So far, so Cal

Although I want to record and share some reflections on my time as a student intern in the US, I also feel a natural aversion to the self-aggrandising nature of ‘travel blogging’ (studies have found that most people seem to agree with me: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article158570564.html). This in mind, I have until now delayed making time to write about my time so far in Southern California. For posterity, however, I’ve overcome this uneasiness.

Greater Los Angeles is a city of some 19 million people seemingly divided by vast socio-economic chasms. For example, Beverly Hills, with its silver fire hydrants and lavish Rodeo Drive, presents a stark contrast to the grit of Downtown LA.

Southern California is also rich in natural wonder. The beaches are stunning, as are local mountain ranges and national parks. Watching the waves come in around Santa Monica Pier was mesmerising, and the views of the city and surrounds from Griffith Observatory were also phenomenal.

Given the nature of my trip, I want to make a concerted effort to experience American culture and history. Of particular interest is, of course, American political history. Americans seem to have an especially great appreciation of their history, with their collection of Presidential Libraries dating back to the WWII Era one tangible manifestation of this reverence.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, located in the beautiful Simi Valley, was one of the first destinations that I knew I wanted to visit when I decided to visit California. I’m happy to report that it certainly lived up to and exceeded my high expectations.

I was particularly intrigued by the exhibits on President Reagan’s early life, including his childhood in Illinois and time as a student at Eureka College. Reagan’s early writing, including essays, letters and poetry, provide a fascinating insight into his character, integrity and strong moral compass even as a teen (e.g. his essay ‘Victory vs. Conscience’).

I could have spent hours watching old video footage from his time as a spokesperson for GE, viewing campaign speeches and listening to old radio addresses. One can’t but observe that the kind of intellect and charisma these artefacts reveal is too often sorely lacking in our contemporary public discourse. Perhaps this is part of the reason that figures like Ronald Reagan are inspiring, while many others fall short.

But I was most affected by the Library’s exhibit on the failed 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan. Not only does this exhibit include chilling, emotional footage from the event itself, but also of an incredible reenactment of scenes from the operating room in the immediate aftermath. President Reagan’s spirit and good humour in the face of this adversity (‘Honey, I forgot to duck’) are yet another testament to his greatness.

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library reflected a very different style for a very different man, but was equally thought-provoking and impressive.

The exhibit on Nixon’s 1972 visit to China was naturally of great interest to me on a personal level (being of direct Chinese descent). It’s difficult to imagine how different the world might be if not for Nixon’s historic meeting of minds with Zhou Enlai, but I’m sure it would have been far less harmonious.

When we think of Nixon, we invariably think of the Watergate scandal. But there is ample evidence of Nixon’s competence as a unifier of people: his effective push for desegregation, strong support for the advancement of women in government, and strides towards reconciliation with Native Americans through meaningful self-determination.

Watergate also provides a compelling demonstration that the American constitutional republic works, and of why the rule of laws is superior to the tyranny of persons. Likewise, Nixon’s rise from humble beginnings, underscored by the Nixon birthplace, are a symbol of the power of the American experiment to deliver on the hope and opportunity of the American dream for even the most humble.

This is also the power of great leaders like Reagan and Nixon: to inspire the best in us, to appeal to our confidences and our best hopes, to remind us that people are more than their failures and mistakes.

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