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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.

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The organizers of the Nixon library, which is built around the home where he was born, may have their own rehabilitation project in mind. In the foyer, large letters recall the admonition of President Bill Clinton: "May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close."

This is, after all, the politician who opened doors to the Soviet Union and to China, the politician who signed legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act.

Except for Watergate, Nixon might be remembered as a great statesman. Instead, he is remembered for his treachery and paranoia.

There are reasons. In one video, Nixon loyalist Charles Colson describes how he managed to duck an angry Nixon's demand that they fire every employee of one of the federal government's more obscure agencies, the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Over time, history over-simplifies issues and people.

Reagan was a great president. Kennedy was on his way to being a great president when he was assassinated. Nixon and Johnson were flawed men — insecure, vindictive and manipulative.

But history and people are seldom as simple as that.

Tea party folks like to imagine Reagan as their spiritual father, but Reagan was conservative, not obstinate. He negotiated with Iran, agreed to missile reductions with the Soviets, signed legislation to grant amnesty to millions of illegal aliens.

Democrats like to recall Kennedy as a charismatic leader, but he was also a womanizer and the president who concealed serious health problems.

Nixon and Johnson? Well, they were the politicians driven from office, one by scandal and one by an unpopular war.

Without defending them, it might be OK to acknowledge that their stories require further examination. They may not have been great presidents, but they were certainly interesting ones.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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