Transmissions from a Lone Star: Of Robots and Presidents

© PhotoDaniel Kalder
Daniel Kalder - Sputnik International
There are 13 “presidential libraries” in the US. These are grandiose shrines that contain the papers and records of every president since Herbert Hoover.

There are 13 “presidential libraries” in the US. These are grandiose shrines that contain the papers and records of every president since Herbert Hoover. Tomorrow the library dedicated to George W. Bush will open in Dallas and all living presidents will be there to celebrate – rather like one of those episodes of Doctor Who where the current incarnation meets with his past selves to foil a Dalek invasion.

© PhotoDaniel Kalder
Daniel Kalder - Sputnik International
Daniel Kalder

I have visited three of these libraries. The first was Nixon’s, which I explored while staying with a friend in California 10 years ago. At the time, Nixon was still sufficiently notorious that his library was the only one to receive no support from the federal government. Instead it was run by members of his fan club – a group of thoroughly fearsome elderly ladies, I might add. (Since then Nixon has been welcomed back into the fold and tax dollars now flow toward his library).

Close to the entrance there was a small cinema, almost totally abandoned, and a giant Nixon head appeared on the screen. It rambled on about mountain peaks and valley troughs, and how you cannot truly appreciate the highs of life until you have spent time in the depths. Thus it seemed Nixon viewed his disgrace philosophically, and his celluloid shade assured us that his impeachment had actually strengthened his (dearly departed) soul.

The rest of the library was fascinating. Being foreign, and until that time not very interested in American politics, I had not known that Nixon had run against JFK for the presidency, and thus his election a few years later constituted a truly remarkable comeback. The museum organizers were very proud of Nixon’s outreach to China and wanted us to view him as a great statesman. Watergate was not neglected and had its own wing, but my favorite exhibit was in the room dedicated to the 1969 moon landing. There they had the script of the speech Nixon would have delivered if the astronauts had crashed on the moon and died.

It’s good to be prepared, I suppose, and for a brief moment it was as if I were peering into an alternate reality. Then I headed to the gift shop and bought a cool mug with a picture of Elvis and Nixon on it, dating back to the time the bloated, drug addled king of rock ‘n’ roll was angling for a job as some kind of White House youth advisor (fun fact: James Brown, Godfather of Soul also endorsed Nixon for president.)

Some time later I visited George Bush Senior’s library in College Station, Texas. This one I remember primarily for the architecture: I had just returned from a tour of Turkmenistan and was struck by the resemblance of the Bush library to one of its eccentric president Turkmenbashi’s temples dedicated to his own glory. Inside, however, the tone was quite restrained. There was lots of information about Bush’s World War II military service, and I vaguely recall a story about him crashing his plane into the sea. Then of course there was an exhibit on Operation Desert Storm and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ultimately, however, the Bush library didn’t make much of an impression on me; his presidency looked like the postscript to the Reagan era it was. Even the gift shop was duff – I didn’t buy anything.

That was it for me and presidential shrines until a few years ago when, one boring Saturday afternoon, I decided to visit the Lyndon B. Johnson library in Austin. It’s located inside a weird futuristic building downtown that looks like something out of a 70s dystopian movie. Inside, however, it is highly informative. On my first visit I learned that LBJ was responsible for much of the reforming legislation that still shapes America today, from healthcare to civil rights to dreary public television. Certainly he achieved much more than the pampered rich boy JFK, who has been the subject of so many unnecessary hagiographies. Then I entered the room dedicated to the Vietnam War.

Oh yes, I thought, that. It didn’t go so well.

The most remarkable exhibit of all, however, was the joke-telling LBJ robot located on the second floor. There it stood, clicking and whirring beneath a cowboy hat, delivering folksy wisdom. It was an astounding invention, necessitating a total lack of irony on the part of its creator. Indeed, since that first visit I have read a bit about LBJ and discovered that he was a singularly unpleasant individual, who was frequently drunk and naked and abusive. But even so, I can’t shake the memory of that robot and its synthetic charm.

No doubt as the museum to George Bush II opens, there will be lots of waffly articles reassessing his legacy, attempting to explain why his approval ratings are today steadily climbing. Fair enough; journalists need to eat and such articles are easy to write. But personally, I don’t care about any of that. What I want to know is: Will the library have a joke-telling Bush robot in a cowboy hat? I certainly hope so.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”

Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.

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