Presidential libraries are more than tributes to past commanders-in-chief. Although they are repositories for records sought by researchers, these special places also offer light-hearted walks through history for visitors of all ages. You may even forget your party lines at the presidential libraries for George H.W. Bush and William J. Clinton, who became close friends after their terms ended.
George H.W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum, College Station, Texas
My memories of news events from the late 1980s and early 1990s came rushing back in almost every room of the 21,000-square-foot George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. The fall of the Berlin Wall, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War, the first lady’s literacy campaign — could those really have been that long ago? It has been long enough that history is more kind to Bush, who has the highest approval ratings of any living ex-president. (Though his successor, Bill Clinton, comes close).
Located on the Texas A&M University campus in College Station, Texas, the Bush Library and Museum documents not only his presidency from 1989 to 1993, but his entire life. More than 40 million papers are stored there, and researchers are frequent visitors, such as author Jon Meacham who recently released “The Last Gentleman,” a book about Bush. However, it’s the museum, which has changed significantly since opening in 1997, that interests most visitors.
“It’s a lot more high-tech than the original,” said library director Warren Finch. “We’ve also added a lot in the last 25 years following the end of his administration.”
After an $8.3 million renovation in 2007, the museum features many interactive exhibits that appeal to all ages. In the “Situation Room” visitors can decide how they would handle sensitive events. In the exhibit dedicated to Bush’s WWII service, guests can practice landing a plane on an aircraft carrier. I simply chose to hold up my hand for a quick scan to see if I would be granted access to a top-secret area. I was, but not before a thermal sensor immediately tracked my location in the building.
The biggest thrill, however, was sitting in the “seat of power” in the Oval Office replica. The Bush Library is the only presidential library that allows guests to sit at the large desk and even rummage through one of the drawers.
When I entered the area dedicated to the first lady, I became nostalgic for those kinder, gentler days. It seems like only a few years ago I was covering the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and meeting the first lady at a news event. The family-friendly museum even honors former first dog, Millie. Miniature doghouses throughout the museum contain clues so children can complete a Millie’s Adventures game while their parents focus on more serious topics or maybe just spend some time contemplating what President Bush kept in his Oval Office desk.
William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum, Little Rock, Arkansas
Located on the banks of the Arkansas River, the William J. Clinton Presidential Center is hard to miss when driving into Little Rock. Locals initially described the elongated, rectangular building designed by N.Y. architect James Polshek as the “trailer in the sky.” The sleek, functional structure contains 78 million presidential papers and offers a spacious events center that brings a modern vibe to the historic river city.
The presidential timeline on the second floor is considered the centerpiece for the permanent collections, and it’s easy to become absorbed in reading about the numerous influential events that took place during Clinton’s terms, which ran from 1993 to 2001. On the opposite side of the timeline, you can use touch screens to view the president’s daily schedules and correspondence he received.
While the second floor offers an interesting and historical walkway, the museum’s third floor was the highlight for me. In fact, I would suggest starting a tour on the third floor and working down so you have sufficient time to peruse the “Life at the White House” exhibit. My favorite areas were the fully set dining table with presidential and the collection of gifts from heads of states. The museum owns more than 100,000 three-dimensional objects and works of art, which are rotated so everything eventually will be seen.
With so much to see, you’ll be happy to find “Forty Two,” the on-site restaurant that offers farm-to-table lunches Monday through Friday. The affordable selections keep you on schedule to learn even more about the 42nd president.
The Nation’s Network of Presidential Libraries
The Office of Presidential Libraries currently administers a nationwide network of 13 Presidential Libraries:
• Herbert Hoover Library, West Branch, Iowa
• Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York
• Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Missouri
• Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas
• John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts
• Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Austin, Texas
• Richard Nixon Library, Yorba Linda, California
• Gerald R. Ford Library, Ann Arbor & Grand Rapids, Michigan
• Jimmy Carter Library, Atlanta, Georgia
• Ronald Reagan Library, Simi Valley, California
• George H. W. Bush Library, College Station, Texas
• William J. Clinton Library, Little Rock, Arkansas
• George W. Bush Library, Dallas, Texas
Open the bottom, left drawer of the desk in the Oval Office replica in the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library. (It’s allowed.) You will find a baseball mitt from Bush’s days at Yale University.
PHOTOS: Mary Ann DeSantis; Bush41photos