditional libraries, these are research facilities and museums, mainly for official presidential papers, photography and state gifts. The actual library sections are of interest mostly to researchers.
The museum portions beckon travelers. Their basic purposes are to tell each president’s life story, from childhood to retirement through posted commentary and artifacts. And to take advantage of the latest technology and newest historical perspectives, most have been redesigned several times since opening.
At first, presidents built libraries and museums near the places they lived.
FDR (Hyde Park, N.Y.), Truman (Independence, Mo.), Eisenhower (Abilene, Kan.) and Hoover (West Branch, Iowa) had theirs constructed near their adult or boyhood homes. Richard Nixon built his on the site of his birthplace (Yorba Linda, Calif.).
Lyndon Johnson (University of Texas in Austin) started a trend of building presidential libraries on college campuses. John Kennedy (University of Massachusetts Boston), George Bush the elder (Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas) did the same, as did Bush the younger (Southern Methodist University in Dallas).
Jimmy Carter (Atlanta) and Bill Clinton (Little Rock) had theirs built in locations chosen to revitalize urban areas. Gerald Ford’s is the only complex split between two cities. The Ford Library is on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, while the Ford Museum is in his longtime home of Grand Rapids, Mich.
Most presidential museums are highlighted by a re-creation of a famous room. Odds are that if you enter one, you’ll encounter a reproduction of the Oval Office.
Clinton’s, Carter’s, Reagan’s, Johnson’s, Ford’s, Truman’s and the elder Bush’s all have one. Kennedy’s presidential desk sits alone, set up before cameras as if a press conference is about to start. FDR’s desk is the only original one in a presidential museum.
The elder Bush also went for variety. His museum presents the president’s office at Camp David and the White House Situation Room. Clinton’s has a full-sized reproduction of the White House Cabinet Room. Nixon’s has replicas of the East Room and the Lincoln Sitting Room, his favorite place in the White House.
Other museums highlight the presidents’ places of retirement. Truman’s cluttered library office where he worked in retirement is maintained as it was during his life.
Eisenhower’s has a life-sized version of his post-presidential office at Gettysburg College, while Hoover’s is noted for his Waldorf-Astoria suite in New York City where he lived his last 32 years.
Nixon’s has his cozy office from his New Jersey post-presidency home.
Most museums offer activities to provide breaks from the cerebral.
With the help of a TelePrompTer in Ford’s museum, you can deliver a speech once given by the prez himself. In the elder Bush’s, take a seat in the presidential chair behind a replica of his White House desk. At the Reagan museum, you can call a baseball game, recite movie lines and address the nation just as the Gipper did in his career roles as sportscaster, actor and president.
Also, at George H.W. Bush’s repository, you can play a flight simulation game to try to land an airplane on a carrier flight deck as Bush did in World War II. Carter’s allows you to virtually visit nations that he has aided as a former president and humanitarian, and then email yourself a virtual passport.
The Nixon museum’s updated Watergate gallery allows visitors to use touch screens and interactive kiosks to view vintage footage, in addition to putting on a set of headphones and listening to White House tapes.
And in the Vietnam War exhibit in Johnson’s museum, visitors can put themselves in the president’s Texas-sized shoes and decide via touch screen how they would respond in the situations Johnson faced. Example: Should the United States retaliate against North Vietnam after shots were fired at an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin?
Johnson did retaliate, and the war escalated. Most visitors have voted against retaliation. What is it they say about 20-20 hindsight?
Times allows criticism
All presidential museums accentuate the positive, and it seems that immediately after a museum opens, it portrays its president as almost saintly.
Mistakes are rationalized. But nobody, even your personal favorite president, was perfect. The longer that time passes, the tendency toward hagiography disappears.
The Truman museum today offers pro and con looks at the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In the Johnson museum, one reads that LBJ’s former friend, Martin Luther King Jr., blamed the Vietnam War for the death of the Great Society programs, which King said were “shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.”
Ford takes the blame for botching a debate and the ineffective WIN (“Whip Inflation Now”) campaign.
The Iran-Contra scandal, on the other hand, merits just a matchbox summary in the Reagan Museum and blames Reagan’s subordinates. However, the museum downplays what some fans consider his greatest accomplishment: the downfall of the Soviet empire. The museum takes a more tempered approach, crediting decades of the policy of containment with film clips of Reagan’s predecessors attesting to that.
Nixon’s museum recently changed its Watergate gallery to include snippets of his infamous anti-Semitic comments. While one might say that the previous Watergate gallery was presented from Nixon’s point of view, the current one, designed by NARA, offers a prosecutor’s perspective. Yet it is hard to believe any presentation of this touchy subject will ever satisfy all sides.
The Clinton museum’s consensus regarding the Monica Lewinsky scandal is that independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr, a strong conservative, was anything but independent.
In a 2009 interview done with TV journalist Brian Williams, Jimmy Carter says he worked out an agreement with the Ayatollah Khomeini to keep Americans in Iran safe but that Khomeini later broke faith.
In the Herbert Hoover Museum, a display in the Great Depression gallery reads, “To most Americans the president was a remote, grim-faced man in a blue, double-breasted suit. They saw none of his private anguish throughout 16-hour days, engaging in fruitless mealtime conferences with economists, politicians, and bankers.”
Yet the museum doesn’t absolve Hoover of all guilt. Visitors read, “In truth, Hoover’s celebration of technology failed to anticipate the end of a postwar building boom, or the glut of 26,000,000 new cars and other consumer goods flooding the market.”
Of the nine deceased presidents with presidential libraries under the administration of NARA, all but Kennedy and Johnson are buried either on the grounds of their library complex, or nearby. Kennedy is buried in Arlington National Cemetery , and Johnson is buried in the family cemetery in Johnson City, Texas.
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