It caught my attention when the second Republican presidential debate took place Sept. 15 at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. I, as part of a group of teachers, visited the library on a weekend break during the National Academy on Civics and Government in July.
I was very impressed with the library. It sits on the top of a high hill with a spectacular 360-degree view of the neighboring area. They actually had reassembled the Boeing 707 used by various presidents, including Reagan, and then built part of the library around it. There also was a presidential helicopter and other memorabilia from his two terms as president from 1981-89 and from his life.
The Reagan Library impressed because of its enormity and grandeur. Reagan is the hero of Republicans today. That’s why the second debate is at his Library. He marks a turning point for current Republicans because his decisions changed the party and the nation.
Americans, at the beginning of Reagan’s presidency, were in deep psychological depression. Democratic President Carter’s attempt to free American Embassy hostages held by Iran had failed with the death of U.S. military personnel. The day of Reagan’s inauguration had seen the release of those hostages.
It is probably not a coincidence that this second debate coincides with the impending Iranian nuclear vote in Congress.
It was during Reagan’s presidency in June 1987 that he gave a speech at the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall. Reagan’s stirring words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” will be remembered by a whole generation of Americans living at that time. The Wall was opened in November 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in January 1991, largely due to Reagan’s push.
That is also another reason the debate is scheduled at his library – to remind Americans which presidents (Reagan and G.H.W Bush) ended the Cold War. As Putin is reasserting Russian power in Ukraine, in Syria and in other parts of the world, the message to American voters is to remember what Reagan and the Republicans did for the nation.
Reagan’s fixation on stopping communism, however, resulted in his administration illegally funding anti-communist guerrillas against the Nicaraguan government. He got the Israelis to sell the Iranians weapons in their war against Saddam’s Iraq. His administration then used that money to finance the war in Nicaragua at the cost of the lives of thousands.
A weekend after visiting the Reagan Library, a group of us drove down to visit the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif. That library was impressive, but for different reasons. The contrast between the libraries gave me insights into two pivotal Republican presidents whose tenures changed the nation in very different ways.
There will likely never be a Republican presidential debate at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda. Whereas there were signs galore to find the Reagan Library, we had to search to find Nixon’s. It’s on a main thoroughfare and much smaller. The library is beautiful, located at Nixon’s childhood home, with the house as one of its main attractions.
There is an air of humility about the place, since to most Americans the words “Vietnam” and “Watergate” come to mind with the mention of Nixon’s name. Nixon was accused of lying to the American public about several things, including the 1970 invasion into Cambodia from neighboring South Vietnam. His statement, “I’m not a crook!” (regarding Watergate) is remembered by all who heard it as an example of Nixon’s growing paranoia.
The humility of the Nixon Library contrasts with the near deification of Reagan. There is a feeling of arrogance at Reagan’s with its strong emphasis on pointing out his “supply-side economics” where taxes were reduced – mainly for the wealthy – with a 25 percent tax cut.
The evening of the day we visited the Nixon Library, there was an African-American wedding. It was fascinating to see blacks dressed in African wedding attire coming onto the beautiful, peaceful grounds. Given a choice, I would rather attend a wedding at the Nixon Library than observe a Republican debate at Reagan’s ostentatious venue.
For all of Nixon’s faults, and they are legion, he was a greater president than Reagan. Nixon thought deeply and found a way to play the Soviets off the Chinese Communists in order for us to extract ourselves from Vietnam. He also worked to end segregation, helped to establish the Environmental Protection Agency, and was able to balance the budget, the only president able to do so from 1961 to 1998. Nixon also started the process to end the Cold War.
Think of this contrast between Reagan and Nixon. Both were great presidents. Both changed the nation. Both were extremely imperfect as all presidents have been and will continue to be.