A Reagan Shrine in the Sky

Article excerpt

Tending the flame at the Gipper's beloved ranch

IT FEELS AS IF HE NEVER LEFT. WANDERIng through Rancho del Cielo, Ronald Reagan's old retreat in the hills high above Santa Barbara, Calif., a visitor gets the palpable sense of having walked in on a presidency-and a life-in progress: Reagan's polo shirts, jodhpurs and ball caps still hang in the bedroom closet. Nancy's cowboy boots rest against one wall. A Water Pik sits beside the bathroom sink. In the den, there's a quarter-filled jar of aging jelly beans. You half expect the Gipper himself to come through the front door, tuckered out after a long day on the trail.

But that will almost certainly never happen again. Reagan, 87, is cloistered in Bel Air, a victim of Alzheimer's; family friends say that Mrs. Reagan is now the only person he consistently recognizes. Last year the Reagans put Rancho del Cielo ("the Ranch in the Sky") up for sale, and in April the Young America's Foundation, a Virginia-based conservative group funded by GOP donors like the late Henry Salvatori, purchased it for an undisclosed sum. (An early asking price was $5.95 million.) The group plans to turn the 688-acre property in the Santa Ynez Mountains into a rustic shrine, where the grooming of young conservatives will go hand in hand with rugged outdoor activities-a mix of supply side and sidesaddle, thumb-sucking and brush-clearing. "You can't help feeling a different part of President Reagan when you're here," says Marc Short, 28, executive director of the YAF, who moved to Santa Barbara to oversee the project with his wife, Kristen-and who last week gave NEWSWEEK a rare tour. "You sense the man's modesty."

It is a place rich in history. In 1974 the then Governor Reagan's friend Bill Wilson located the property for Ronnie and Nancy. After 1980, Rancho del Cielo became President Reagan's retreat from Washington; he and Nancy spent about 345 days on the ranch during the White House years. Protected by a 100-man Secret Service detail, Reagan entertained Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II and Mikhail Gorbachev here and used the round wooden picnic table out front to sign Reaganomics into law in 1981. …