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Marking 10 Years of Memories

Reagan Library: A low-key celebration is planned for the presidential facility above Simi Valley.

November 04, 2001|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A decade ago today, five American presidents gathered on a scenic hilltop at the edge of Simi Valley to dedicate the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

It would be the first of many big-name events in this unlikely suburban setting. Over the years, several world leaders have visited, including President George W. Bush, former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former Polish President Lech Walesa and Jordan's King Hussein.

To mark the library's 10th anniversary, however, officials have planned a low-key celebration that will include refreshments and music for the public. Neither Reagan, 90, who is in declining health, nor former First Lady Nancy Reagan will attend.

In a prepared statement, Nancy Reagan said she and the former president were proud of how the library and museum have developed and of the ideals it represents.

"Not only does it bring historical exhibits and world-class speakers to a small community," she said, "it will serve many generations in the future with a way to know and appreciate, as my husband and I do, the freedom that our country offers."

Since its opening, the library has welcomed 1.75 million visitors and has become a symbol of pride for Simi Valley.

"We're so lucky to have it in our community," City Councilwoman Barbra Williamson said. "Every time I go up there I get chills, because, I think, of all the presidents, Reagan was so well thought of and loved."

Though this week may be a time for reminiscing and taking pride in past achievements, library officials say it is also a chance to look toward the center's future, both as an exhibit and events center as well as a scholarly institution.

The library recently announced the acquisition of a retired Air Force One jet used by Reagan and four other former presidents. It will be moved to the library site, restored and opened for tours once a hangar is built.

A presidential travel museum will be erected as part of the exhibit, which will feature a bulletproof limousine used by Reagan. Meanwhile, the museum's Presidential Learning Center, which focuses on children's programming, will be expanded.

The library's museum includes an exhibit hall that traces the history of the 40th president, from his Hollywood film career through two terms as California's governor and his eight years in the White House. Permanent displays also include a full-scale replica of the Oval Office and a 12-feet-high slab of the Berlin Wall.

Soon after the library opened, Reagan officials talked of creating a public policy think tank to promote his brand of conservatism, tackling issues such as economic policy and arms control. The plan eventually was scrapped in favor of programs with more popular appeal--such as a distinguished speakers series, Revolutionary War reenactments and special art and photo exhibits.

Mark Burson, executive director of the Reagan Foundation, said the mix of programming mirrors what Reagan himself envisioned for the library.

"When you listen and reread what the president said, his hopes for what the place would be was a people's place," Burson said. "The idea of the scholarly retreat sort of subordinates to this idea of a shining city on a hill that inspires people."

For historians and scholars, however, the library's real treasure remains locked away in its massive, climate-controlled basement: about 55 million pages of mostly presidential documents administered by the National Archives.

Only about 10% of these documents--which are released in installments over a designated period--are available to the public. Yet they continue to be a source of numerous histories and memoirs about the Reagan presidency.

Among the researchers who have frequented the library are Lou Cannon, a journalist who covered Reagan from his governorship through his presidency; Martin Anderson, a Reagan advisor and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who has published several books about Reagan; and author Edmund Morris, the former president's official biographer who touched off a major controversy with his 1999 memoir "Dutch," in which he used fictional characters to provide more context.

This year, scholars had expected to see thousands more of Reagan's papers made available for review.

But last week, President Bush issued an executive order that allows either the White House or former presidents to veto the release of presidential papers, citing reasons of national security. The order also provides that if the sitting president declares the records privileged, they will remain secret even if the former president disagrees.

Bush's order was prompted in part by a request for 68,000 pages of records of President Reagan, the first president whose records are subject to the Presidential Records Act of 1978.

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