SIMI VALLEY — The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum is worth seeing just for its spectacular hilltop setting and the glossy production. Where else can you walk through the president's Air Force One, parked in a shiny, glass-walled pavilion big enough to house a Boeing 707?
If you're looking for a nuanced history of Reagan's presidency, however, you might want to buy a book.
Too often, this is the Hollywood version of the Reagan presidency, heavy on the sentimentality, glamour and melodrama. You know how the story goes: In a world of good and evil, strong and weak — music rising — one man rides out of the West to save us.
In the video introduction, the narrator describes the America of 1980: "America faced economic ruin ... evil forces threatened the world ... (and) one man had the courage to fight back."
Only one? Yes, the Reagan administration did play a key role in ending the Cold War and bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union, and, yes, Reagan did change the direction of the public dialogue in this country.
But the Reagan library is the Saturday matinee, red-white-and-blue retelling of that story. It's an entertainment perfect for the most ardent Reagan loyalists.
Iran-Contra? It's here, but blink and you could miss it.
Presidential museums are what they are. Each begins with a bankroll provided by that president's wealthiest admirers. They want to glorify their guy — and go light on the bad news.
And these admirers aren't shy about their role in financing the museum. Many displays comes with plaques identifying generous benefactors. ("Replica of the White House South Lawn — Special Thanks to Merv Griffin.")
If the Reagan library is celebratory, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, 83 miles to the south in Yorba Linda, is something different — something more interesting.
The Reagan library doesn't think visitors need to make up their own minds about their guy. He was a great man, and what else is there to say?
The people who assembled the latest iteration of the Nixon library seem more willing to let visitors make their own decisions about this complicated man.
For the Nixon library, there is no way to pretend that the Watergate scandal didn't lead to the resignation of the president (just as the Lyndon Johnson library at the University of Texas in Austin can't pretend that there wasn't an unpopular war in Vietnam).
So one of the largest displays in the Nixon library features a timeline of events that led to the president's downfall. (The Watergate material, added in 2011, enraged many Nixon loyalists.)
I've visited four presidential libraries in recent years — Reagan, Nixon, Johnson and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
The Reagan and Kennedy libraries seem content to glorify their man, heavy on the glamorous pictures and memorable speeches.
The Nixon and Johnson libraries are more forthcoming about the totality of Nixon's and Johnson's political careers.
The New York Times last month reported on efforts by the Johnson family to have history remember LBJ for his domestic record as well as the Vietnam War.
Voting rights, civil rights, Medicare, the war on poverty and more — perhaps no president in history, save Franklin Roosevelt, managed the passage of so much landmark legislation.