Geneva, Switzerland (June 9, 2004) -- The world lost a great human being this week when former US President Ronald Reagan passed away at the age of 93. Last year, I had the privilege of being able to catch a rare, personal glimpse into the life and personality of this incredible visionary when I was invited to Santa Barbara, California for a private tour of the Reagan Ranch—-also known, during the Reagan years, as the Western White House. There, I learned more about Reagan —- the real, private man behind the legend —- than one could ever hope to gleam from textbooks.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan bought the nearly 700 acre Rancho del Cielo (which literally translates into “Ranch in the Sky”) in 1974, while Reagan was still Governor of California. They left it reluctantly in the mid-1990s when Reagan’s health had deteriorated to the point where he and his wife had decided that they’d best stay close to their primary residence in Bel Air. An appeal was made to have the ranch preserved for future generations by having then-President Bill Clinton declare it a national monument, but sadly, Clinton didn’t. Ultimately, the Young America’s Foundation —- an organization dedicated to educating young people about conservative ideals —- stepped up and saved the property for preservation. They purchased it under the guise of being able to use it as part of their programs to teach young people about conservatism—-and also about the life and mindset of one of its greatest figures.
On their last day at the ranch, the Reagans literally just walked out and left behind all of their personal belongings, exactly as they were. Ron’s jellybean jar was still half-empty beside the kitchen sink. His handwritten diagrams outlining various ranch projects that he planned to complete himself were lying on the tables alongside paperback novels and books about football. The blue Scrambler Jeep that he used to get around the property was still parked in the garage. Used bars of soap in the shower, worn toothbrushes and toothpaste in the bathroom, family photographs, and various riding clothes were all exactly as the Ron and Nancy had left them. It really didn’t strike me as being any different from the homes of most other country-dwelling Americans.
The trip from downtown Santa Barbara to the ranch is breathtaking in itself. Apparently, some of the more elderly visitors often freak out and have difficulty looking out the window along the way. The trek consists of a series of gravelly switchbacks that teeter along the edge of steep, mountainous drop-offs. Reagan made the exact same drive all the time when he was Governor, but during his presidency, a helicopter landing pad was installed on the property to facilitate the trip (and probably to allow for a few Secret Service agents to actually be able to score a few z’s at night). When Reagan left office in 1988, he insisted on ditching the chopper ride and, once again, he started making the heart-stopping drive himself. He wanted everything at the ranch back to the way it was in the old days. He succeeded, partially.
When Reagan took over the Oval Office, a Secret Service detail of about 100 agents was dispatched to the ranch, and the entire perimeter of this huge piece of property had to be secured. To this day, the lights which were placed, for security purposes, a few feet apart all around the perimeter still haven’t been taken down—-nor have the Secret Service quarters just up the hill from the ranch house, where agents used to sleep, eat, hang out, and workout in a little, private gym.
When I arrived at the ranch with the Ranch Foundation Director of Development, Jason Barbour, we pulled into a gravel driveway beside a long, log fence that Reagan had built himself. There was precious little that the tall, athletic Reagan —- who had once been in lifeguard in Illinois, as well as a member of his college swim team —- hadn’t built with his own hands. At the end of the driveway was the ranch house, and a stone patio that Reagan had also constructed himself by splitting and shaping large boulders that he had found on the property. It was on this patio in 1981 that Reagan signed off on the largest tax cut in American history—-26% over three years. It was a centerpiece of the “Reagan Revolution” that led to years of economic prosperity. And it all took place at the ranch, along with some of his weekly radio addresses to the nation during the waning days of the Cold War.
Although the ranch played host to world leaders such as Queen Elizabeth, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Margaret Thatcher, it was a simple, down-to-earth place, lacking of any possible indication that it actually belonged to the leader of the free world. It was humble. It was real. It was quintessential Reagan.
Ronald Reagan had an incredible respect for animals. His four-legged companions at the ranch included dogs, cattle, and horses. When they died, he would take them himself to be buried in a little hilltop cemetery that he had created especially for them on the ranch. He would carve each one of them a special headstone. He wanted each of them to be remembered.
Reagan adored his horses and often shared his jellybeans with them right from his hand. His favourite horse —- the one with which he is often seen in photographs —- was a white Arabian stallion named El Alamein. The horse was a gift from Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo y Pachecho in 1981. Only one horse that Reagan once owned still remains on the ranch today. She’s a small, white horse named Wendy, who spends most of her time munching on the grass near the ranch house. I was warned by Jason that Wendy was so old, if I were to pet her, huge clouds of dust would emanate from her. Of course, I did so anyway, all while wondering what kind of tales this animal —- who had spent all those years hobnobbing with the Reagans and other world leaders on the ranch —- would tell if she was ever able to speak.
On the wall of the ranch’s tack room is a large horse blanket that had been mounted into a picture frame. I noticed that on each of the four corners of the dark blue blanket was a Royal Canadian Mounted Police crest. The Canadian government had gifted Reagan with a horse from the RCMP stables, but unfortunately, because the horse had been raised on a farm, he wasn’t used to navigating the hilly terrain of the ranch. Within six months of arriving at the ranch, he lost its footing on a hillside, took a nasty tumble and broke his neck. Reagan had framed the blanket as a way to remember him.
Ronald Reagan used to say about his ranch that “if not Heaven itself, it must have the same zip code.” Jason Barbour told me that often visitors to the ranch were so moved by the ranch, and the insight it provided into the intimate life of a man who had made such a great contribution to democracy, that they would break down and cry.
As we were leaving the ranch and driving back along the narrow, winding, dusty road, Jason and I passed a man named John Barletta who happened to be heading up to the ranch himself. Barletta was the head Secret Service agent at the Ranch, and protected Reagan for seventeen years—-longer than any other agent ever assigned to the President. He had become a close friend of the Reagans and retired to Santa Barbara in 1997 to be near the ranch. He still visited the Reagans regularly in Bel Air, but the ranch remained a magical place for him, too.
Now with the Reagan Ranch as the centerpiece of a program that cultivates the ideals of individual freedom, limited government, patriotism and traditional values in America’s young people and future leaders, the spirit of Ronald Reagan will always be with us. It certainly will always be with me.
(Rachel Marsden is a political strategist, columnist, radio talk show host, and media commentator in both the USA and her native Canada. www.rachelmarsden.com)