By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
But I’m nitpicking. Apart from the busloads of schoolchildren, what kind of person would go to the Reagan Museum to learn anything about history? You go there to see the enormous portrait of the president made entirely out of jellybeans. And the replicated section of the Berlin Wall with graffiti conveniently translated into English. And the broach spelling out “Just Say No” in rhinestones presented to the first lady. And the gummy stealth bombers and “Peace Through Strength” sportswear in the giftshop. And the fashion-mannequin-guarded re-creation of Checkpoint Charlie. And the mismatched copper-finish thrift-store coffee urns in the replica Situation Room. God is in the details. Or is it the devil?
Of course, most of the crowd was there to check out Air Force One. Truly awesome in its specially built pavilion, the 28-year veteran of seven administrations glints majestically — and in this case invitingly. Once inside, though, it seems strangely cramped. “This is much smaller than the one Harrison Ford had,” observed one of my companions. “Wasn’t there a spiral staircase in that one?” Indeed. But again, the nuances — though a little hard to absorb while being hustled by blue-haired docents — compensate for the absent heroic narrative.
Après cockpit, for example, the first exhibit you encounter is a photocopy machine with a plaque detailing its takeoff and landing storage procedures. Past the incongruous cheesy wood paneling/fine oak molding, the vintage IBM Selectric typewriter, and the “not authorized for top security videos” VCR, the docent assures us we shall “Meet Colonel Chealander.” A solitary wax figure crammed behind an empty table, the mysterious Col. Chealander cuts a melancholy profile, perpetually waiting for the arrival of the sole occupant of the galley, perhaps — an ever-ready chocolate birthday cake. “With 50 people on board, chances are good it’s going to be somebody’s birthday! Please move along!”
Expelled from the tail end of the craft, the viewer is more than ready to descend two levels to the tantalizing Ronald Reagan Pub and its well-stocked bar and Guinness-heavy décor. But in a final poetic reversal, the pub only operates as a pub per se during special private functions. Otherwise you can buy jellybeans and 20 fl. oz. bottles of official Ronald Reagan Pub Natural Sparkling Water for $3. Ha ha.
As we walked out through the rose garden, another blue-haired docent told a small group in hushed and urgent tones, “It’s just like it was prophesized in Leviticus where God promises to send a faintness into the hearts of our enemies: ‘And they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword; and they shall fall when none pursueth.’ And if you look what President Reagan did in defeating communism and what’s happening in the world today, well . . . ” We all nodded knowingly.
Now, it might seem that I’m only appreciating Ronnie’s museum for its kitsch value, and only considering it favorably to the J. Paul’s Villa ironically. Not so. For starters, if it were up to me to judge these two men, I think the actor playing the president would come out with cleaner hands than America’s first and archetypal oil billionaire. We won’t even go into which cultural institution is deploying the more insidious propaganda and to what ends. But for me a museum’s success depends heavily on its ability to surprise me, and while some surprises are deeper and more nourishing than others, I’ll take the Reagan Library’s high what-the-fuck quotient over the Getty’s predictable focus-group-calculated splendor any day.
THE GETTY VILLA| 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades | (310) 440-7300
THE RONALD REAGAN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM| 40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley | (800) 410-8354