- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

There is big sky, scrubby brush, gritty roads and a good seven miles of horse trails surrounding the whitewashed adobe house that was once heaven-on-Earth to former President Ronald Reagan.

He called it Rancho del Cielo, or Ranch in the Sky. But for the reporters who accompanied him on the presidential visits to California, it became the Western White House, tucked away on 688 acres in the mountains above Santa Barbara, a place of respite and reflection for Mr. Reagan and his wife, Nancy.

“We relax at the ranch, which if not heaven itself, probably has the same ZIP code,” he once said.

Now, it is simply known as the Reagan Ranch, a historic site owned and managed by the Young America’s Foundation (YAF), a nonprofit group that intends to use the property to bring Mr. Reagan’s philosophy of life and politics to a new generation.

“Liberals are still desperately trying to rewrite history and bury Reagan’s remarkable record,” wrote YAF President Ron Robinson in a public outreach letter in June. “They actively work to discredit his guiding principles.”

Mr. Robinson’s fears of revisionists with an agenda were confirmed by a CBS miniseries about the Reagan presidency, which omitted historical facts while taking considerable liberties with Mr. Reagan’s personality and character.

CBS yielded last week to public outrage and shuffled it off to a sister pay-cable TV channel.

But the YAF wants to reach those who were just toddlers when Mr. Reagan was in office.

“College campuses don’t get conservative ideas from liberal professors,” said YAF spokesman Andrew Coffin. “The ideals of Ronald Reagan can challenge our young people, and the ranch fits our core mission. We want students to come here and to understand Reagan.”

The Reagan ideals, Mr. Coffin said, emphasize individual freedom, limited government, a strong national defense, free enterprise and traditional values.

“Visitors get a deep sense of the man and his faith, his love of freedom and his real humility and modesty,” Mr. Coffin said.

Indeed, the 1,500-square-foot ranch house is plain but cozy.

The cowboy

“Too humble for a president,” remarked former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during a 1992 visit.

It remains as it was: a neat, tile-roofed little place that the Reagans bought in 1974 during the last months of Mr. Reagan’s second term as governor of California.

Here is the leather-topped patio table upon which Mr. Reagan signed the Economic Recovery Act of 1981. The 40th president of the United States built the patio himself from flagstones quarried on the property.

Here is the spot where Mr. Gorbachev posed for an agreeable photo wearing a Stetson cowboy hat — backwards.

But he was game. It was 1992 and the Soviet Union was gone and America had prevailed in the Cold War. Nevertheless, Mr. Gorbachev presented Mr. Reagan with a book of Russian proverbs. The pair tooled around the ranch in a Jeep and talked about chores, real estate and the finer points of a good horse.

The ladies — Mrs. Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev — repaired to the ranch house to enjoy a plate of homemade cookies.

Such historic details can be savored in the aftermath. But the accouterments of this life — the very nuts and bolts of it — have not been forgotten either.

Mr. Reagan’s riding boots, riding tack and a formidable wood chipper emblazoned with the motto “Gipper’s Chipper” remain in their usual spots in home or shed. There are bed linens, a riding mower with the presidential seal, throw rugs and some 10,000 items from the family’s time there.

Mr. Reagan never abandoned the ranch even as destiny loomed: During his presidency, he spent 344 days on his beloved acreage, tending to the business of America — but clearing the overgrown trails with a chain saw as well.

The ranch also brought out the ingenious side of the Secret Service.

Immediately after Mr. Reagan’s election to the White House in 1980, the agency sent out surveyors and technicians who worked to map and secure the sprawling property. There were fences, wells, power lines and watering holes to consider, not to mention the president’s riding trails.

These were carefully marked in red.

An official “Notice to the Press” issued from the White House on Aug. 24, 1985, aptly reflects life at the ranch:

“Following breakfast with Mrs. Reagan at the residence at Rancho del Cielo, the president delivered his weekly radio address. Following the radio address, the president was interviewed by representatives of three radio stations. The president will spend part of the morning on routine paperwork and is expected to go horseback riding. Following lunch with Mrs. Reagan, the president is expected to take a walk on the ranch property. The weather at Rancho del Cielo is sunny and warm.”


A place of vitality

Mr. Reagan faithfully delivered his weekly radio addresses from the ranch throughout his presidency, offering both straightforward reports on the news of the day and eloquent observations.

One broadcast from March 29, 1986, was typical. Mr. Reagan spoke of the latest attacks on American ships and aircraft in the Mediterranean by Libya and unrest among the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua — both during Easter and Passover week.

“Let us pray that America will always use her power wisely, justly and humbly to defend our legitimate interests, to help those who are struggling for freedom,” Mr. Reagan told his audience. “But let us pray, too, that God will give our country the humility to see our own faults and the strength to preserve our hard-won tradition of freedom to worship and religious tolerance.”

The ranch remained a fixture in Mr. Reagan’s life for almost two decades.

After he left office and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, a painful but practical family decision followed: The ranch went up for sale the next year. Both the Clinton administration and the California Legislature passed on the property. The 34-year-old, Virginia-based nonprofit YAF, however, bought the site for just under $5 million in 1998.

The group has since embarked on an ambitious mission to raise $21 million to restore, maintain and protect the property; build a visitors center, and create a national educational program.

Meanwhile, the Reagan Ranch — wicker furniture, linoleum floors, jellybean jar and all — remains a place of vitality, steadfastly reflecting the public and private moments of a president who was both larger than life and reassuringly down-to-earth.

“This is not a place full of Hollywood pictures, and the ranch is being maintained exactly as it was,” YAF’s Mr. Coffin said. “You can see why Mr. Reagan loved it. To a visitor, it looks like the Reagans have just stepped away for lunch. There are clothes in the closet, books on the shelf. The personalized Bibles he and Mrs. Reagan received from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes are there in the bedroom.”

Though nearby territory includes such rustic landmarks as Bald Mountain and Hanging Tree Road, the road leading up to the adobe home is called Pennsylvania Avenue. A sign hung from the roof announces: The Reagans. 1600 Penna. Ave.

The epicenter of power

It is an apt reminder that this little homestead was the occasional epicenter of power in the free world. Hidden in a wooden barn is a stark reminder of the Cold War days: a 5,000-pound concrete segment of the Berlin Wall, ready for display later this year. And the building up on the ridge? It once housed those Secret Service agents who accompanied Mr. Reagan on horseback as he rode the trails.

Mr. Reagan was adamant, however, that American taxpayers not pay for feed destined for the mangers of his own personal horses. He paid for that out of his own pocket, and made sure it was placed in a bin separate from the feed for the Secret Service horses.

For all the focus on historic preservation, the ranch has a place in the future as well. On the last weekend of October, scores of high school and college students interested in conservative ideas attended the YAF’s West Coast Leadership Conference in Santa Barbara, which included time on the Reagan Ranch itself.

“You’ll hear the conservative ideas that are often omitted from the classroom,” the YAF advised prospective attendees in September. “It’s a chance to leave your leftist campus and be around other conservatives for a weekend.”

Speakers included Mr. Reagan’s son and talk-radio host, Michael Reagan, former Reagan administration speechwriter Peter Robinson, screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd and state Sen. Tom McClintock, a Republican.

Later this month, another group of students will return for the “Milton Friedman Seminar,” highlighted by a visit to the ranch.

“Students will have the opportunity to hear these distinguished scholars make presentations on core principles of capitalism, freedom and Reaganomics,” the YAF advised.

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