Presidents are to history what pop stars are to music. They define their times. After this election, George W. Bush will be focusing on his legacy through his presidential library, which will be erected in Texas as a testament to his serenely bullheaded policies. Like many presidential libraries before his, it will be a monument reflecting his passions, positions and private letters and mementos. Bill Clinton's eight-year prosperity reign and his peccadilloes embodied the 1990's; both are chronicled at his library in Little Rock.
Many have visited Thomas Jefferson's fabled home, Monticello, marveling at how his spirit still inhabits its Palladian beauty. Since the current political campaign has captivated the nation and world, we asked award-winning historian and writer David Brinkley to choose his five favorite presidential sites. Through them it is possible to examine and enjoy the strength and endurance of our democracy through the men - so far - who have led this great nation.
Harry S Truman House
Famously remembered as the president who said, "The buck stops here," the wee haberdasher lived most of his adult life in Independence. In this modest, Victorian-styled house, his hat and coat still hang on the foyer hook and the chair in his study is surrounded by well-thumbed history books and biographies. The kitchen, meanwhile, still has matches resting on the gas stove. The Truman House, down the block from the Truman Museum and Library, is like a time capsule of small-town America during the Cold War. Truman rose from humble roots and was the kind of leader, notes historian David McCullough, our forefathers envisions as presidential timber. The Harry S Truman National Historic Site, admission $4; information, 816 254-9929.
FDR: The Little White House
Warm Springs, Georgia
Though many of FDR’s presidential papers and mementos reside in Hyde Park, N.Y., the Little White House in Georgia reveals the man. Warm Springs was a personal refuge where he coped openly with the ravages of polio, often swimming with other polio patients. Intrigued by the recuperative powers of the 88-degree water and its natural buoyancy, FDR developed a modern-day treatment center for hydrotherapy. "The illness defined him," Brinkley told me. "It gave him a great sense of compassion for those less fortunate." From the small Georgia pine cottage he built nearby in 1932, FDR rallied the nation during the Depression. In his inaugural addresses in 1933 he boldly proclaimed "There is nothing to fear but fear itself," words that can inspire today. On a sundeck overlooking 22 miles of woods, where he could hear the water spilling into a nearby ravine, FDR crafted his sweeping New Deal policies. He wrote in the living room on a card table given to him by his mother, surrounded by bookshelves lined with murder mysteries. In 2004, a museum was also unveiled on the property, housing the stagecoach he used for his victory parade after the election in 1932 and his 1938 Ford convertible with specially constructed hand controls. The Little White House, 706 655-5870, admission $7.
The Lincoln Memorial
Of the many presidential memorials, this beautifully designed statue and its surrounding neoclassical building is Brinkley's favorite. The majestic rendering of Abraham Lincoln looks onto a lovely reflecting pool, creating a special aura. It has 36 Doric columns representing the 36 states at the time of his death, and two more Doric columns stand guard at the entrance. Inscribed on the south wall of the monument is the Gettysburg Address, above it is a mural, Emancipation, by Jules Guerin. Its middle panel depicts the Angel of Truth freeing a slave. This memorial connects two great moments of African American history. It immortalized Lincoln, author of the two acts known as the Emancipation Proclamation, and it's where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech. This year, with Barack Obama as the Democratic contender for president, there should be increased interest in Lincoln. The Lincoln Memorial, information, 202 426-6841; the memorial is open 24 hours a day and admission is free.
John F. Kennedy Library and Museum
The I.M. Pei-designed JFK library gives you an immediate sense of the man. Its architecture juts out in Boston Harbor, a reminder of how much the Kennedy mystique involves the sea, sailing, and PT -109. Unlike Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, who relied on a cowboy image, Kennedy was the man sailing to new places, looking ahead and embracing the future. Some of the president's beloved rocking chairs are on exhibit as is the coconut husk in which he carved his S.O.S. when the PT-109 was sunk in World War II. Visitors can listen to JFK's speeches, including his famous call to duty, "My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." The site also has many rotating exhibits, since the Kennedy family is still so active in politics. The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, information 617 514-1600, admission $10
Theodore Roosevelt, Sagamore Hill,
Oyster Bay, NY
President Theodore Roosevelt loved nature, and Oyster Bay may be one of the reasons. It's a gorgeous setting with a National Wildlife Refuge full of aquatic animals. Roosevelt was a man of many passions and contradictions. He championed conservation and was a renowned ornithologist, but loved hunting big game – and his hunting trophies are proudly displayed in the North Room, including an elephant head from a safari he took after he was president. His riding boots and cloak are still in his dressing room, along with photos of his family. In the nearby museum is a canon he used in Cuba while fighting the Spanish-American War and a samurai sword given by the Emperor of Japan. Woodland and aquatic birds populate the scenic property. Sagamore Hill, information 516 922-4788, admission $5.