Memo to President Bush: Think animatronics.
The George W. Bush Library will start construction this year at the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. While there’s been no specific disclosure of what exhibits will immortalize the 43rd president, curators no doubt are looking at what has worked to attract visitors to other libraries.
Presidential libraries are relatively modern institutions, with FDR being the first to formally establish his own library for archived papers and such. Acknowledging that the typical visitor has a limited threshold for archived papers, however, the FDR library also has an exhibit on beloved family dog Fala.
Indeed, folks like to see the pets, the First Lady’s dresses and, let’s face it, the oddities. We scanned the libraries’ offerings and found four that rise above the rest by embracing some all-American goofiness.
Herbert Hoover Museum and Library, West Branch, Iowa
Plenty of presidential libraries have exhibits not related to the commander-in-chief himself, but the Hoover scores extra points for the lengths it will travel beyond its subject. Exhibit A: “A Very Elvis Christmas,” which paid tribute to the King’s life through decorated trees. You’ll also find a permanent collection of papers and artifacts from author Laura Ingalls Wilder (unlike Elvis, she at least lived in Iowa).
Granted, you can still learn about Hoover, especially his humanitarian efforts before and after his beleaguered presidency. You’ll also learn about his sporty side: To lose weight, the 31st president invented his own game, Hooverball, which involves hurling a medicine ball over a volleyball-style net. Come in August and you can watch the museum-sponsored Hooverball National Championship (319-643-5301; www.hoover.archives.gov).
Gerald Ford Presidential Library & Museum, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Ford’s is the only library-museum to be divided into two locations: the Library in Ann Arbor supplies the academia, but the Museum in Grand Rapids brings the funk. At the latter, you can take a holographic tour of the Ford White House, boogie in the exhibit paying tribute to the disco era, and check out the actual stairs that sat on the U.S. Embassy roof in Saigon as the last Americans helicoptered out in 1975. Bonus proof that Ford was willing to show an unvarnished view of his time: his museum has the gun used by attempted assassin Squeaky Fromme and the halfhearted apology letter from his other would-be assassin, Sara Jane Moore. (616/254-0400; www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov).
Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum, Northampton, Massachusetts
This low-key president was known as “Silent Cal,” but the museum proves that, behind closed doors, he had a wild side. At the very least, he was ahead of the curve in gym technology: the museum displays Coolidge’s “electric hobby horse,” which he supposedly rode three times a day for exercise, including one “sharp gallop” an hour or so before bed. He didn’t ride it just for privacy, though, or to practice his pre-Urban-Cowboy moves; a New York Times story at the time revealed that he did so to accommodate “a nasal affection which becomes aggravated by the effluvia that arise from the equine hide” (413/587-1011; www.forbeslibrary.org/coolidge).
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, Austin, Texas
Set on the University of Texas campus, LBJ’s library has its share of classic random items on display, from Amelia Earhart’s pilot’s license to one of George Foreman’s championship belts (the boxer-turned-grill-mogul credits LBJ’s Great Society with his success). But one of the most popular exhibits will either dazzle you or give you nightmares: a vaguely eerie, animatronic LBJ, leaning against a fence post and telling classic LBJ-style tales, such as one joke about a fella with a “drankin’” problem (512/721-0158; www.lbjlib.utexas.edu).