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Library pays homage to the man and the president

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They say that most residents of Manhattan have never visited the Statue of Liberty, ridden to the top of the Empire State Building or been to Ellis Island. I think that same statistic must be true, too, for the majority of residents of Southern California when it comes to visiting a local national landmark: the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

Nevertheless, nearly 300,000 tourists a year do visit the Reagan Library, which sits atop 100 scenic acres in Simi Valley.

Every president since Herbert Hoover has established a library. With the opening of Clinton's, there will be 12, and we have three of them in California: Herbert Hoover's at Stanford University, Nixon's in Yorba Linda and Reagan's in Simi Valley. All, except Nixon's are managed by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Reagan's library opened in 1991. It was the first time in history that five living presidents gathered in the same place at the same time. They gathered near the landscaped replica of the White House South Lawn, where Marine One lands.

You can't see Pennsylvania Avenue from there but on a clear day you can see the Pacific Ocean. Reagan's grave site is set off to the side of that "South Lawn."

While the library has been open for more than a decade, a major new addition opens Oct. 24: the Air Force One Pavilion, making it an even more interesting and educational destination.

Recently I received a preview of that 87,000-square-foot extension.

Today, when you enter the library, you enter through a gallery of presidential signatures and then to another gallery of presidential portraits in rooms replicating the decor of the "Yellow" and "Red" rooms in the White House. There, you'll find displays of campaign buttons and memorabilia of presidents.

There's a learning center that rotates new exhibits two to three times per year. The fall 2004 exhibit portrayed the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The fall 2005 exhibit is Lt. Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Cavalry. This shows off the Hollywood and historical versions of the "horse soldiers" that helped settle the American West. The center also has a 220-seat restaurant called Reagan's Country Cafe.

But the heart of the library is the display of Reagan's years, and the library's directors have done a magnificent job of bringing alive his unique life.

You'll first watch a video overview of Reagan's life. Then you'll pass through Dixon arch, the portal to his Illinois hometown and discover the boy Ronald Reagan.

There's a model of his family's kitchen, photos and memorabilia of his careers as lifeguard and radio announcer and his experience in the U.S. cavalry.

Then, you come upon his acting career. There's a replica of a '40s movie theater where you can watch clips from his films. They have the original booth from Chasen's, the Hollywood restaurant where he actually proposed to Nancy Davis. There are displays of his love letters and Nancy's wedding dress.

Moving on, you come to Reagan's years as a politician. On display is the 1965 Ford Mustang convertible in which he campaigned for governor of California. And there's the actual doorway and foyer of the home where he lived in Sacramento during his years as governor.

You'll move on next to memorabilia of his presidential years. First on display is his inauguration tuxedo. There's a section on his attempted assassination.

There's the actual White House switchboard that was used through the '90s that even has Chelsea Clinton's bedroom marked on it. And then the exhibit focuses on Reagan's first term as president.

His White House situation table is on display. There's a dining table set for a state dinner with a menu on display. The recreational times are on display as well, with photos and memorabilia of Camp David and a section on his ranch in Santa Barbara, the Rancho del Cielo.

There are calendars displaying the president's and first lady's detailed monthly schedules. And a section is dedicated to Nancy and her career as a movie star and first lady.

You then enter a long corridor that brings you into the new Air Force One Pavilion, where you will find Reagan's actual Air Force One. The plane is elevated above the ground and, facing a huge glass wall overlooking the Santa Susana Mountains, it actually appears to be flying.

You enter on the third floor of the pavilion, walk around the entire plane and enter the same door that President Reagan would have walked through. After entering the plane, you'll pass the communication center, a stateroom area, a small lounge, a seating area for the president's confidants and then the press area, finally exiting the tail of the plane on the main floor of the exhibit hall. On that floor there are the vehicles used in presidential motorcades: Reagan's 1982 Cadillac limo and Secret Service and police motorcade escort vehicles. There is also Marine One, the presidential helicopter.

The main theme of the Air Force One Pavilion is how President Reagan used travel -- and face-to-face diplomacy -- to promote U.S. interests and democracy.

Reagan's Air Force One was a Boeing 707 -- a much smaller plane compared with the current Air Force One, which is a 747. There is no bedroom and no elaborate kitchen and, when every seat was filled, it only carried 52 passengers. But seven presidents flew aboard this very same plane. It went into service in 1972 with Nixon and remained Air Force One throughout Reagan's term.

The first President Bush used it in his first year in office before the newer 747 came on duty. And President Clinton and the current President Bush occasionally flew in it as well as their "backup" Air Force One.

When you finish the tour of the Air Force One Pavilion, you re-enter into the main museum to find yourself in front of a replica of the Oval Office decorated exactly as it was on Reagan's last day in office.

All the pictures behind the desk are of family members except for President Eisenhower's. The rug with the presidential seal is the one he used during his tenure.

Before leaving the main building, you'll enter the legacy gallery with a theme that defines the Reagan presidency -- "peace through strength" -- and culminates in a replica of the Berlin Wall.

With the new pavilion opening, an audio tour will help educate visitors about the Reagan years. But the museum also has more than 200 docent volunteers ready to answer whatever other questions you might have.

There also are 35 government archivists working at the library. If you're a scholar or just curious, you can make an appointment to review the actual papers of the Reagan presidential era.

The Reagan Presidential Library is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Years Day. Don't let it be said that you have never visited this national landmark in our own backyard.

And, if you have, with its new Air Force One it's worthy of another trip. Do it for the Gipper.

-- For more information, contact Melissa Giller, director of communications and operations for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation at 40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley, CA 93065; phone 522-2977; fax 520-9702; e-mail or visit

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