Let’s be honest: To millions of Americans alive today, past presidents like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, or Dwight David Eisenhower are remote figures, like some distant third cousins that we’ve never met. Occasionally, their faces stare out at us from a television screen or the pages of a book. They seem to represent an America that feels as distant from us as the Ice Age.
If you’d like to know more about our leaders, from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush, you can go right to the source: Our last 13 chief executives each has a museum and library devoted to him. The purpose of these institutions is to help us better understand the personalities, accomplishments, and challenges our presidents faced. Each museum includes some remarkable features.
The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum includes “Decision Theaters,” where visitors watch special audio-visual presentations designed to draw them into the debate about some of the key decisions President Truman made while in office. At the end of these programs, visitors have a chance to vote on whether his decision to recognize the new State of Israel or to organize a loyalty program to force subversive individuals out of government jobs were right.
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum includes a gallery that traces the evolution of the 31st president’s reputation from popular hero to one of the most hated men in America. The story has all the elements of a Greek tragedy. Following World War I, Hoover, who was both an engineer and a great humanitarian, was asked to organize a massive food-relief program to rescue the hungry people of Europe, some of whom were facing starvation. This effort was hugely successful and saved many lives. Hoover had the misfortune to be president during the Great Depression, which some observers saw as the worst crisis in the U.S. since the Civil War. Based on his previous reputation as a man of action, Americans hoped Hoover would act quickly to help his fellow citizens. They were to be bitterly disappointed. As a committed Republican and staunch individualist, Hoover felt that individual Americans had to take responsibility for helping themselves. Many came to believe the president just didn’t care about them. It also gave rise to this ditty: “Mellon pulled the whistle, Hoover rang the bell, Wall Street gave the signal, and the country went to hell.”
In 1932, a Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), was elected president because voters believed he cared a great deal about people like them. Periodically, FDR’s Presidential Library and Museum displays a selection of the letters that ordinary Americans wrote to him during the worst years of the Depression. These letters, which were all written on cheap paper rather than expensive stationary, constitute a compelling “low-tech” museum exhibit. In these heart-felt communications, people asked the president for help, reported on their efforts to progress, and thanked him for the variety of federal programs designed to provide jobs for those who needed them.
The 13 Presidential Museums and Libraries are administered by the National Archives.