I’ve just returned from an incredible week in California, where I was part of a Young Britons’ Foundation delegation. As part of the trip, our group had the opportunity to visit both the Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan Presidential Libraries. Like most memorials in America, these were incredibly grand – filled with important artefacts and impressive video presentations explaining the legacy of the two Presidents. Nixon’s library, though a touch out of date, enables visitors to explore the President’s birthplace and family home. A new exhibition provides objective analysis of the Watergate scandal.
The Reagan library is better still. Visitors get a complete history of the President’s life, filled with interactive displays of his time working for General Electric, as Governor of California and the 40th President of the US. There’s an opportunity to climb aboard Reagan’s Air Force One plane. And the exhibition on Reagan’s funeral displays heartfelt hand-written notes from both the Queen and Margaret Thatcher after Reagan’s death in 2004.
Nevertheless, the undoubted highlight of the trip was a rare opportunity to visit Ronald Reagan’s ranch deep in the hills near to Santa Barbara. The family retreat is now owned by the Young America's Foundation – an organisation which trains young US conservative activists. As well as running a local Ronald Reagan Centre as an educational and teaching facility, YAF’s preservation of Reagan’s California home is part of a wider strategy to utilise Reagan’s legacy to inspire the next generation of political activists. They have no wish or plan to open it up as a historical site to the general public, dealing with hundreds of groups and school trips trudging through repetitively. Instead, they seek to keep it exactly as Reagan loved it – tranquil, peaceful and humble.
Reagan once said of the ranch, that “if not Heaven itself, [it] probably has the same ZIP code.” It’s easy to see why he loved it. Seemingly a world away from the hustle and bustle of Washington, it would have provided a welcome escape from day-to-day political life.
The winding track to its entrance provides stunning views of rolling hills and the Pacific Ocean. Surrounding fields are littered with horses, and provide tracks through which Reagan and his wife Nancy would ride each morning. A large picturesque pond, named Lake Lucky, sits to one side of the main property - all the more impressive when one learns that Reagan himself worked it to ensure it did not dry out in the summer. The jetty which juts out into the lake was described by Reagan as one of his greatest achievements.
These personal touches make the ranch a special place. Reagan saw the ‘Rancho del Cielo’ as a work in progress. When asked once when the ranch would be finished, he replied, “hopefully never.” He continued to work the surrounding land right up until it was physically impossible for him to do so. In fact, the ranch itself makes a mockery of Reagan’s critics who claimed he was too old or too lazy for the Presidency. Images of an older Reagan taking an axe to collected wood adorn the walls of the YAF centre, and become all the more understandable when one learns that Nancy continued to heat the home via the two open fires right through the summer. Reagan painted much of the ranch himself, and built the fence surrounding the property with old telegraph poles. Here is a fitting testament to the conservative principle of self-reliance which Reagan espoused.
The inside of the property provides further insights into Reagan’s character. Filled with small and odd items of furniture, the main hall is incredibly humble. A large bookcase contains everything from political and philosophical books to American football guides, highlighting the President’s broad range of interests. The kitchen, fitted out with General Electric products, was described by our guide as the same as any average American kitchen through the 1970s and 1980s. Reagan’s main bedroom is more endearing still, containing two single beds pushed together and with two large-ish tables turned round to be used as bedside tables – making the best with the furniture he had. The garage and stable area walls are filled with jars full of nuts, bolts and screws – a sight not uncommon for those of us with grandfathers or fathers of Reagan’s generation.
Amidst all these modest surroundings, it is difficult to imagine that this was the vacation residence of an American president. Only a solitary presidential seal above the fireplace and the existence of a control centre for Reagan’s secret service agents are there to remind us. The main home contains nothing in the way of pictures and memorabilia of Reagan alongside other world leaders.
Yet this was a property in which Reagan hosted world figures. The Queen and Prince Philip, Margaret Thatcher, Mikael Gorbachev and Canadian President Brian Mulroney were all visitors. This was where the biggest tax cut in American history was signed in 1981 on an outdoor table, and where the President deliberated over many of the policies which gave America renewed confidence through the 1980s.
Reagan’s humility, shown through the ranch, perhaps explains why he recently came out on top of Gallup’s poll of the Best ever American President. Unlike many other politicians, the word ‘I’ didn’t dominate his conversation, despite his incredible life story. And though the Ranch Centre reminds us of his demonization by lefties, even these often recognise his affable personal character.
The ranch itself is a wonderful testament to his character and legacy. Within those walls, you can really sense his devotion to Nancy, his active self-reliance and his humility. It is difficult to disagree with YAF’s description of the ranch as "a living monument to Reagan's ideas, values, and lasting accomplishments."