20 September 2006
A visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Southern California reveals the stone façade of a secular temple, a lot of blue blazers and a great big plane, but ultimately more is hidden than revealed.
By Meera Subramanian
The floor of Simi Valley recedes in the rental car’s rearview mirror as I pass banner after banner of presidents past. They hang in the warm air from street lamps stationed between eucalyptus trees and desiccated oaks along a curving drive. At the top of the small mountain, I arrive at a traffic circle ablaze with an out-of-place green lawn bordered with bright red flowers. They scream in stark contrast to the dry yellow landscape and blue of the sky, tinged by smoke from the nearby Los Padres wild fire. The massive stone sign planted in the ground announces my arrival at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. I take it as an omen, protective and positive, that John Lennon is playing on the car radio (“…the way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me…”) and a hawk has just alighted from a nearby tree.
I have come here on a research assignment to peruse a tiny portion of the fifty-five million pages of documents that the archival library contains. But adjoining the quiet, sedate library is the museum. On my third morning of research, the head archivist, a tall helpful man with a nervous giggle, comes up to the table where I am working and stands awkwardly over me, looking down at his feet. I am surrounded by papers and flanked by a metal cart full of more boxes with more papers pulled from some hidden underground vault. For a moment, I think my cover has been blown. The silent alarms have been triggered. They have discovered my past. I have fraternized with alleged eco-terrorists. I have just returned from Russia. I have grown vegetables…organically. I could only be seen as a godless force of darkness. I will be asked to leave.
Instead, the archivist asks if I wouldn’t mind, you know, if it isn’t too much trouble, could I take my lunch break right at noon? They want to close the research library so all staff can be present for a celebratory lunch. The occasion is one million pages processed by the library so far in 2006. An impressive number, despite my personal experience of finding that the vast majority of the documents I am looking for aren’t open to the public’s eyes. I oblige the request and at noon duly depart to the Ronald Reagan Country Café for a pulled pork sandwich on the patio next to the replica of the White House’s South Lawn, just beyond a portion of the Berlin Wall, which is spray painted with an image of a butterfly. Buzzards soar overhead.
With time to spare, I take the opportunity to visit the adjoining museum that I have so far ignored, my nose deep in file folders. I join a steady stream of visitors whose median age is twice mine. I am not only younger; I am faster. Wanting to take advantage of all the time I have in the library means that I have only twenty minutes to gain the “memorable experience” the museum promises. I go for the gusto. I decide on one sole destination: Air Force One.
Ronald Reagan had a great wish. It was that the plane that had flown him all over the United States of America and to 26 countries beyond would one day be accessible to the people, his people. Kind of like retiring a football jersey, but bigger. Much bigger. So big, in fact, that it warranted an entire separate wing of the museum: Air Force One Pavilion. I check my foldout map, set my coordinates and go in search of my plane.
But guards and docents slow my approach around each corner. Every twenty feet there seems to be another one, or more likely a pair. Grey wool trousers and blue blazers, the men with red, white and blue ties and the women with scarfy equivalents. I estimate that the overseer-to-visitor ratio is about the same as what I’d experienced visiting Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square not so long ago. Two to one. There I was warned with stern looks and adamant Russian not to talk and to keep my hands in plain sight! Here I am smiled at in a way that only fuels my paranoia. I am still convinced my discovery is imminent. Is there lingering dirt under my fingernails? In my files?
I also view this excessive library presence in light of the information the archivists have been sharing with me over the past couple of days. Reagan said he was an opponent of big bureaucracy, and it shows in his library. Its keepers are understaffed and overworked. The library’s Saturday hours were cut. They boasted millions of pages of information, but as I pour over the finding guides that show exactly what I could request, file by excruciating file, the vast majority are not listed in bold type, and only bolded entries are accessible by ordinary citizens. Files are there but not there. Public yet not available to the public. Under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, one can shoot off an e-mail requesting that certain specific information be made available, and the staff can process your request in a scant two or three days. But release of said documents also requires the approval of two separate layers within the current presidential administration. Small requests are executed in an expedited manner, taking a minimum of three months, but more often six to nine. The more typical FOIA filing doesn’t get such preferential treatment. In these post-9/11, Rumsfeld, quit-whining-about-your-rights-or-we’ll-take-away-more-of-them era, requests can take years to be approved. Or simply not be approved at all. In the name of national security, that convenient catchall phrase.
