The Power of Presidential Sites
The recent death of former President George H.W. Bush was a temporarily unifying moment for our divided country. His funeral brought together members of both political parties to pay tribute to a statesman and a leader. Politicians and the public may have disagreed with former President Bush’s policies and actions, but most people spent at least a few moments mourning his loss.
These current events have led us to recall other past presidents, both living and deceased. The National Park System is home to monuments, memorials, houses, tombs, and landscapes dedicated to our nation’s former presidents. These sites preserve the stories of their childhood experiences and capture the importance of adult accomplishments.
According to the NPS, the “preservation of presidential sites extends beyond park boundaries. Many of the National Park Service’s cultural resource programs also have ties with the presidency, including the National Register of Historic Places, the National Historic Landmarks Program, and Teaching with Historic Places lesson plans.” The George W. Bush Childhood Home in Midland, Texas, is a good example of this. It is operated by a non-profit organization but also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This small, one-story house was home to the Bush family from 1951-1955. The house museum has been restored to the appearance of this time period and there are future plans to acquire neighborhood homes that would provide space for a Visitors Center and an exhibit gallery.
Other sites, such as Monticello, allow you to walk the same floors as one of our Founding Fathers. While Monticello is owned and operated by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, it is also a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Alternately, other sites such as the President Bill Clinton 1st Home Museum in Arkansas and the Eisenhower National Historic Site in Pennsylvania, are units of the National Park Service. One of the most unique presidential sites is in the small town of Plains, Georgia, where you can stop by President Jimmy Carter’s Boyhood Farm or the Plains High School Museum (all part of the National Historic Site). There is also a large preservation district in Plains, made up of sites associated with Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. And if you visit Plains, you may even catch a glimpse of President Carter himself. He still lives in the small town and teaches Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church when he’s in residence.
The American Presidents Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary is a list of 43 sites associated with the NPS that aids visitors in exploring the lives and contributions of our past American Presidents and is available online (PLEASE INSERT LINK – https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/presidents/list_of_sites.html). Millions of visitors travel to these sites every year. And ostensibly, some of these visitors also disagree with the policies and actions of these men during their tenure in office.
So why visit? Is there is something inherently special about the office of the President that draws both supporters and detractors? Is it a desire to be close to power or to better understand success? Or is it simply that, despite the apparently increasing political polarization that is trumpeted from coast to coast, we can still appreciate that people are nuanced and complicated. Here, I think lies the answer. Perhaps the popularity of presidential sites and the steady stream of visitors from all walks of life is a good reminder that we can disagree with policies and politics but still respect the person. That we might not applaud a former president’s political decisions, but we still want to learn more about his family life at a childhood home or pay our respects at his tomb.
Our National Park System is so diverse and it’s important to remember that our parks protect irreplaceable cultural resources in addition to our natural treasures. Our past informs our present and these parks preserve our history. NPS interpreters at these sites are experts in not only bringing the past alive but building bridges and making connections. In todays world, this is a terribly important mission to continue to uphold.