I have just learned that the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library released its website on the day of the Biden inauguration. Now, the politics surrounding the establishment of a presidential library can be tricky. I recall a fair amount of controversy over the location of the George W. Bush library—not in my backyard!—which they finally put up in Dallas, Texas, adding yet another bit of ignominy to that city.
The tradition of presidential libraries began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his own is a rather humble affair. But, like everything else, one-upmanship asserted itself, and such libraries have since become increasingly grandiose with the passing administrations. Barack Obama, however, true to form, bucked this trend by creating his own brand of library.
All of this might lead one to ponder the stamp that Trump will place on his own library. The first question is its location. The libraries of Trump’s predecessors are typically located in places of high importance to these leaders. Witness the Harry S. Truman library in Independence, Missouri, or the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, situated just south of downtown Boston.
Where might Trump build his library? Vegas? Mar-a-lago? Next to that golf course in New Jersey?
The second question surrounding the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library has to do with its contents. To date, presidential libraries have housed documents relevant to the operations of the administration of the land’s highest office: texts of speeches, reports, records of meetings, and so forth, assembled to assist scholars in understanding the history of the United States. The Trump record, as I understand it, resides largely in Tweets and transcripts of compromising phone calls. Is this what a scholar will discover as she combs these archives? Or might she find thousands of copies of The Art of the Deal alongside a single (upside-down) Bible? Maybe some Dick and Jane?
Perhaps my own experience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum a few years back might throw light on what occurs within these institutions. I was working at a university just north of Los Angeles at the time.
I had thought that I might drive to Rick Warren’s mega-church to hear his preaching. But getting there meant that I would have to cross LA , almost to Orange County, and I didn’t have that in me. I’d be staying closer to home and taking in the Reagan Museum and Library. I drove there, parked my car, walked a fair piece, and entered.
To the tourist’s eye, The Reagan Museum and Library is laid out in a straight line, rooms progressing from infancy to childhood to college–wherever that occurred: I still couldn’t place it–and on to the acting career and his rise and success in politics. But there was a big blip in the middle of it, like the lump in a boa constrictor that consumed a boar a week ago.
The opening was clogged with corpulent, virtually immobile people draped in American flags. I saw American flags tee shirts, kerchiefs, sneakers, whatever. I realized that, were I to adjust my progress to suit the molasses pace of the throng, that I’d never get through the place. Therefore, every time I spied an opening —always, all too brief—between the enormous bodies, I made for it. Most times I was successful, but the cost of error was dear: I might easily have been pressed to death. It was like running with the bulls not from ahead, but from within the pack. Terrifying!
Still, I persisted through Reagan’s childhood, Eureka College (that’s it!), his stint as governor of California, the 1980 election campaign, whereupon I met a roadblock outside the John Hinckley Assassination Attempt Chamber. Those of us who had thronged into the preceding room found our path blocked by a guard who informed us that the Assassination Attempt Chamber was full as usual, and because of the fire laws, we had to wait out in an octangular room, the highlight of which was a podium, behind which one could stand and learn what it was like to read from teleprompters. I mounted the platform and approached the podium. I had always thought that presidents read directly from screens. It turns out that an inverted image of the text of the speech is reflected off mirrors flanking the speaker at about 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. Interesting. I hadn’t known that. Anyway, I stood behind the podium for about 30 seconds and silently read the script—something about the price of freedom.
After a time, Assassination Attempt Chamber emptied, and, as I had asserted myself at the front of the queue, I was the first one in and the first one out—why relive an assassination attempt? I quickly passed through a series of exhibits whose focus I couldn’t quite determine—I did, however, learn that Nancy Reagan’s birthday was the previous Friday. My real quarry, Air Force One, lay ahead.
I don’t know if you’ll agree with me on this point, but Air Force One is the highlight of “The Tour.” Enormous, and surrounded by squad cars, its nosecone pointing toward the mountains across the valley, supplying the unsettling impression that the pilot might be thinking of slamming the craft into one of them. I found myself accosted by a woman in military blues who offered, nay demanded, that I pose outside the entrance of the plane to deliver a presidential wave. I did so with a smirk planted on my face. She took a snapshot and informed me that after I departed the plane my souvenir photo would be awaiting me on the ground floor.
Air Force One, as far as I could tell, is a plane converted from commercial use, with most of the passenger seats scooped out and replaced with comfy little couches where those who discuss grave matters repose. It was nothing special, except for the ubiquitous jars of jelly beans and issues of Time magazine (Time? I would have thought US News and World Report). After about three minutes, I began to get the nervous feeling I get whenever I’m trying to get off a landed plane to meet a tight connection. Of course, the father of the family waddling in front of me felt the need to impress his endless knowledge of aircraft upon his kids and everyone else within earshot. He kept plying the poor guide with inane questions about fuel specs and the like as she stood there chuckling. I’ve traveled in the middle seat from Asia, and I’ve never been so happy to get off a plane in my life. Pure agony.
Once off the plane, I descended the stairs and was nearly shooed through a turnstile and into a line of visitors waiting to purchase the photos of themselves doing the Presidential Wave that woman at the entrance to the plane had taken. When I overheard “$17.95” I searched about for the nearest exit. All of the exits were marked with “Emergency Alarm Will Sound” signs, so I attempted to pose the question of how to leave the museum to a guard. She happened to be preoccupied with a crisis involving someone who had gotten lost inside Air Force One. Explanations of how a person can fail to emerge from a tube elude me.
I did notice a Guinness Beer sign and considered having a drink—I most certainly needed one, after all I’d just been through. However, given the ubiquity of police and secret service types on the premises, I thought it wiser to abstain. It was still morning, after all. The entire “Tour” had taken me less than 30 minutes.
I still had to leave the place, and I eventually located a guard not preoccupied in staring at Air Force One. She was quite old and told me that I could “Just get to my damn car” by working my way back to the entrance of the museum. Of course, doing so would require navigating my way through the teeth of the crowd that I had just escaped and would necessitate another delay at the Assassination Attempt Chamber. I shuddered, thanked her, and began my voyage back down Everest.
At about the year 1985, the guard who had previously blocked the entrance to the Assassination Attempt Chamber recognized me and attempted to shepherd me into some sort of Disney exhibit. I refused twice, the second time holding my phone in the air and inventing something about a family emergency. She led me to a side door, did something with a card key to deactivate the alarm, and ushered me out of the museum.
I dropped three feet onto a sun-scorched embankment, some distance from the parking lots. I skidded down the slope for another fifteen feet before righting myself and regaining my composure, which I didn’t need because there is little dignity to be found in side-stepping cacti as one hobbles one’s way two hundred yards at a forty-five-degree angle under a baking California sun.
After a time, I located my car. On my way out of the place, a police officer pulled me over and asked for my exit ticket. Apparently, in my grief I’d ignored a roadblock somewhere. I told him that I wasn’t certain of the ticket process and that I’d been rattled by what I’d seen. For some reason he laughed and let me off.
Whew! What a day! I’d learned quite a bit. There was the Gipper and Nancy Reagan’s birthday, and something about an invasion of Nicaragua. And there was the standing at the podium, and the magic of inversion.
 For an account, somewhat biased, of the history of presidential libraries, see https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/05/07/presidential-libraries-are-a-scam-could-obama-change-that-215109