By Kathleen McCleary — Feb 7, 2020
February is a perfect time to plan a visit to a presidential home, museum or library. This year on President’s Day (Feb. 17), George Washington’s Mount Vernon will offer free admission and a slew of events. Throughout the year, other presidential locations will recognize anniversaries (75 years since Harry Truman took office) and recent memorials (George H.W. Bush is now buried next to wife Barbara on the grounds of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas). We recommend you plan to tour them all, but here are three must-sees for 2020.
Warren G. Harding Presidential Center – Marion, Ohio
Warren G. Harding’s presidency was brief (29 months) but juicy. “There’s a lot packed into it,” says Sherry Hall, site manager for the brand-new center, which will open to the public (along with the newly restored Warren G. Harding Home) on July 1, 2020.
Harding (who served from 1921 to 1923) often appears at the bottom of “great presidents” lists—even though he helped lift the country out of a post-WWI depression, put the federal government on its first-ever budget, supported civil rights and sought to reduce the world’s legions of battleships. But four years after his sudden death while in office, a former mistress published a tell-all book. And before Harding died, the Senate began digging into a scandal involving his Secretary of the Interior, a private oil company and government-owned oil reserves at Wyoming’s Teapot Dome.
Scandalous or not? Visitors can decide: The $7.5 million center will be a place to get all the facts, Hall says. Highlights will include a full-size replica of the train car Harding and his wife traveled in during a six-week tour to the West just before his death; a giant papier-mâché potato gifted to him by the citizens of Boise, Idaho; the fully restored “reproducing” piano the Hardings had in the White House; and the president’s Oval Office chair, draped in a symbolic black bow, as it had been in a famous photo taken shortly after he died. “The actual chair illustrates how sudden and shocking his death was,” Hall says. “He died a much-beloved president.”
George H.W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum — College Station, Texas
Since both President Bush and his wife, Barbara, died in 2018, the library has been busy adapting to life after “41”—welcoming visitors who come to pay respects (the president, his wife, and daughter Robin are buried on the property) and anticipating key dates, such as the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (which he signed into law in July 1990). According to David Anaya, the site’s marketing and communications director, visitors came in record numbers in 2019, a trend the library expects to continue in 2020.
Highlights include a new statue of Sully, a now-4-year-old yellow Lab with his own Instagram account who served as Bush’s service dog during the last six months of his life. Sully (trained by America’s VetDogs) answered the phone, opened doors and picked up items for the former president. (Sully now works at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda.) A full-size replica of the Oval Office is another draw: Visitors can sit at the desk and imagine what it feels like to lead the free world. And be sure to read the letters Bush wrote during his time as a WWII navy pilot. “I know what it is to be away from your family. I enjoy reading his letters and seeing how he handled it,” says Anaya, who retired from the military in 2015. Bush’s life, says Anaya, feels like “the story of having the American Dream. He was somebody who loved his country and was driven to be the best he could be in every aspect of life.”
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum — Grand Rapids, Michigan
Presidential libraries celebrate the accomplishments of powerful men, but most of those men had significant help from their significant others. The recently (2016) renovated Ford museum features two full galleries on Betty Ford, the plainspoken first lady The New York Times called “among the most remarkable in modern history.” In May, the museum will present a documentary play, She Did All That, using the voices of Mrs. Ford and her family and friends, as well as White House news accounts and letters from both her critics and admirers.
The majority of the museum’s 12,000 square feet of exhibit space covers President Ford’s childhood as well as his World War II experience, 25 years in Congress, presidency and post-presidency, plus full-scale reproductions of the Oval Office and Cabinet Room. Ford—the only U.S. president never to have been elected president or vice president—was in office fewer than 1,000 days, but his presidency was critical to a country rocked by the Watergate scandal and Nixon resignation. “Gerald Ford brought to the White House an open, unsinister and decent style of doing things that altered the life…of the country,” Meg Greenfield wrote in a Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial in 1978.