In this week leading into unprecedented back-to-back national conventions, there is almost no good excuse for not writing about current politics. Almost. But a visit to the Reagan Ranch provides a rare exception.
Last Wednesday the Ranch, saved for future generations (and especially for student enlightenment) by the Young America's Foundation, celebrated the anniversary of President Ronald Reagan's signing of his famous tax-cut bill in 1981 with a wonderful barbeque and a speech by Wall Street Journal economics writer Stephen Moore. It was a worthy occasion on a shining day, at a beautiful place that ought to be hallowed ground for patriotic Americans for years to come.
By necessity, the Rancho del Cielo (Ranch in the Sky) is available for student groups but not open to the general public (as will be explained shortly), but the public may visit the Foundation's Reagan Center in downtown Santa Barbara -- a town on the Pacific, framed by mountains, that seems to approximate Eden itself in its sunny loveliness. The Center, graced with an impressive piece of the Berlin Wall, is full of wonderful pictures of the memorably photogenic Gipper, and promises to boast a fascinating little museum when all the exhibits are ready this fall.
Only by means of small tour buses, though, can the Ranch itself be accessed after a 45-minute ride. Fifteen minutes of a ride along the beach highway (U.S. 101) is easy enough, but then the climb up the mountains begins. And what a climb it is! Gentle enough only at first, Refugio Road narrows into what amounts to a single lane of asphalt, sometimes only moderately well maintained, as it turns into a steep and stunning drive that quite obviously could not bear much public traffic.
The road snakes, swerves, and switchbacks (if "switchbacks" can be a verb!) at often breathtaking angles, sometimes with amazingly steep drop-offs, overlooking sunlit mountain vistas alternated with vegetation surprisingly more lush than that of some of the lower hills seen from above during the climb. Occasionally the sightlines are good enough to provide a view of the Pacific, now a good eight miles away. A solid half-hour of this ascent makes one understand the reference to "sky" in the Ranch's name.
THEN, THROUGH AN UNASSUMING GATE (combination required to get through the lock), the road suddenly leaves the steep mountainside and enters a broad plateau, 2,200 feet above see level, that a visitor would never imagine could exist after such a sharp and craggy climb. The Ranch, 688 acres full of a plethora of the soul-enriching hiking- and riding-trails that Reagan and wife Nancy so famously enjoyed, is remarkably tranquil -- and the ranch house itself is a modest 1,500 square-foot bungalow overlooking a bucolic pond called "Lake Lucky." From the outside, the little house is so plain as to seem almost devoid of all character. (Mikhail Gorbachev reportedly said it was not a habitation fit for a president.) But one step inside the door, and Reagan's personality infuses the place so thoroughly as to be quite palpable.
The books that line the shelves show Reagan's quintessentially inquisitive mind and myriad interests. Classics on political theory, quite obviously well read and re-read, are interspersed with books on local flora and fauna and history, Louis L'Amour westerns, and a great big book on football authored by former Ram and Redskin Coach George Allen (father of the former Virginia governor and senator). Wall hangings and decorative art celebrate local native American heritage, while much of the functional furniture betrays a 1970s sensibility (not the gaudy disco-influenced variety but the middle-American, inexpensive sturdiness of the decade that is too often forgotten). Diverse collectibles suggest the Reagan's private lifestyle at the ranch, and often show signs of Reagan's personal attachments and friendships. It is a house utterly devoid of artifice. It lacks pretense, too -- except for occasional evidence that the man was indeed president, such as an artful presidential seal made by a neighbor out of 1600 nails mounted on a wooden placard, and the shower head in the shape of the Liberty Bell.
One small room had been an outdoor porch until Reagan himself enclosed it, installing the linoleum floor with his own hands. The kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom are amazingly small, and closet space is almost nonexistent. But the homey comfort-level of the place, its relaxation quotient, is high. It's almost impossible to visit without feeling, in one's bones, that this president was an immensely likable man.
Outside the bungalow, a delicious tri-tip beef and chicken barbeque preceded Stephen Moore's speech. Worthy of a column in itself, Moore's remarks reminded those assembled just how bad the economy was before Reagan signed his tax-cut law, just how dramatic the cut was, and just how successful it was at revitalizing the entire American (and eventually the free world's) economy. Particularly classic was Moore's story of a White House senior staff meeting he attended late in 1987 as Treasury Secretary James Baker reported back on budget negotiations in which congressional Democrats, feeling their oats, thought they had Reagan on the hook for a tax hike. Baker himself recommended accepting the deal. A great silence descended on the room as Reagan spent quite a bit of time cogitating on Baker's report. Then, in a mock-James Cagney voice, Reagan smiled and asked who was going to tell those "dirty rats" that there would be no deal. Even in the wake of a (temporary) 25 percent drop in the stock market in one day, Reagan would not surrender essential principle.
In truth, it was again and again the case that the Gipper won another one for us.
OF MANY OTHER FOND IMPRESSIONS from the ranch visit, one does seem now to have particularly current relevance. Outside the house's front door, an endless-loop video showed all of the network newscasts from 1981 that described the tax-cut signing ceremony held right there at the ranch. The event had turned into an unscripted mini-press conference, and the subjects ran afield from economics. Reagan was asked to defend himself against strong Russian criticism of his then-decision to go ahead with development of the "neutron bomb." Time magazine reported at the time that "TASS, the government news agency, said that the decision illustrated Ronald Reagan's 'cannibalistic instincts,' and was 'an extremely dangerous step toward the further spiraling of the arms race and enhancing the threat of nuclear war.'" But Reagan was unperturbed.
"They are squealing like they're sitting on a sharp nail," he said, "simply because we now are showing the will that we are not going to let them get to the point of dominance where they can someday issue to the free world an ultimatum of 'Surrender or die.'"
As the Russians' aggressiveness suddenly seems to have returned this month, one could be forgiven for wishing that Reagan were still around to handle the situation. Surely he could take care of it, with aplomb, from his ranch, on vacation.