Why Everyone (Except Donald Trump and Xi Jinping) Loves the Reagan Library

Atop a Ventura County Hill Sits an Institution That Has Succeeded Far Beyond Politics

Columnist Joe Mathews has visited 14 of the 15 presidential libraries scattered across the country. None other offers as much as the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, he writes. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

Here’s a new rule of thumb for Californians: If Donald Trump and the Chinese government both want to boycott a Golden State place, you should get yourself there as fast as you can.

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

President Trump recently suggested on his Truth Social account that he would boycott presidential debates at the Reagan Library, in part because the chair of the institution’s board is Washington Post publisher Frederick Ryan Jr., a former Reagan aide.

Meanwhile, China’s leaders announced sanctions against the library after it hosted a meeting between U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican, and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, whose government China refuses to recognize. The sanctions mean that China will not cooperate with or recognize the library in any way.

Such blasts at the library made headlines—but even if Trump, Xi Jinping, and their acolytes stay away, the library would suffer no damage. It already is the most popular of the presidential libraries overseen by the National Archives, and rightfully so.

If anything, the attacks expose an irony, and highlight a remarkable success. In an era when politics has come to define and consume almost everything, the Reagan Library has managed a nearly impossible trick: maintaining its devotion to a major conservative political figure while simultaneously developing a reputation as a highly accessible and attractive center that serves people of all kinds of politics.

My own affection for the place is an example of this success. I grew up in Southern California during the Reagan era despising most of his policies; I couldn’t imagine voting for him today. And I’d put an end to the American presidency, with all its quasi-dictatorial power, if I could.

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 seems to glimmer on a mountaintop in Ventura County—the embodiment of Reagan’s metaphor of America as “the shining city on the hill.” The views alone are worth a visit to Simi Valley: a panorama of mountains to the east, the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles to the south, the Central Coast to the north, the ocean to the west. There may be no better place to watch a sunset.

I can’t get enough of Reagan’s library, because it offers so much to California.

Like other presidential libraries, this one has permanent exhibits, artifacts, and films from its favored president’s life, though the Reagan Library is distinguished for its Hollywood flair (which includes 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.

In heavily Democratic California, the library is the rare place where everyday people can meet and ask questions of GOP politicians who shape our policy—Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin just spoke, and upcoming events feature Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, and West Virginia U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a crucial behind-the-scenes dealmaker on bipartisan Congressional legislation.

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 and from all sorts of industries. (The sitting Secretary of Defense delivers the keynote every year, regardless of their political party.)

The Reagan Library also hosts major special exhibits each year that aren’t about American politics at all. The current exhibit is immensely powerful. “Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away” offers a visceral sense of what it was like to be in a concentration camp and has been drawing large crowds. The library has accompanied the exhibit with extensive and creative programming, often connecting Holocaust survivors with young adults and school children.

Previous, less heavy exhibits, always rich in artifacts, have focused on the histories of the FBI, Egypt’s lost cities, the Vatican, Titanic, Abraham Lincoln, Pompeii, and baseball.

The Reagan Library also rents out its spaces for meetings for nonprofits and corporations—from local chambers of commerce to Amgen—and I’ve attended large meetings with Ventura County figures there over the years. The library, with its spectacular setting, also has become a favorite local site for high school proms.

While ideologues urge boycotts, the Reagan Library has become the sort of place where you can take your kids and your mom, with little resistance. The annual Christmas tree exhibit is beautiful and festive. There have been sunset dances with Beatles and 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 (perhaps I’ll get to Abilene, Kansas, to see the Eisenhower Library, someday). None of them offers as much as the Reagan Library.

When I visit, it’s often to do archival research (the staff moves 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.


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