Visiting the Nixon and Reagan Libraries

A collection of Time Magazine covers featuring President Richard M. Nixon at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif.
A collection of Time Magazine covers featuring President Richard M. Nixon at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif. (DAVID McNEW / Getty Images)
Posted: February 17, 2014

When Ronald Reagan finished his second term, he rode off to his California ranch on a wave of popularity that helped his vice president get elected to succeed him. Our last image of Richard M. Nixon was quite different. Forced to resign over the Watergate affair, he left office in disgrace. As he boarded the helicopter on the White House lawn, he gave Americans a parting gesture, his arms raised with his fingers spelling out "V" for victory as he, too, headed off to California.

Soon after leaving office, Ronald Reagan was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease and spent most of his remaining life in seclusion. Perhaps more motivated to improve his own legacy, Nixon wrote several books about foreign policy and gradually worked his way back into the limelight as an elder statesman.

Their presidential libraries are both in the Los Angeles area. Reagan's occupies a scenic hilltop with a commanding view of a valley that could stand in as a landscape double for Tuscany. Nixon's is in his native town of Yorba Linda, next to the house in which he was born, a white clapboard cottage his father built from a kit in 1912.

Both men led fascinating lives, but given how Nixon's political career ended, it might be assumed his library and museum would pale compared to Reagan's. But it doesn't. The Nixon museum devotes a great deal of space to his humble family roots and his substantial pre- and post-presidency careers.

A vintage black-and-white television shows an endless loop of Nixon's "Checkers" speech, his prime-time response to charges that he had access to a secret political fund when he was Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice presidential running mate in 1952. The half-hour address by the 39-year-old candidate is pure Nixon. He lays out his case in lawyerly fashion, establishing his relative penury and uttering one of the all-time classic political lines about his wife Pat's "Republican cloth coat." The moment rescued his growing political career.

Exhibits highlight the leading moments in his presidency: man walking on the moon, the return of POWs from Vietnam, and the diplomatic breakthrough with China. There's a copy of the most-requested photo in the history of the National Archives; Nixon greeting Elvis Presley in the Oval Office.

In compelling detail, an unvarnished timeline of Watergate is presented in a large gallery: the "dirty tricks" by Nixon campaigners in the 1972 election, the break-in at the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Hotel, the famous 181/2-minute gap in the Oval Office tape recordings, and the subsequent actions of Nixon during the coverup that led to his resignation.

Headphones are available to listen to the tape of the first conversation Nixon had with top aide H.R. Haldeman after learning of the Watergate break-in - the one featuring the 181/2-minute gap. Clearly audible clicks mark where the tape was erased, probably on purpose but nobody knows by whom. Interested visitors can access the on-site archives and delve even deeper into Watergate and Nixon's presidency.

In Nixon's birthplace home, most of the furnishings are original, intact, including the bed on which he was born. In the pre-television era, the young Nixon was an avid reader of National Geographic; an issue on display from 1920 is devoted to China, making one wonder whether Nixon's diplomatic overtures toward China were fostered at an early age. Next door, you can board Marine One, the same helicopter that whisked Nixon and his family away on Aug. 9, 1974, his last day in office.

About 80 miles northwest of the Nixon library, the hilltop site of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum evokes one of Reagan's favorite quotes about a "shining city on a hill."

Exhibits note that Reagan gave one of his early public speeches while he was a student at Eureka College in Illinois, protesting the elimination of some classes due to the Great Depression. After graduating in 1932, he went to Hollywood, where his budding acting career was cut short by World War II, during which he served in a film unit. Afterward, he's shown alongside Humphrey Bogart giving a speech in support of Democrat Harry Truman in 1948.

A timeline displays the achievements of Reagan's first 70 days in office, a seemingly odd figure to highlight. After viewing this section, visitors walk through a door marked "Hotel Exit." In the next room, one wall is taken up with a video of a crowd of people, including policemen and Secret Service agents gathered outside the Washington Hilton as Reagan leaves after giving a speech. Suddenly, shots ring out and the room erupts in chaos. This was John Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Reagan on March 30, 1981 - his 71st day in office.

A reenactment plays on the screen of the efforts made to keep the president alive. The suit he was wearing when he was shot is on display, the front of the jacket cut off by medical personnel to access his wound. An X-ray shows how close the bullet that lodged in his lung came to his heart.

After this somber display, visitors stroll down a long corridor to an impressive sight; Air Force One is on view in the museum, the Boeing 707 used by Presidents Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. Visitors board Air Force One and are somewhat surprised to see it's not that fancy. A jar of jelly beans, Reagan's favorite snack, sits on a desk.

The next few galleries cover the high and low points of Reagan's presidency; the televised speech he gave apologizing to the American people for the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal is prominently displayed.

Whereas the Nixon museum almost glosses over his death, the Reagan museum makes you feel you were at his funeral. Many visitors stood with tears streaming as they watched the events of that day.

The Nixon and Reagan presidential libraries are compelling places for Americans to visit, no matter what their political leanings. They educate about recent American history made by those we elected to lead us. They also demonstrate that anyone, no matter how humble their roots, can become the most powerful person on Earth.


Michael Milne and his wife, Larissa, are global explorers and travel writers. You can follow their journey at www.ChangesInLongitude.com.

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