Presidential libraries showcase artifacts, personalities and controversies

By Michael Schuman

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Feb. 15 2014 1:00 p.m. MST

Other museums highlight places of retirement. Truman’s cluttered library office where he worked after leaving the presidency is maintained as it was during his life. Eisenhower’s has a life-size version of his post-presidential office at Gettysburg College while Hoover’s is noted for his Waldorf-Astoria suite in New York City where he lived his last 32 years. Nixon’s has his cozy office from his New Jersey post-presidency home.

Hands-on activities

Most museums offer activities to provide guests an opportunity to interact with the displays. With the help of a teleprompter in Ford’s museum, you can deliver a speech once given by the man himself. In the elder Bush’s, take a seat behind a replica of his White House desk. At the Reagan Museum, one can call a baseball game, recite movie lines and address the nation just as the Great Communicator did in his career roles as sportscaster, actor and president.

At George H.W. Bush’s repository, one can play a flight simulation game to try to land an airplane on a carrier flight deck as Bush did in World War II. Carter’s allows you to virtually visit nations that Carter has aided as a former president and humanitarian. The Nixon museum’s updated Watergate gallery allows visitors to use touch screens and interactive kiosks to view vintage footage, in addition to putting on a set of headphones and listening to White House tapes.

In George W. Bush's Decision Points Theater people can choose how they would react to a certain crisis, then compare their decisions with those the president made. Similarly, in the Vietnam War exhibit in Johnson’s museum, visitors can put themselves in LBJ’s Texas-sized shoes and decide via touch screen how they would respond in the same situations Johnson faced.

A complete picture

All presidential museums accentuate the positive, and it seems that immediately after a museum opens, it tends to portray its president in almost a saintly manner. Mistakes are rationalized, but nobody, even one's personal favorite president, was perfect. The more time passes, the less there is a tendency toward hagiography.

The Truman Museum today offers pro and con looks at the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. FDR’s does the same with World War II-related policies such as Japanese-American internment and the Holocaust and addresses whether the New Deal really worked.

Nixon’s museum recently changed its Watergate gallery to include snippets of his famous anti-Semitic comments. One might say the previous Watergate gallery was presented from Nixon’s point of view, but the tone of the current one, designed by NARA, appears to offer a prosecutor’s perspective. It is hard to believe any presentation of this touchy subject will ever satisfy all sides.

In the Hoover Museum, a display in the Great Depression gallery reads, “To most Americans the president was a remote, grim-faced man in a blue, double-breasted suit. They saw none of his private anguish throughout sixteen hour days, engaging in fruitless mealtime conferences with economists, politicians, and bankers.”

Yet the museum doesn’t absolve Hoover of all guilt. Visitors read, “In truth, Hoover’s celebration of technology failed to anticipate the end of a postwar building boom, or the glut of 26,000,000 new cars and other consumer goods flooding the market.”

Of the nine deceased presidents with presidential libraries under the administration of NARA, all but Kennedy and Johnson are buried either on the grounds of their library complex or nearby. Kennedy is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, just outside Washington, and Johnson is buried in the family cemetery in Johnson City, Texas.

Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975 and received a MFA in Professional Writing in 1977 from the University of Southern California. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at mschuman@ne.rr.com .