California is home to two remarkable California Presidential libraries that offer visitors a unique opportunity to delve into the lives and times of two influential presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Earlier this year, I revisited both of California’s Presidential legacies. I began my day at Reagan Library and then ended the day with Nixon. It was a bit of a drive but worth it.
The Richard Nixon Presidential Library, Yorba Linda, California
The 37th President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, will always be remembered for two things, his resignation from the Office of President and Watergate. The Nixon Presidential Library opened in 1990, four years before the President died in 1994. The library deals with Watergate very straightforwardly and lets visitors come to their conclusions about the scandal.
Richard Nixon was born on his father’s citrus farm in Yorba Linda in 1913, and the library is located on the site of the family’s farm and includes his boyhood home. Nixon attended Whittier College, where he studied government, drama, and football, and won a scholarship to Duke University’s Law School, where he graduated in 1937. He practiced law on his return to California to practice law. He met Pat Ryan (the future Mrs. Nixon) at a play rehearsal, and they married in 1940.
World War II
Nixon served as a Navy Lieutenant J.G. He served in the South Pacific during the war and was released from active duty in 1946.
In 1950, he was elected to the Senate. A solid anti-communist stance brought him to the attention of President Eisenhower. He was Eisenhower’s running mate in the 1952 election. By the 1960 election, Nixon was the Republican nominee for President. He lost to John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee for President.
After this national defeat, Nixon returned to California and ran for governor in 1962 and was defeated. In 1968, Nixon won office, promising a return to more traditional values.
In his first term, he sought to reduce the number of troops in Vietnam and forged new relations with both China and the Soviet Union. On July 19, 1969, the U.S. accomplished President Kennedy’s challenge and landed men on the moon. By 1971, he dealt with economic issues at home, taking the U.S. off the gold standard. The 1972 election was a landslide for Nixon, winning the most electoral votes. However, the goodwill ride was short-lived.
Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned on suspicion of tax evasion, and the Watergate scandal broke in June 1972. The fallout of Watergate led to the President’s resignation in August 1974 and the appointment of Vice President Gerald Ford as President.
Ford pardoned Nixon “for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969, through August 9, 1974.”
Visitors begin the library experience with a short film on Nixon’s life in the Orientation Theater. He was driven, hard-charging, and determined to win from the beginning. This ‘anything to win’ attitude would eventually lead to his downfall.
Entering the exhibit area of the library, your senses are assaulted as you walk through the ‘crises’ that were ongoing in the county when Nixon won in 1968. From racial issues to the Vietnam War that continued to rage, his administration had its hands full.
President Roosevelt began tape recording conversations in the White House, but it is Nixon who will be remembered for the tapes, or should that be the ‘missing’ tapes?
The library’s exhibits on Nixon’s successes are impressive: the 1969 moon landing, the visit to China, the establishment of the EPA, the war on cancer, and the end of the Vietnam War.
First Lady, Pat Nixon
“I never had time to dream about being anyone else. I had to work.” She said in one interview. Mrs. Nixon graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree from USC in 1937. She was a schoolteacher when she met Richard Nixon.
Mrs. Nixon is one of the few women to have served as both the Second and First Lady. She was the first, First Lady to enter a combat zone. She suffered two strokes and was then diagnosed with lung cancer, and she died in New Jersey in 1993 at age 81.
Dick and Pat were avid letter writers. They were a devoted couple.
The Pat Nixon Gardens
At the far end of the gardens, you will find Army One, the helicopter that served Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. This helicopter took President Nixon and Mrs. Nixon to Andrew’s Air Force base when he left the White House after his resignation.
The gardens surrounding the library are always teeming with new buds and beautiful flowers. The gardens are also where both President Nixon and First Lady Patricia Nixon were laid to rest.
Nixon retired to his beloved California “La Casa Pacifica” in 1974, where he lived out his life trying to rehabilitate his legacy. He wrote his memoirs and was interviewed by David Frost. During the interview with Frost, the President admitted he “brought himself down.”
He authored ten books in his post-presidency. During an interview to England, he stated about Watergate, “Some people say I didn’t handle it properly, and they’re right. I screwed it up—mea culpa. But let’s get on to my achievements. You’ll be here in the year 2000, and we’ll see how I’m regarded then.” His regard has rebounded in his later years, notably regarding his foreign policy negotiations with China and the Soviet Union.
Nixon relocated to New York City in 1979, then later moved to New Jersey. He suffered a stroke in 1994 and died four days later. Nixon opted not to have a State Funeral. Instead, his funeral was conducted at the Nixon Library, where he was laid to rest beside his wife.
His gravestone reads, “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.”
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA
2023 brought my third visit to the Reagan Library. The approach to the library is always a bit daunting as it sits perched on a hill that provides a magnificent view of the picturesque valley. Simi Valley is located about 40 miles from Los Angeles, but the journey is worth it.
There are many statues at the Reagan Library. A cowboy-hatted statue of Ronald Reagan greets you as you enter the library. The statues of Ron and Nancy at the entrance to the museum are a popular stop for pictures. A new statue of Nancy had been placed in the courtyard since my last visit.
Visitors begin with a short film about both of their careers. With various artifacts to tell his story, visitors move through the significant events of Reagan’s life. You can explore his film career, his two terms as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) president, his political career as a two-time Governor of California, and his two terms as President.
Reagan was the first President who was divorced. He and actress Jane Wyman married in 1940 and divorced in 1949. He married Nancy in 1952, who was the light of his life.
The exhibit on the day Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981, soon after his presidency began, is a moment-by-moment account of the horrific day and includes his suit, x-ray taken of his injuries, and the weapon used by John Hinckley, Jr.
The re-creation of Reagan’s western-themed Oval Office is warm and welcoming and has the ever-present container of his favorite treat, Jellybeans. You will even see a portrait of Reagan made of jellybeans a bit later in the pavilion.
Nancy is well represented through a beautiful display of the gowns and clothes she wore on numerous occasions during her eight years in the White House.
The Air Force One pavilion dominates the library and houses the Boeing 737 that carried seven presidents worldwide and was last used by Reagan. Marine One and the limousine that served him are also on display.
The plane is positioned as if it could take off over the Valley. You can tour both the plane and helicopter and have your photograph taken as a souvenir. I was struck by how small the plane was compared to the 747 that the President flies in today. There is also an exhibit on how they got the plane positioned during the construction of the building. It wasn’t easy.
Toward the end of the self-guided tour, an exhibit replays Reagan’s national address after the Challenger explosion. The 911 display brings back memories of that horrific day. A piece of a girder from the twin towers is exhibited, and you can touch a piece of history that is forever emblazoned upon our collective memory.
Reagan’s passing from Alzheimer’s on June 5, 2004, was a slow death for this larger-than-life personality. Nancy followed her beloved Ronnie in death on March 6, 2016. They were laid to rest next to one another forever, looking out over the mountains of California.
In the courtyard, there is a piece of the Berlin Wall. It immediately recalls Reagan’s speech, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987. The Soviet Union would fall three years after he left the presidency in 1991.
The library and museum are worth the scenic drive in the mountains of California. The library is currently hosting an exhibit on the Holocaust that began in March and will run through August.
The libraries honor the legacies of Presidents Nixon and Reagan and serve as a reminder of the transformative moments that shaped American history. A visit to the libraries provides a glimpse into the past that continues to resonate today.