Austin has President Lyndon B. Johnson’s museum and library. College Station has President George H.W. Bush’s museum and library. And several Texas cities are vying to host President George W. Bush’s eventual museum and library.
But Odessa’s Presidential Museum and Leadership Library is a place for all American presidents—whether Texan or not—as I discovered on a recent half-day visit.
Located on the campus of the University of Texas-Permian Basin, the museum serves as a quick study of the history of the nation’s highest public office.
A 30-foot-diameter, royal-blue rug bearing the presidential seal welcomed me as I entered the museum’s rotunda, the walls of which soar 45 feet overhead. Ringing the seal are eight columns bedecked with the flags of all 50 states (and seven territories and districts) arranged in order of admission to the Union. The columns represent the eight American presidents who have died in office.
Commissioned portraits of eight other presidents—the ones in office since the museum opened in 1964 (Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush)—line the rotunda’s circular wall.
Permanent exhibits feature eye-catching displays that encapsulate the lives and times of every commander in chief, from George Washington to the current president. Timelines, historical maps, and concise text capture the zeitgeist of pivotal American periods—ranging from that of the founding fathers, the age of Andrew Jackson and Manifest Destiny, and the Civil War, to the world wars, the Cold War, and the traumatic aftermath of President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation. There are even small exhibits on the four presidents of the Texas Republic (David G. Burnet, Sam Houston, Mirabeau B. Lamar, and Anson Jones), American vice presidents, and First Ladies.
A casual perusal of exhibits loaded me up with such presidential facts as these: The 1824 election of John Quincy Adams was decided by the U.S. House of Representatives in the only election of a candidate who failed to garner a majority of either electoral or popular votes. From 1789 to 1800, the presidential runner-up was declared vice-president. In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt set the stage for modern political party conventions by selecting his own vice-presidential nominee, usurping the traditional role of party bosses.
I bumped into schoolteacher Virginia Fiske from El Paso and agreed with her conclusion: “There are so many new things I’ve learned, it makes me realize I need to study my own history more.”
A temporary exhibit of the museum’s largest category of artifacts—its campaign collection—proved both educational and hilarious. (Parts of this collection continuously rotate through museum exhibits.) I learned that in the campaign of 1828, opponents labeled presidential candidate Andrew Jackson a “jackass” for his populist views. Jackson liked the image of a donkey and put it on campaign posters. Cartoonist Thomas Nast used the donkey to represent antiwar factions in Harper’s Weekly in 1870 and later to identify Democratic Party newspapers. An 1874 Nast cartoon also depicted political factions as animals—a donkey for President U.S. Grant, a Democrat, chasing an elephant labeled the “Republican Vote.” Thus were born today’s party mascots.
I chuckled over campaign posters and buttons, reverent and irreverent. There was the mild-mannered “I’m on the Team” button for the losing Thomas Dewey–Earl Warren Republican ticket of 1948. There was the cutesy “Grits & Fritz” button touting the winning Jimmy Carter–Walter Mondale ticket of 1976. I could recall from years ago the card, displayed here, that was distributed by independent presidential candidate George Wallace: “Register Communists, Not Firearms,” it chided. I almost laughed aloud at the poster of candidate Jimmy Carter with a beard and long hair and the phrase “J.C. Can Save America.”
After the 1963 assassination in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy, several locals—including former Texas Attorney General John Ben Shepperd—decided to honor Kennedy by creating a museum dedicated to the office of the president. In early 1964, the Presidential Room opened in the basement of the Ector County Library. The name was later changed to the Presidential Museum, and the collection expanded into the entire library building. In 2002, the museum opened its new home on the UT–Permian Basin campus. Its research library, which began with Shepperd’s personal collection, now boasts 6,000 volumes covering various political periods.
Both Presidents Bush lived in the Odessa–Midland area during their early careers in the West Texas oil patch. The Presidential Museum recently relocated (to the museum grounds) and restored the 1948 home where George H.W. and Barbara Bush lived with their son, the current president. Photographs provided by the Bush family allowed the museum to restore the living room to how it looked at Christmas in 1948. (The museum also owns the 1977 home, in Midland, of George W. and Laura Bush; for now, it opens only by appointment.)
On my way out of the museum, I noticed quotes from various presidents dramatically displayed on the gallery walls—quotes that run the political gamut.
Some visitors would nod their heads at Martin Van Buren’s sentiment: “The less government interferes with private pursuits, the better for the general prosperity.” Others might lean toward James Madison’s philosophy: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
But most would agree with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous pronouncement: “There is nothing wrong with America that the faith, love of freedom, intelligence, and energy of her citizens cannot cure.”
Odessa’s Presidential Museum and Leadership Library is on the UT–Permian Basin campus, at 4919 E. University Blvd. (79762-8144). Hours: Tue-Sat 10-5. Admission: $8, $5 age 65 and older and students in grades K-12, free for preschoolers and active military. Call 432/363-7737; www.presidentialmuseum.org. The Ellen Noël Art Museum, is next door (4909 E. University Blvd.; 432/550-9696; www.noelartmuseum.org).