Born in the late 1980s, I only remember former President Ronald Reagan as someone in my history book who called on Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” Even more irrelevant in my life was former President Richard Nixon. I only knew of him because of the paragraph or two demonizing him in my history book for the Watergate scandal.
A few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to get to know these two a little better, since I only knew what I had been taught in K-12 school and college — which wasn’t much on either of them.
So I headed out one Tuesday morning to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda. It was there that I got to know the man who brought an end to the Vietnam War, came from humble beginnings, put a man on the moon and reestablished a working relationship with China.
The quaint museum had so much literature in it that I stood for hours, reading in detail about who this man really was before Watergate destroyed his legacy. A revelation for me was how committed to world peace Nixon was. He spent a great majority of his time as president — and even before as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower — traveling to war-torn, terrorized countries seeking to calm the storm.
At one point in the museum, there are the infamous TV debates between Nixon and Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy; infamous because they were taught to me as a reason why Nixon lost that election. He looked nervous and uncomfortable during the crossfire, I was told.
To be totally honest, Nixon didn’t look any more uneasy than JFK did. I was remiss to find a point where the American people would have felt like Nixon was failing so horribly. But maybe I missed something.
The museum also touted Nixon’s high school yearbook, which featured a blurb from a boyhood friend of his, proclaiming how one day he knew he’d see Richard become president. How’s that for foreshadowing?
Also on the property is an exact replica of the White House’s East Room, in which many events are held. Sitting in the middle of this empty room when I discovered it was an executive branch podium. I geeked out a bit and jumped behind it, fielding questions from invisible reporters until the friend I was visiting with walked in.
The museum portion of the complex dumps you into their new Watergate section at the end and does a great job presenting just the facts, silently inviting you to make up your own mind as to what happened.
The very next day I traveled northwest to Simi Valley and visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. If you feel like you’re driving to the middle of nowhere, then you’re on the right track. The Reagan facility is up on a hill overlooking the valley, peaceful and serene.
You start out, much like the Nixon museum, getting to know a newborn Ronnie Reagan. You follow his life through sports, media and finally his career in Hollywood. Not too long after that you’re introduced to California Gov. Ronald Reagan, where I was surprised to see the Lodi News-Sentinel credited at the end of a film of the then-governor.
You learn about Reagan’s wife, Nancy, kids and his road to the White House. You walk through the chilling reliving of the assassination attempt on his life and are confronted quite boldly with the threat of communism resurging around the globe and the faces of the leaders behind it all.
The entire country minus Minnesota came together to keep The Gipper in office during his reelection. You’d think that type of unity would have been forever synonymous with the Reagan name; however, it was the first time I had ever learned about it.
Cutting taxes, stimulating an awful economy, providing dozens of “All you need is you” speeches and cheering the country on like a great coach from the sidelines, America began to recover. The Berlin wall, the Challenger explosion, ending the Cold War and the Oval Office Replica were all showcased.
Then you enter a room filled with reports of his death just before being seated in front of a screen. The screen comes to life with one of the most inspirational movies about being an American I’ve ever seen.
As the rest of the teary-eyed visitors and I exited the building to his memorial outside we were confronted with this quote above his grave: “I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”
Even though you end the Nixon museum walking through his childhood home out back, it still doesn’t have the heartfelt impact the Reagan museum does. Both men did great and controversial things while in office.
But while I left Nixon feeling he had been misunderstood on a few things, I still didn’t trust him. When I left Reagan, I felt as though the USA had lost its best friend, a guy who understood and appreciated what we could be if he helped clear the path.
I’d invite you to visit these two historic places and share your perspective on the men I feel the history books only gently touch on.
Two days well spent.