“We’re in Ronald Reagan’s closet,” I said to my brother, my eyes wide.
“I know!” he stage-whispered, equally incredulous.
Surrounding us in the small walk-in were a few Western shirts, denim jeans, riding boots and britches, Nancy Reagan’s red robe.
We were enjoying a private tour of Rancho del Cielo, the Reagan Ranch in California, the “Western White House” in the ’80s. Like everything else at the Ranch, the simple closet softly whispered the strong and humble character of Ronald Reagan, an intimate portrait of what made him the greatest President in modern times.
Our tour had actually begun in downtown Santa Barbara, at the Reagan Ranch Center, where a massive section of the Berlin Wall reminds visitors of what was not only President Reagan’s most significant foreign-policy achievement, but the greatest human liberation of the 20th century: the defeat of totalitarian communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Other mementoes include the blue Jeep Scrambler the President loved to drive around the Ranch, with its license plate reading GIPPER, and the patio table at which he signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act in 1981, pushed through a Democrat-controlled Congress, jump-starting America’s stalled economy.
A small shelf of mock books holds a few of the volumes that shaped Ronald Reagan’s philosophy.
“If you pull on one of them, it will give you a short introduction to the book,” our young tour guide Alec clued me in. I picked Witness, by Whitaker Chambers.
“Good choice,” Alec approved.
“It was the most important book of the 20th century,” I replied.
Witness is Chambers’ account of his time in the Communist Party and his journey from communist to Christian as he realized, “The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God,” and finally recognized the awful irony that a system that exalts man over God inevitably leads to horrific assault on human rights and dignity. The book shaped not only Ronald Reagan’s thinking, and mine, but that of many, probably most, thoughtful conservatives.
From Santa Barbara, Alec drove us out the Ranch itself, much of the way up a long, steep, narrow, winding road, before finally arriving at the 688-acre property. When I saw the entry sign, Rancho del Cielo–Ranch in the Sky–I could almost believe it wasn’t hyperbole, so high were we in the Santa Ynez Mountains.
A telephone-pole fence leads away from the sign; Ronald Reagan built the fence. Just beyond the house, there’s glorious Lake Lucky with a small dock; he built the dock, and the Lake.
The ranch house itself is stunningly small. Fans who watched Dallas during the ’80s and thought the President was retreating to anyplace like Southfork would be sorely shocked. It’s one storey high, made of adobe and stucco and painted gleaming white, with a desert-red tile roof.
A replica of the table where President Reagan signed the ’81 tax cut stands atop the stone floor of the large front patio; he built the floor.
We stepped inside. “Try to stay on the runners as much as you can,” Alec requested. “President Reagan laid the tile himself.” I looked down, it was red vinyl, similar in shade to the roof, the kind of stuff that would have been popular in the ’70s, but it was perfectly placed. I’d have been thrilled with any contractor who did such good work at my home.
A large bookcase dominates the entry room, and its shelves still hold many of the books that formed Ronald Reagan’s philosophy, including a first edition of Witness. It reminded me of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, the second home of our third president, who like Reagan would retreat and recharge with reading.
To the right stands a simple oak dining table. Large windows overlook the pond outside. The President would sometimes do his “Washington homework” at the table, and the Reagans would host Thanksgiving dinner there. They would remain in Washington every year for Christmas, so that Secret Service and staff could celebrate the holiday with their own families.
The decor throughout the house is pure desert southwest, cowboy paintings, kachina dolls, mounted jackalopes. The living room features patchwork chairs, a bearskin rug, a tree-trunk coffee table, and a gun cabinet. A small wet bar area opposite the tiny kitchen houses a wine refrigerator, necessary for the entertaining the First Couple did at the Ranch. The President himself completed the warranty registration form; in the space requesting his occupation, he wrote “public employee”. There is no air conditioning, and the heat comes from two fireplaces. Ronald Reagan chopped the firewood, split it, and stacked it.
The small master bedroom too is a study in Ronald Reagan’s humility. The bed is really two twins tied together under a patchwork quilt. It’s easy to spot who slept on which side, as the bed was too short for the great man’s tall frame, and so a small bench sits at the foot of his side. It reminded me of the Reagan home in Dixon, Illinois, and the small bed that young Ronald shared with his older brother Neil. And the closet, with its vinyl flooring and rugged clothing, gives a powerful, private glimpse of the virtues of hard work and simple pleasures that he not only valued but lived.
