Nothing is built to scale in Los Angeles. The airport, the freeways, the theme parks, the downtown skyline – it’s all oversized. Larger than life.
The same goes for the city’s monument to the 40th President of the United States.
Thirty minutes from Hollywood, perched above the Simi Valley, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library suits a man who was a movie star, the governor of California, then a president, who in his second term was re-elected in of the largest landslide in American electoral history.
Reagan was born into a working class family in Illinois. A C-level student in high school, he first worked as a radio host for baseball games, before a road trip to Los Angeles ended in a screen test and an acting career in Hollywood.
Fast forward to eight years as governor of California, before Reagan was sworn in as president in January 1981.
The first rooms of the visit to the Presidential Library are only the trailer, before visitors are presented with an image worthy of the big screen. In a huge glass-fronted pavilion, suspended above the ground on concrete pillars, is a Boeing 707, which looks like it’s about to take off over the hills outside. It’s the Reagan-era Air Force One, which carried him more than a million miles through 26 countries.
Beside him is Marine One, a Sikorsky helicopter and a stretched Cadillac Fleetwood, which was Reagan’s presidential limousine. A small military display outside includes an F14 Tomcat fighter and an F117 Nighthawk stealth fighter, which was built during Reagan’s tenure.
Air Force One gives visitors a chance to set foot in a world they see most often in movies. Entering the jet at the front gives a glimpse of the presidential cabin and communications area, including where the “football” was always kept – the briefcase containing the nuclear launch instructions, which must have been particularly heavy cargo at the time before the end of the cold war. In contrast, at the back of the plane, Reagan always asked the galley to carry a cake, just in case someone traveling on board was celebrating a birthday.
Elsewhere in the museum, a replica of the Oval Office is equally spectacular. A small staircase leads down to it, as the area has been hollowed out to ensure that the ceiling height matches the real deal in Washington.
But here, a mix of original and replica furniture and artwork has decorated it as Reagan did during his tenure. This includes the candy jars Reagan kept on hand after he successfully quit smoking a pipe. As was his custom, three and a half tons of red, white and blue candy had been shipped to Washington to mark his inauguration.
Other elements of the Presidential Library serve as a more traditional archive and museum, with 24 galleries preserving the written records and physical history of Reagan’s eight years in Washington. But some relics are still dramatic, like the suit and shirt he wore when he was shot by a would-be assassin, still in the severed pieces of his body.
Others mark Reagan’s importance on the world stage – no less than a haunting slab of the Berlin Wall, given to him for his work in bringing down the European Iron Curtain.
And this concrete slab stands sentinel near the memorial site of Reagan and his wife Nancy, a few steps away in library grounds, immaculate and surrounded by one of his famous quotes carved in marble under the presidential seal: “I know in my heart that the man is good, that what is right will always triumph and that there is a purpose and a value in every life.”
It’s a quote that reflects the “shining city on a hill” that Reagan often speaks of, as an ideal toward which his country should strive. And perhaps, with that thought in mind, the Reagan Presidential Library could be one of the few Los Angeles landmarks actually built to scale.
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. Admission is US$16 ($22) for adults. Visitors are currently receiving timed entry to maintain social distancing and advance booking online is recommended. See reaganlibrary.gov
Ronald Reagan’s favorite hotel, the Fairmont Century Plaza, is in Los Angeles, about an hour’s drive from the library. The hotel recently reopened after five years and a major redevelopment. Rooms start from $978 a night.
Where to see other Air Force One planes
The designator “Air Force One” is assigned to any aircraft carrying the President of the United States. And while there have been many aircraft specifically built to perform this function, any aircraft that carries the current president will assume this callsign.
Former President Trump’s personal Boeing 757 used this callsign when Trump chose his own aircraft in favor of the more traditional B747s available.
However, the harshest example was inflicted on former President Richard Nixon who, after signaling his intention to resign following the Watergate scandal, was returning to California just as Gerald Ford was sworn in to replace him. Passing over Missouri, the pilot informed air traffic control, “Kansas City, that was Air Force One. Would you like to change our call sign to SAM (Special Air Mission) 27000.”
A Douglas C-54 Skymaster aircraft, nicknamed Sacred Cow, was the first aircraft specifically designed to carry the president. This plane carried President Roosevelt only once before his death and is on display at the National Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio (see nationalmuseum.af.mil)
President Truman rode a 24-seat C-118 Liftmaster, with the plane’s nose painted like the head of a bald eagle. Called the Independence, it served in that role for about six years and now resides at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio (see nationalmuseum.af.mil/)
The first aircraft to carry the call sign Air Force One was Eisenhower’s Lockheed Constellation. It happened after his four-engine propeller plane was involved in a call sign mix-up between a commercial service and the presidential plane. The informal title became official in 1962. Columbine II, as it was known, was sold to a private owner in 2016 and is being restored to remain airworthy.
Under John F. Kennedy, the presidential aircraft entered the jet age with the Boeing 707. Five of the jets served as Air Force One, with the first three sporting garish orange paint. While one of these aircraft was scrapped, the other two are on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle (museumofflight.org) and the Pima Air and Space Museum (pimaair.org) in Tucson, Arizona, the latter being famous for bringing home Americans from the Iran hostage crisis in 1981.
The famous blue, white and silver livery was used on the two remaining 707s, one of which is on display in the same museum as the C-54 Skymaster in Ohio, while the other steals the show at the Reagan Presidential Library in California.
The existing VC-25A Jumbo aircraft have been in service since 1990, but with the price of replacing two VC-25B 747-8s at $4 billion, there are no plans to retire these aircraft to a museum anytime soon.
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