Presidential Libraries Are Worth Visiting

I trace my fascination with presidents with a couple of childhood events. I was in first grade and home sick that November Friday when Walter Cronkite cut into As the World Turns with the tragic news that JFK had been assassinated.

The next year I was home for two weeks with the flu just after my mother bought a set of World Book encyclopedias. Bored, with no videos and only two channels on TV, I began memorizing the presidents in order and the state capitals as well.

Since it’s President’s Day, I’m remembering some of my visits to presidential libraries. My love for presidential history and my tendency to prefer museums showcasing narrow topics (rather than the massive Smithsonian) are reasons why I find presidential libraries so appealing.

I have been to four of them – Bush 41 & 43, Clinton & LBJ and came away with new appreciation for their service, even for the ones I didn’t care for politically. When visiting comprehensive museums such as the Smithsonian, I am overwhelmed, but I can manage presidential libraries since they focus on only four to eight years of history. There are only 13 official ones administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. Texas has three of them.

Here are my brief takeaways from the four that I have visited:

George W. Bush, Southern Methodist University, Dallas: I thought the 9/11 exhibit especially touching with details of the President’s, Vice President’s and first lady’s schedules during that time. The $16 admission is a bit pricey compared to the other libraries visited in the $7-$10 price range.

Since this was the museum we visited most recently, I remember more details about the whole trip. On the day we visited the museum. We opted not to eat at “43,” the museum’s restaurant and went to Rise!, a great soufflé place about three miles away. Rise! has presidential tie-ins as we were seated at the  “Bush” table,  the 43rd president’s regular table evidenced by family signatures on the underside. George W, then the former president, was eating a crab soufflé at this table when advisors called to say Osama bin laden had been killed. Another regular Rise patron is Chandler Roosevelt Lindsley, granddaughter of Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt, who lives in the Dallas area. You can purchase her cookie booklet there.

Bananas Foster Souffle at Rise!

Also, you can include a trip to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas to learn more about the John F. Kennedy assassination.

Daughter Mary Grace poses by the Presidential limousine at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library on the Texas A&M campus.

George H.W. Bush, Texas A&M University, library in College Station covers the Gulf war, but it was the Bushes public service and their time in China with the CIA that I found most fascinating. A good time to go is in May when the drive leading to the library is surrounded by Texas bluebonnets.

LBJ, University of Texas, library in Austin featured a life-sized mechanical LBJ wearing a cowboy hat sharing folksy stories when I visited 10 years ago. That exhibit has since been replaced by LBJ in a suit in the Oval Office. I haven’t seen it, but I think the former captures his persona better.

Bill Clinton, Downtown Little Rock, Arkansas: The middle of the first floor has an interesting timeline of important events during the time of the Clinton administration, 1993-2001, with the daily schedule of Clinton’s almost 3,000 days in office. Press the appropriate button, and you get “a day in the life.”  The museum gives great views of downtown Little Rock and the Arkansas River. Through April 2, there’s an exhibit on Beatlemania!

Downtown Little Rock view from Clinton library

Ulysses S. Grant Library at Mississippi State!

Presidential  libraries are 21st century creations, but some earlier presidents have foundations that administer birthplaces, libraries and museums. In an ironic move, Mississippi State University is now home to the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library. Yes, you read that right, a former Confederate state houses the library of the former general of the Union army. After a complicated and fascinating dispute that is still in litigation, a MSU history professor had the Grant papers and artifacts moved from Southern Illinois University to MSU in 2012. Read more here.

Harry S. Truman

A couple of years ago we were traveling and found our hotel in Independence, Mo, just outside Kansas City, and the home of Harry S. Truman.

Truman Walked the Streets
Truman Walked the Streets

There wasn’t enough time to visit the presidential library. However, I loved seeing the silhouette signs around town of Truman to depict how he walked everywhere. I’m also amazed at how just spending 30 minutes in a place where a president lived lived piqued my interest in the Truman administration – so much that I downloaded David McCullough’s wonderful biography of the 33rd president.

A Bit of Presidential Trivia

I’m still fascinated by this information I picked up on a trip to Washington, D.C. last May. Two grandsons of our 10th president, John Tyler, are still living! Read more here.

So on this President’s Day, I think I’ll forgo the furniture store sales and read up on one of the presidents. Can anyone suggest a book or a movie?