After touring the house, we headed to the tack room. Ronald Reagan famously loved riding, and often quipped, “There’s nothing better for the inside of man than the outside of a horse.” He’d look at a trail map on the wall and determine the day’s path, double-checking it with a Secret Service agent. Agents of course always accompanied the President on rides, but he insisted that only their horses would feed on hay paid for by the taxpayers; he would not have hard-working taxpayers feed his own horses.
He also insisted on saddling not only his own horse but Mrs. Reagan’s as well. When the horses were ready, he’d ring a large bell, signalling her that it was time to ride. (I got to ring the bell.) When they returned, he helped her dismount. She’d head back to the ranch house and prepare lunch. When lunch was ready, either at the oak dining table or on the patio at the small tax-cut table, she’d ring a bell for him. Free-market economists would call this division of labor specialization, a way of segmenting tasks to those who are best able to perform them. Christians would call it complementarianism, the idea that men and women serve each other by fulfilling different roles that complement one another. Whatever you want to call it, it’s not only more efficient, but also more elegant.
Occasionally, President Reagan enjoyed riding with another lady, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the only person other than his wife to call him Ronnie. The two had a powerful bond based on a shared world vision, and her contributions were absolutely vital to his success in defeating communism and spreading liberty around the globe.
In the tack room, near the saddles, there’s a parody of the well-known Gone with the Wind movie poster with Clark Gable, as Rhett Butler, carrying Vivien Leigh, as Scarlett O’Hara, in his arms. The parody poster features President Reagan holding Lady Thatcher in the same way. I smiled when I saw it.
“Is there something about that poster that catches your interest?” Alec asked.
“I had this poster,” I replied.
There was a split-second pause.
“You’re the first person I’ve heard say that.”
After the tack room, we visited the Secret Service Command Post. While the ranch house highlights so much of the prism of Ronald Reagan’s humble character, the Command Post illuminates it from another angle. As my Dad used to say, Reagan had class. Along with some of the relics from the President’s time there, the walls today feature framed quotes recalling how well he treated people.
Occasionally, he would head over to visit, often if there was a football game he wanted to watch on the agents’ big color television. He’d call ahead and ask whether they’d mind his coming by. He brought popcorn, a favorite snack since he noshed on it with his parents and brother in Dixon. And he’d introduce himself to each person, “Hello, I’m Ronald Reagan.” His consistent displays of class were another sign of his deeply held beliefs. Class isn’t about knowing which fork to use and not drinking from the finger bowl; it’s about treating every other person with respect. Reagan believed that each person enjoyed equal rights and dignity, a belief that lies at the core of conservatism, and his behavior reflected his conviction.
Our final stop on the Ranch property was the former location of the helipad. The views of hills and valleys, painted in rich desert colors, are nothing short of spectacular. Reagan often quoted Psalm 121 when he talked about his Ranch: “I look to the hills from whence cometh my strength. My help cometh from the Lord – the Maker of heaven and earth.”
Nature is powerful. It inspires humility and hope at the same time. It’s no coincidence that our greatest and most thoughtful Presidents, including Jefferson and Reagan, eschewed the crassness of cities and treasured nature, spending purposeful time in it, finding the peace and solace that nurtures deep thought and solid grounding. There’s an elegant order found in nature, from the rhythm of the seasons to the Fibonacci sequences in the petals of flowers, an order that affirms another of Reagan’s deep and simple beliefs: God has a plan.
We headed back toward the ranch house, and Alec graciously gave us a few moments to take some last pictures before the ride back to Santa Barbara.
The Reagan Ranch Center, like the Ranch itself, today is owned and operated by the Young America’s Foundation, which years ago absorbed Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative group in which I cut my activist teeth in college and later enjoyed the honor of serving as a National Director.
We were greeted once again by the Berlin Wall. I can remember when Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!” And I can remember when it came tumbling down just two short years later, as though by fiat. But the Ranch gives a richer picture of the outrage President Reagan felt toward a cruel and dehumanizing system, of the grounded hope that propelled him to make such an amazing demand, and of the strength of character that gave him the credibility to back that hope up.