One archivist told me that everything they processed these days was only in response to a FOIA requests, an eternal backlog months or years old, leaving no time to even make a dent in all the other juicy, untouchable documents that lay festering in the tomb of the library.
Why not, I think as I glide across the deep blue carpet and past red upholstered benches flanked by more blue blazers, shift some of the fine men and women from the museum to the library, from the show to the substance? Ease up on security just a tad and open up a few more historical documents? Or maybe, distracted by a ball of yarn nearly two feet across featured in the gifts room, I think, I should be become an archivist! Imagine: fifty-five million pages down there. A little more schooling. Gain access to those secret reserves. Garner the opportunity to open the sturdy boxes, remove a manila folder with a forbidden subject heading and date written neatly across its top edge. Run my eager eyes and brain across the unknowable.
But who has the time for such far-fetched plans? Who cares about those boring old papers? There’s a plane to see! A real live Boeing 707 that has flown presidents and first ladies and advisors and media all over the world from the time of Nixon to Clinton. I barely glance at a diorama of Reagan’s childhood kitchen in Dixon, Illinois, don’t let myself get pulled in by the illuminated x-ray of Reagan’s chest, bullet embedded next to his heart.
And then I dead-end. My map doesn’t show me the two blue blazers who like grey haired sirens are enticing me to watch the video about Air Force One –- “It’s only four minutes long…” -– before they will point me in the right direction to actually see the aircraft itself. I hear the grand score emanating from the small theater, see the stars that border the periphery of the screen as I peek in. I gesture apologetically to my watch and implore them -– how do I get to the plane?
They point down a hall to a set of closed doors that open into a sunlit corridor overlooking a parked F-14 fighter plane which guards the Peace [Through Strength] Plaza. Beyond, smoke from the Los Padres fire fills the sky. The long passageway suddenly opens up into a room so enormous (90,000 square feet!) it feels as though I’ve stepped outside: the Air Force One Pavilion, three cascading stories tall. Filling the entire space is Air Force One, Boeing 27000. The mothership. Plane. Whatever. Tilted up at a subtle two degree pitch to inspire a taking off kind of feel, she truly looks ready to launch her way though the wall of glass, sixty feet high and two hundred feet across, that her nose is practically pressed against it in longing, reaching towards the umber hills. Ready to clock just one more mile on her path to freedom and democracy.
I circle her, passing more triumphant displays about the fall of communism, and guards exponentially increase in number until I finally walk through the cabin door and am…underwhelmed. I overhear the man in front me repeating over and over, “There’s so much history here,” and he’s right. The communications wall reminds me about the existence of “The Football,” a small device that we are told is still kept within ten to twenty feet of the current President at all times and contains the means to initiate a nuclear attack. Comfortingly, The Football also contains a 75-page book of “other options.” I pass the president’s stateroom and his wife’s. A Vogue from the eighties lies on the desk and a plastic cup (with presidential seal) atop a paper napkin (with presidential seal), as though she left just a moment ago. Farther back, in the staff room, a skinny, scary wax effigy of Colonel Chealander sits stiffly at a table.
President Reagan’s dream that one day Air Force One would be shared with the American people has once again been realized. Through me.
Despite the impressive architecture and red, white and blue –- or perhaps because of it –- the veneer of greatness seems weak to me. Thin. I don’t admire Ronald Reagan, but I marvel at his ability to believe in something so fervently that his delusions became truth. In the creation of a building such as this, his truth threatens to becomes eternal. If the actions of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project are carried out, then we will drive down more Ronald Reagan highways and enter more Ronald Reagan buildings in every blessed county in the nation. We will pass his presidential portrait from hand to hand each time we want to buy another piece of crap made in China.
But veneers crack, and truth -– wet, dark and messy -– lies below. He could claim that he knew nothing about arms for hostages; that the growing national debt was an illusion; that he brought an end to communism when he personally invited Gorbachev to tear down that wall.
None of that it is true, of course. We now knew that he knew about Iran-Contra, that the dirty wars he fought in Central America were based on deception. We know, too, that the growing national debt was all too real. And we should know that it was not Reagan but ordinary people on both sides of the wall who ultimately cracked the concrete in Berlin.
Yes, there are walls to be torn down. And archives to be opened. And history to be remembered. Accurately.
Meera Subramanian, a contributing editor to The Revealer, where she writes about religion, culture and the environment, and is working on a book about falcons in the city. She last wrote for The Revealer about the film Paradise Now.