An upcoming presidential candidate debate will take place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, outside Los Angeles. The academic and educational tourist destination makes a grand old setting for Republican debates because the backdrop for the stage is an actual, decommissioned “Air Force One” aircraft. It is displayed in a 90,000-square-foot pavilion overlooking a valley backed by a southern California mountain range.
President Reagan’s visage was that of a strong-jawed leading man, but the four-story Air Force One Pavilion at his museum is jaw-dropping. It also contains the Commander in Chief’s Marine One helicopter. The hangar’s huge windows make it seem as if either aircraft could take flight at any moment. Reagan’s Presidential limousine, a black Cadillac with the license plate “Gipper,” is beside the jumbo jet with the rest of his Secret Service motorcade.
Visitors can climb aboard Marine One and Air Force One, which is full of the President’s personal effects, including a briefcase and briefing book he took on a trip to England, the Vatican, and Germany. Guests can peer at the bank of classified communication computers and into the cockpit. Even the galley seems ready to serve an in-flight dinner.
In another part of the sprawling museum, guests can walk through a replica of the Oval Office and see a jar of jelly beans on Reagan’s desk. The museum’s next section creates the sensation of walking through a White House state dinner with place settings, celebrity entertainment examples on video, and a gallery of the First Lady’s dresses.
Two haunting displays left an impression on me. A respectfully staffed door leads to a small dark, room where a brief video clip of the attempted assassination of the President is shown. It is startling to see the remnants of Reagan’s bullet-riddled suit scissored off by medical attendants during emergency treatment next to a video showing television news reports of Reagan reassuring the world with his famous humor. He quipped that he hoped the surgeons were Republicans and told the First Lady: “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
It was also eerie to wander through the Threat Theater. Here, a collection of photos of Soviet and Chinese communist leaders look down, bathed in red lighting and steering guests past a rogues gallery of despotic dictators such as Ayatollah Khomeini; Fidel Castro; Yasar Arafat; Muammar Gaddafi; Bashar al-Assad; and Daniel Ortega. After that kind of pressure, it is a welcome relief that a gallery celebrating summit meetings and the respite of a Camp David display follow!
The indoor/outdoor mountaintop, western-style building, with its panoramic balcony and scenic campus, includes the resting places of President Reagan and First Lady Nancy. Also, a piece of the Berlin Wall Reagan admonished “Mr. Gorbachev” to tear down. The original stealth bomber, called “Unexpected Guest,” is awesome to view. In a more peaceful vein, I found the White House Rose Garden an irresistible spot, where a statue of “The Great Communicator” stands tall in the front while a Nancy Reagan statue gazes at her “Ronnie” while relaxing on a bench.
Guests can relax at the Gipper Bar and Bistro with its large patios. An entire pub President Reagan visited in Ireland, O’Farrell’s – renamed the Ronald Reagan Pub after his visit – has been imported, piece by piece, from Ballyporeen to the museum. The facility has lots of space for events and occasional concerts.
I have been to seven Presidential Library Museums across America, and, while it is respectfully not fair to compare them, none match the physical power and emotional majesty of Reagan’s.
It is my sincere hope each Presidential candidate who debates in Reagan’s specter will, in their campaign or administration, heed the words he said to Americans after his two terms: “Whatever you say about me, I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears. To your confidence rather than your doubts.”
Contact Michael Patrick Shiels at MShiels@aol.com His radio program may be found at MiBigShow.com or weekday mornings from 9-noon on WJIM AM 1240