The Ranch also gives greater context to the tax-cut table. Reagan didn’t merely believe something so material as taxpayers struggling to feed their families should not have to feed his horses. He believed that dignity required that they be free to savor the fruits of their own labors. And so when he signed the ’81 bill sitting atop a patio floor he’d built, he was restoring to them what he himself was enjoying in precisely that moment.
And then there’s the Jeep, with its GIPPER license plate. The tag of course refers to Reagan’s most famous acting role, George Gipp, in Knute Rockne, All-American. Gipp was a young Notre Dame football player who died in his senior season. In the death-bed scene, Gipp, played by Reagan, tells Rockne, portrayed by Pat O’Brien:
Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.
Years later, an aging Rockne does just that, in a half-time speech during an important game the Fighting Irish are badly losing at Yankee Stadium:
None of you ever knew George Gipp. It was long before your time. But you know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame…
And the last thing he said to me — ‘Rock,’ he said – ‘sometime, when the team is up against it — and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock,’ he said – ‘but I’ll know about it – and I’ll be happy.’
There’s a brief silence, and then a player asks, “Well, what are we waiting for?” As one man, the boys throw off their blankets, rush the door, and–spoiler alert!–win one for the Gipper.
That’s what the Young America’s Foundation is doing today. More than preserving the Ranch and its history, as important as that is, the Foundation is operating a “School for Reaganism”, teaching today’s students about Ronald Reagan’s philosophy and the character that propelled him to greatness, furnishing these young people with a solid grounding in principle, and a hero to give them hope.
None of them ever knew Ronald Reagan. He was long before their time. But thanks to the Young America’s Foundation, they’re learning what a tradition he is in America, and around the world, and why.
That’s never been more vital. Conservatism today needs a hero. We don’t have a Reagan-esque standard-bearer, a strong leader with the class, character, conviction, and credibility to push sound legislation through Congress or bring down our foreign enemies, a wholly decent person we’d want children to emulate, a moral exemplar whose daily life illustrates why conservative philosophy and policy foster human flourishing.
But as Margaret Thatcher so eloquently noted on the sad occasion of Reagan’s passing,
[W]e have one beacon to guide us that Ronald Reagan never had. We have his example.
And we have his Ranch, preserving his legacy and passing it on.
- Rancho del Cielo itself is sadly not open to the public, though private tours are sometimes available by invitation to people with connections to President Reagan and the conservative movement.
- The Reagan Ranch Center at 217 State Street, Santa Barbara, is open to the public Monday-Thursday, during 11-4, except on most federal holidays. Admission is free, and a docent will lead you on a tour. You will get to see the Berlin Wall, the tax-cut table, the GIPPER Jeep, and many other mementoes, as well as interactive exhibits to help you learn more about Ronald Reagan and Rancho del Cielo. For more information on visiting, click here.
- To support the Ranch and its “Schoolhouse for Reaganism”, click here.
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Several books are available to help you learn more about Ronald Reagan. Some of my favorites include:
- An American Life, his autobiography
- Reagan, In His Own Hand, a collection of his letters
- The Reagan Diaries, his personal journals
- When Character Was King, by former speechwriter Peggy Noonan, which delves into Reagan’s character and why it was central to his greatness
- What I Saw at the Revolution, also by Peggy Noonan, which captures the excitement of the Reagan era
- Riding with Reagan, by John Barletta, the Secret Service agent who was often by the President’s side at the Ranch, who captures the respect with which he treated everyone he encountered
Margaret Thatcher was key to the success of the Reagan Revolution around the globe, and she left a substantial oeuvre of memoir and political analysis.
Though he never visited the Ranch, Pope John Paul II is the third world figure essential to the overthrow of communism; he too left behind an important oeuvre, and Witness to Hope by George Weigel is one of the most outstanding biographies I’ve ever read of anyone.
To understand the human horrors of communism, you can’t go wrong with anything by Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago, is a chilling three-volume look at the Soviet prison system. If novels are more your speed, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a short fictionalized version of Solzhenitsyn’s time in the gulag and one of the most magnificent examples of descriptive story-telling I’ve ever read.
For the non-material importance of tax cuts, please consider my own Slaying Leviathan: The Moral Case for Tax Reform.
And if you never read anything else on this list, or on this blog, please read Witness.