I hadn’t planned on visiting many of the presidential museums, but it’s worked out that they give a very insightful view of American history. So far I’ve visited Lincoln, McKinley, Hoover, Truman, Johnson, Reagan, HW Bush and W Bush.
The first two were for assassinated presidents, while Hoover and Reagan bookended the liberal era. The liberals in between – Truman and Johnson – were more open about their accomplishments and failures. HW Bush has had to rebrand after W Bush became president, and it will be difficult to carve his middle initials in the granite – Americans are keen on middle initials so, irrespective of his son’s success, I’m surprised that his father didn’t use his them. Maybe it was related to the Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton informality.
Each museum has its own character. The only one what was publicly funded was JBJ’s – University of Texas. The rest were supported by friends and allies, so set out to tell a good story, putting the president in best light. And, of course, most former presidents will have been alive when their museum opened, so they and their family will have shaped the narrative. Obviously, McKinley and Lincoln didn’t have that fortune.
Given the controversy about former president Trump taking archival material to his home, the presentation of this is not obvious in the libraries. Only in the Johnson Library were the archives on show and, indeed, were a feature for visitors to regard. I did ask if I could take a look, but it was like getting into Fort Knox. The answer was a polite no. No doubt, they thought ‘what a cheek’.
The reflective nature of the museums varied. Truman and Johnson were the most reflective about their presidencies. The Truman Library invited comments on his use of the atomic bomb and offered criticism of his efforts to desegregate – what he did well and where he fell short. The Johnson Library was very honest about the debacle of Vietnam and the juxtaposition with his Great Society. I learned more here than elsewhere – it took me four hours to get through, and I was lost in time.
Others I skated through. The more recent presidents were the least reflective. Maybe it will come with time, like Truman and Johnson, but Reagan and the two Bushes were more presentational in best light – Reagan struck me as propaganda. It was more the message with Reagan, less the insight of his decisions, like small government and whacking the unions. The Johnson Library re-opened recently after a revamp, so I hope that this happens with the recently opened libraries too.
Leadership style comes across strongly. Lincoln’s is well known – Team of Rivals, which recent UK prime ministers could learn from, rather than appointing a Team of Sycophants. Reagan’s focus on big issues comes through, and his appointment of key advisors to look after the detail. W Bush characterised himself as the decider, and the War on a Heightened Emotion (Terror) is profiled well – no reflection yet. Herbert Hoover came across as the most mis-matched for the context in which he found himself – a technocrat believer in small government faced with the unprecedented upheaval of the 1929 Wall Street Crash.
What came across, and attracted me to all the presidents without exception, was their decency. I liked George W Bush and his father. I got real insight to what LBJ was setting out to achieve and put aside my prejudice about his Vietnam War policy and my draft #72. I was moved to tears more than once reading his narrative. I also have to reflect about this in the context of the recent former president.
The context, therefore, shapes what is in the museums. I was most pleased with Johnson, most disappointed in HW Bush. The Johnson Library has the benefit of the passage of time to offer insightful reflections – I learned in Poli Sci 101 that you don’t have guns and butter, and LBJ’s guns in Vietnam sank his Great Society aspirations. The HW Bush Library could offer insight about this role in the end of the Cold War and the link to today’s conflict in Ukraine, given that he delivered what was called the Chicken Kiev speech in Kiev on 1 Aug 91, cautioning against ‘suicidal nationalism’. How perceptive.
The presidential spouses feature prominently latterly. Bess, Lady Bird (Claudia), Nancy, Barbara and Laura. I was most surprised with the role of Lady Bird, having listened to the podcast of her diaries – real insight passion, intellect and perception, and support for Lyndon during his frequent bouts of imposter syndrome.
More to come. I’ll search them out now. I was sorry to miss Nixon in LA but ran out of time. Maybe I’ll get that on the rebound.