Reagan Ranch Corrals Heroic Memories
December 19, 2006
by John O'Sullivan
Last Friday I was standing on a mountain behind Santa Barbara on the California coastline looking out on some of the most beautiful landscape in America. High in the Santa Ynez hills is Ronald Reagan's Rancho del Cielo that from 1981 to 1989 doubled as the Western White House. I was there as the guest of the Young America's Foundation, which purchased the ranch and, with the help of generous donations from loyal Reaganites, has lovingly restored the ranch house and the property.
One of the benefits of writing a book is that you get to travel on a book tour. If you love America, as I have since I first came here as an English schoolboy in 1949, you relish the chance to see more of this vast land and to meet more of its open-hearted people. I had been asked by the YAF to speak over lunch at their Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara on the topic of my new book: The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister. This is an account of how Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher together brought about the peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire and changed the world.
Half the audience had not been born when the Soviets were invading Afghanistan, when OPEC was quadrupling world oil prices, when American hostages were languishing in Tehran, and when the West was in headlong retreat. The other half had voted for Reagan because he promised to reverse these defeats and, still more important, to dispell the "malaise" of despair that characterized not America but the Carter administration and that largely explained its helplessness. He kept his promises too. Hence the fascination of the younger generation with the Gipper and his two great allies. If they had vanquished these greater evils 20 years ago, what lessons could we learn from them in defeating the evils that today threaten America and the West?
There are many answers to this question. But one answer is that Reagan and Thatcher would not have allowed the genocidal ravings of Iran's President Ahmadinejad to go unanswered. They would have addressed the Iranian people directly as decent people not represented by their political leaders but instead oppressed by them. Our present political leaders need to be as frank and as principled.
They also need to be hopeful. All of my three heroes -- Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II -- vanquished evil with a smile and on generous terms. They believed in the moral superiority and popular appeal of freedom as well as in its practical benefits. They offered Poland and the other "captive nations" the prospect of eventual liberation through peaceful strategies of cultural and political resistance. They gave Solidarity the weapons of politics -- money, radios, cell phones, faxes -- to achieve their liberation. And they won. We need to offer the Iranians the same hope and the same weapons.
When my talk was over, I was introduced to John Barletta who had been Reagan's Secret Service detail and who remained with the president in retirement. His moving account of the public and private Ronald Reagan has been published under the title Riding with Reagan. He gave me a copy, a preview of my visit to the Reagan Ranch -- and the assurance I would understand Reagan better when I saw how he had lived and wanted to live.
"Architecture is frozen music," said Goethe. It's also frozen politics. When you see Hitler's retreat, gazing down from the heights on the villages below, you glimpse his megalomania. The architecture of the Reagan ranch, by contrast, is hardly architecture at all. The ranch is a simple farm structure -- a low-roofed ranch house with a veranda and a paved courtyard. Reagan carved out the wooden fences from trees he had felled himself and paved the courtyard with stones he had broken with his own hands for exercise. Inside the ranch-house is larger than you expect, but very practical, domestic and comfortable at all points, with only the occasional presidential symbol or photograph of Queen Elizabeth or Mikhail Gorbachev to remind you that it is not really a regular working farm.
Reagan did not choose a house on a high bluff, looking down on either the mountains or sea. This is no "Eagle's Nest" or "Wolf's Lair." Instead, the house is situated in a hollow and looks out on a small lake with a hill rising behind it. One can imagine a small rancher sitting out on his veranda after a hard day of riding, watching the twilight arrive and setting aside his book. Indeed, that was Reagan's day whenever he could snatch time from Washington or later in retirement. He rode around his 600 acres, cleared brush, cut down trees, fell asleep over a book and occasionally entertained distinguished celebrities.
He was distressed when it rained so hard for a visit by Queen Elizabeth that they could not ride around his estate as they had ridden around Windsor Park. She said never mind, the weather made her feel "at home." Also, the president was too polite to tell Gorbachev that he was wearing his Stetson back to front.
Eventually, the day arrived when, after a near accident, Reagan could no longer ride safely. Mrs. Reagan hadn't the heart to tell him that he would have to give up his hobby of 55 years. Barletta was asked to do so: "Knowing him like I did and understanding what horseback riding meant to him, I felt like I was telling someone I don't think he should breathe anymore. I was now practically in tears. He got up and put his hands on my shoulders and said, 'It's OK, John. I know.' That was it. We never rode again. We never talked about it. He could see how upset I was, and he was trying to make me feel OK. That was the kind of guy he was. ..."
And because Reagan was that kind of guy, he could reach the hearts of people in prison camps and palaces around the world and win them over to his side. That's statecraft because it's soulcraft.
This article originally appeared in the December 19. 2006, Chicago Sun-Times.
John O'Sullivan was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.
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