Op-ed: No need to like the GOP to love the Reagan Library

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The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum is host to everything from political debates and scholarly research to high school proms and summer concerts. Photo by Shutterstock.

Opinion column by Joe Mathews:

If Donald Trump and the Chinese government both want to boycott a California place, you should get there as fast as you can.

Which means now is the time to visit the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, a new target of autocrats from Mar-a-Lago to the Middle Kingdom.

President Trump recently suggested on social media that he would boycott presidential debates at the Reagan Library — because the library’s board chair, Frederick Ryan Jr., is publisher of the Washington Post. Meanwhile, China’s leaders announced sanctions against the library after it hosted a meeting between U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, whose government China refuses to recognize. 

While these blasts at the library made headlines, they shouldn’t damage the library, the most popular of the presidential libraries overseen by the National Archives.

If anything, the attacks highlight a remarkable success. In an era when politics has come to define almost everything, the Reagan Library has built a reputation as a highly accessible and attractive center welcoming to people of all kinds of politics.  

My own affection for the place demonstrates this success. I grew up during the Reagan era despising his policies. But I can’t get enough of Reagan’s library, because it offers so much to California.

The place is irresistible, first and foremost, because of its beauty. It glimmers on a Ventura County mountaintop — like Reagan’s metaphorical “shining city on the hill.” The views alone are worth a visit to Simi Valley: a panorama of mountains to the east, LA to the south, the Central Coast to the north, the ocean to the west. There may be no better place to watch a sunset. 

Like other presidential libraries, this one has permanent exhibits from its namesake president’s life, though the Reagan Library is distinguished for its Hollywood flair (including the airplane he used as Air Force One). And the library has made itself an essential stop for Republican politicians, whether they are engaging in presidential debates (the library has hosted four), or giving speeches or book talks. 

But the Reagan Library has also smartly made itself a gathering place for people who aren’t Republican, or don’t care about politics. 

Some of its attractions are serious. The library hosts what has become the country’s leading gathering of people who think about national security, the Reagan National Defense Forum, with speakers from across the political spectrum. The Reagan Library also hosts major special exhibits each year that aren’t about American politics at all. The current exhibit — “Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away” offers a visceral sense of what it was like to be in a concentration camp. The library has accompanied the exhibit with creative programming, often connecting Holocaust survivors with young adults and schoolchildren.

Previous, less heavy exhibits, have focused on histories of the FBI, Egypt, the Vatican, Titanic, Abraham Lincoln, and baseball. The Reagan Library also rents out its spaces to nonprofits and corporations. It’s also a popular site for high school proms. 

While ideologues urge boycotts, the Reagan Library has become the sort of place where you can take both your kids and your mom, with little resistance. There are sunset dances with Fleetwood Mac tribute bands, Eagle Scout recognition dinners, Mother’s Day brunches, and tastings devoted to Central Coast wines. 

I’ve visited 14 of the 15 presidential libraries, mostly in my travels as a political reporter and history researcher. None of the others offer as much as the Reagan Library. 

When I visit, it’s often to do archival research (the staff move quickly and the rooms are comfortable) or meet someone in Ventura County (everyone knows where it is). I like to walk the 300-acre grounds, and visit the memorial where Ronald and Nancy Reagan are buried. There, an inscription from President Reagan reads: “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”

Of course, you and I are too cynical about this nasty world to believe all of that. But we can appreciate the sentiment, and the welcoming library that expresses it.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman