He turned a humble California abode into the Western White House and helped a nation believe in itself again.
A dense fog hung over the Santa Ynez Valley on the morning of August 13, 1981. As a sizeable army of expectant journalists untangled their gear and readied for the moment, Secret Service agents dragged two pieces of leather-bound patio furniture out onto the gravel driveway. Then, from the doorway of a small, 100-year-old adobe house, wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots, the leader of the free world emerged.
Ronald Reagan, just six months into his presidency and still feeling the effects of a would-be assassin’s bullet, was about to exercise his considerable mandate to sign into law the largest tax cut in American history, which reduced the tax rate from 70% to 28%. The aptly named Economic Recovery Act would end “stagflation” and launch the Reagan Revolution.
The former actor knew Rancho del Cielo (“The Ranch in the Sky”) was the perfect place for such an occasion. It was literally as far from Washington, D.C., as he could get, and it was the place where Reagan the Commander-in-Chief became Reagan the common man, building fences, clearing away brush, riding and grooming his horses.
Over the next eight years, much more history would be made on the 688-acre spread the Reagans purchased in 1974 for $527,000. World leaders from Margaret Thatcher to Mikhail Gorbachev would visit and critical policy decisions would be made. In fact, Reagan would spend almost 50 days per year at the ranch, earning it the nickname the “Western White House.”
But for all of its notoriety, Rancho del Cielo has remained a remarkably private place. “Really, there were very few visitors, and almost nobody, even his top staff, went into the main house,” observes John Barletta, the Boston native and Secret Service veteran who served as chief of security for the Reagans whenever the couple was in residence at Rancho del Cielo. “Everyone knew that this was his place to recharge,” Barletta adds.
Cowboys & Indians received exclusive access to the ranch, which was acquired in 1998 by Young America’s Foundation. The foundation plans to preserve this historic site and use it to educate young people about Reagan, his ideals of individual freedom, limited government, strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values. They also plan to construct retreat facilities for the ranch.
The project is most appropriate since, as C-SPAN noted, “There is more of Reagan in this ranch than in all the speeches he ever gave.” The Washington Post remarked that Ranch del Cielo was “a true national treasure...the place to see the real Ronald Reagan.” In the following pages, the surprising humility and gentility of our 40th president is supremely evident. In Reagan’s own words, “This place casts a spell. I suppose it’s the scriptural line, ‘I look to the hills from when cometh my strength.’ I understand it better when I’m up here.”
Life on the Ranch
Over the more than 40 visits Reagan made to the ranch during his presidency, a certain routine developed. Each morning, a Secret Service agent would pick up the daily dispatch of presidential papers from the office in Santa Barbara. According to Barletta, Reagan would work through them right away. “People would say, ‘Oh, he’s out of town’ or ‘on vacation,’ but that means nothing. The presidency and all the work that goes with it goes wherever the President goes.”
And so did the enormous security detail. Reagan was virtually never alone, and for the morning ride, which could take anywhere from two to four hours, the parade of security must have been a sight to see. Barletta always rode next to the President (whose Secret Service code name was “Rawhide”); behind them, Mrs. Reagan (code name “Rainbow”) and another agent. Following them was a custom-made Hummer (code name “Halfback”), built exclusively to handle the rough terrain of the ranch. Inside were four to six agents carrying heavy weapons, regular and satellite phones, emergency medical equipment and, of course, the “football,” the code name for a briefcase containing nuclear missile launch codes.
Every effort was made to preserve a sense of serenity for the President while also employing the vast array of high-tech security and communication devices that are now a standard part of the office. Trees were planted around the command posts where agents, snipers, Seabees, and other military personnel lived and worked. Taking a tip from Disneyland, fake boulders were ordered from the Disney company to hide sophisticated motion detectors, electrical wires, and sensors. Trail numbers were carved into rocks located along the riding paths to track the president’s position moment-by-moment on a photographic map shot from space by the Air Force.
Each ride ended with Reagan jumping off his horse and going to help his wife off her horse, then giving her a kiss and a hug. Woe to the overzealous agent who might try to help the First Lady off her horse before the President got to her.
“The President’s idea of ‘relaxing after lunch’ was different than most folks,” Barletta recalls. “He liked to do chores.” Indeed, despite the fact Reagan was 70 years old when he took office, he delighted in the gritty work of ranch life, and would keep his security detail (who quickly learned the cowboy work ethic of pitching in to help) huffing and puffing while pruning trees, building hundreds of feet of fencing out of old telephone poles, constructing a dock on their pond, “Lake Lucky,” or laying the stones for the patio in front of the main house. The six-one, 184-pounder was fond of saying, “Taking care of a ranch is the best workout there is.”
All of the work was tempered with a genuine desire to slow down and drink in the extraordinary beauty of the ranch itself. “Rancho del Cielo can make you feel as if you are on a cloud looking down at the world,” Reagan said. “From the house we look across the meadow at a peak crowned with oak trees and beyond it, mountains that stretch toward the horizon. From some points on the ranch, you can watch boats cruising across the Santa Barbara Channel, then turn your head and see the Santa Ynez Valley unfold like a huge wilderness amphitheater before your eyes.”
Reagan’s ability to maintain perspective was also one of his strongest points as president, according to Barletta.
“I remember when we were flying back from the Reykjavik Summit in Iceland,” he recalls. “The Russians had said that unless the U.S. put a halt to its ‘Star Wars’ initiative, they would refuse to bargain on the other points. Reagan would not give in, and we left there with nothing. Everyone on Air Force One was very discouraged, knowing the press would label the trip a failure. Then here came the President strolling through the cabin, smiling and telling jokes. He also said the end of the Soviet empire was coming, and that Communism was about to crumble. He was absolutely right.”
Patience is a quality more common to older men, and so is faith. Reagan’s steadfast belief in God was a favorite subject on his rides with Barletta. “He is a strong Christian,” says Barletta, who protected Reagan for 17 years before retiring. “He felt very blessed. He also loved going to church, but on the couple of occasions when we organized it, the presidential security measures—blocking off streets, clearing surrounding buildings, doing background checks—paralyzed the city of Santa Barbara, so he stopped. He called the ranch his ‘cathedral in the sky.’ ‘This is where I’ll worship from now on,’ he said.”
In the evenings, Mrs. Reagan would ring the big black bell on the porch, signaling it was time for dinner. The President was a man of simple culinary tastes and usually asked for a bowl of macaroni and cheese. At night the Reagans would sit on the couch together and watch movies or favorite TV shows such as Murder She Wrote or Jeopardy. Often there was a surplus of work to be done, and the President would attack his “homework” as he called it at the table in the L-shaped family room, protected by the bulletproof glass that had been installed into their quaint adobe. After work he would read, and maybe fall asleep by the fire with a favorite book like Lonesome Dove resting on his chest.
“The Reagans lived a very healthy lifestyle on the ranch,” says Barletta, “and I think that’s what kept the President so youthful throughout his eight years. I watched Ford and Carter both grow old before my eyes during their terms. The job does that to you. People don’t understand how stressful and unrelenting it is. But Reagan somehow stayed the same, and I think a lot of it was this place and his ability to unwind here.”
In fact, Rancho del Cielo proved to be a tonic for the whole presidential entourage. “The Secret Service guys loved it because it was gorgeous weather, beautiful country and we got to take off the suits and wear jeans to work. The White House press corps loved it, too. I would see the reporters hanging out in their shorts or swimsuits at the pier or the Sheraton in Santa Barbara. Then just before the evening news live shot, they would throw on a coat and tie, order the cameraman to shoot them from the waist up and say, ‘This is so-and-so with the president at the Western White House in California.’ Very official. And to us, very funny.”
The American West is mysterious that way, and Ronald Reagan, the so-called “Cowboy President,” realized the power of this place. He used it to build his dream retreat. From there, he turned a troubled nation around and built a legacy that will last for generations.
From the July 2001 issue.