Monday, July 13, 2015

Hoover and Truman and Ike, oh my

The U.S. is littered with Presidential Libraries, museums extolling the histories and persons of our more recent presidents. I've just been to three of these scattered across the midwest: Herbert Hoover in West Branch, Iowa (just outside Iowa City), Harry Truman in Independence, Missouri (adjacent to K.C.), and Dwight Eisenhower in Abilene, Kansas (not near anything).

Hoover is the earliest president covered by the national system (there's also an unofficial one for Rutherford B. Hayes, which I've also been to), and it's the most modest of a generally grandiose lot. Well, "a modest man with much to be modest about," as Churchill said of Attlee. That's not true, actually: Hoover was tremendously successful and renowned at everything he did up until he reached his Peter Principle level of incompetence as president. The museum had some old home reminiscences for me in the form of artifacts from Hoover's undergrad days at Stanford (I've worked for the Hoover Institution, which I guess gives me a connection), and it faces the disaster of Hoover's presidency reasonably straightforwardly, with only partially self-serving exculpations. (By contrast, you should've seen what the Nixon Library used to say about Watergate.) Hoover recovered some respect in later years, and he really did say to explain this, "I outlived the bastards." Strong words for a homely Quaker boy who's literally buried within site of his birthplace, a tiny cabin in a pristinely restored section of his small home town, right by the library. If you want to eat, go to Iowa City.

The alliteration of all the references to "the historic home of Herbert Hoover, humanitarian" got to us (my brother was with me) and we began fantasizing about Herbert Hoover, Hubert Humphrey, Harry Hopkins, Henry Higgins, Horatio Hornblower, and Hoppity Hooper in Happy Hollow with a hula hoop.

Truman's library is the trickiest. You go in, you watch the two overlapping movies with narration by David McCullough, you see the rather facile display of the challenges of Truman's presidency (admits that Truman was unpopular during his presidency, but never explains why: nothing about the tawdry or scandals), you visit Truman's book-filled office and the graves out back, and you think, "Is that it?" No it isn't: the personal museum with all the interesting artifacts is hiding in the basement. That aside, though, it's well laid out and interesting, giving you a real sense of the man. Some of the best stuff, though, is not in the library at all. A mile away in central Independence you can get tickets for walking tours through Truman's house, which has been left just in the simple state it was when Bess died in 1982. Bess and Harry would eat in the modest kitchen, its 1950s decor the most modern part of the house. Hey, we had that can opener when I was a kid. Across the street in Truman's cousins' house is now another small museum on Truman in his home context, the best part of which is a video display of daughter Margaret interviewing her parents for Person to Person, the only time they let those newfangled camera things into their home.

The striding statue of Truman is in front of the old courthouse (also visitable) downtown a few blocks away, near the visitor center where the tickets are obtained and also by a worthwhile German restaurant with lots of schnitzel.

Ike's is the most grandiose, being on a "campus" where his boyhood home is preserved like a fly in amber, complete with a mumbly young tour guide who says "And this is the parlor 'nstuff, and that's the family Bible 'nstuff." The Library proper is a separate building from the museum, and between them is a huge oversized statue of the General with his hands on his hips. The museum is unbelievably dense. Huge blocks of text, hard to read because of the dim lighting, covering WW2 in minute detail - here's the display on Luxembourgish resistance to the Nazis, just what you always wanted to read while standing up - and the presidency in not much less. Mentions Sherman Adams and the vicuna coat, and even has the punchline of the "And what if Sherman Adams died and Eisenhower became president?" joke, but though there's a photo with Kay Summersby, there's not a word about her. I came away feeling a lot less acquainted with Ike than with Harry or Bert. The movie makes a real silk purse out of the sow's ear of Eisenhower's lack of charisma, of speaking ability, etc. Gift shop has the best selection of books of all three.

Abilene is a hopeless town for the food-seeking traveler. Even the fast-food places clustered by the freeway are unappetizing. There is a decent farmhouse restaurant (in both senses: it's in a farmhouse and serves that kind of food) out of town on a back highway. It's called Mr. K's, though I didn't ask why: in an Eisenhower context, that name conjures up images of Khrushchev.

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