Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Boyd Matheson: Leadership is lacking in Washington and across the nation. Young people are drifting from the principles and values that have shaped America from its founding. Legacies born of big ideas, civil debate and open dialogue and American optimism seem to be fading from the public square and the collective memory of the country. Ronald Reagan was the happy warrior and the great communicator. He was a president who challenged citizens to believe in themselves as well as their neighbors.
Andrew Coffin, director of the Reagan Ranch and vice president of Young America's Foundation joins us to discuss the return of Reaganesque leadership, preservation of a legacy, and instilling principles in the rising generation on this episode of Therefore, What?
All right, we are very pleased to be joined today by Andrew Coffin from the Reagan Ranch and Young America's Foundation. Andrew, thanks for joining us today.
Andrew Coffin: Boyd, thank you so much for having me. Great to be with you.
BM: Well, you have one of the great jobs in America, I always say, really preserving and protecting the Reagan legacy and particularly the Reagan Ranch. A lot of people think, when they think about Ronald Reagan or a place to go to, they often think of the Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, which of course has its place. But you're tasked with something that I think is really the heart and soul of who Ronald Reagan was. So tell our listeners a little bit about the Reagan Ranch and how it came to be and what its mission really is.
AC: Boyd, the frequency with which people tell me I've got one of the best jobs in the world is a reminder that I need to keep looking over my shoulder. It's a job I want to hang on to. But it's true, it is one of the best jobs in the world and so much of that is wrapped up in this special place, Rancho del Cielo, Ronald Reagan's Western White House and the Reagans' home for 25 years.
You're correct — it's not the Presidential Library. Our Presidential library system is an important repository of official documents and an important research institution. But I think one way to understand the difference is the way former Attorney General Ed Meese put it. He said you go to the library to learn about the presidency, you come to the ranch to meet the man. And I think that sums it up well. Today Ronald Reagan's ranch home in the mountains northwest of Santa Barbara sits almost exactly as it did when he so enjoyed it. You walk in the front door and his books are on the bookshelves, His clothes are in the closet, his saddles and chain saws are up in the tack barn. It really feels as though he never left and I think there's just something remarkably intimate, something very personal about walking in someone's footsteps, seeing the sorts of books they kept on the bookshelves, how they surrounded themselves in their most private moments, learning what they do with their free time. And visit to the ranch, as someone once said, is a window into Ronald Reagan's soul. It really tells you a lot about his character, his values.
BM: Yeah, it really does. I've always said you can learn a lot about Ronald Reagan in books and other places. But until you've been to the ranch you really don't understand the man. The person and the place are so interwoven and so many critical lessons there. Give us just a brief peek, Andrew, into, you know, as things ended, as President Reagan wound down and as the family was looking at what to do with the ranch. Give us just a quick snapshot there. And then I want to get into some of the lessons from the ranch.
AC: Sure. Many of your listeners probably remember that 1994 letter that Ronald Reagan wrote to the American people, that handwritten letter announcing that he had Alzheimer's disease. A powerful statement in its own right, you know. We quickly forget that people were much more hesitant to talk about Alzheimer's even back in the early '90s compared to the way we are today. And at that stage, in 1994, Ronald Reagan was still going to the ranch regularly. But the visits were becoming increasingly difficult. And they reached a point where it became clear he was not going to be able to continue enjoying the ranch. And they made the difficult decision to put the property up for sale. There were attempts at the state and federal level, and I won't go into all of that history, but it's important to understand that the ranch truly was in danger of being lost. The preservation efforts at the state and federal level failed, there were some interested parties who wanted to build homesites up there, a fair amount of national attention on this saga. And Ron Robinson, the president of Young America's Foundation, and our board of directors, decided to move quickly, that somebody had to act to ensure that this presidential site — and really I can't think of a more important site for conservatives in the country — was protected and preserved. So we were able to acquire the ranch directly from the Reagan family.
April of 1998 was when the sale went through. And since that day, we've been using the ranch not only as a place to preserve history, as a place to tell stories about Ronald Reagan and the Reagan years, but as a place to introduce, particularly young people, high school and college students, to his values, his principles, his ideals.
BM: That's such an important part of what happens there at the ranch. I remember the very first time I went and we started at the Reagan Ranch Center there in Santa Barbara, down in the valley. And I was so struck — you know, when most people think about the Reagan years, those that can remember them usually say everyone loved Ronald Reagan. The democrats loved Ronald Reagan, the Republicans loved Ronald Reagan, the media loved Ronald Reagan, and I was really struck that first time I went there that the very first thing that you show people as they come into the center is about a 4 1/2-minute video of every major political and media pundit that was alive at the time just ripping Ronald Reagan to shreds. I mean, from George H.W. Bush saying it was "Voodoo economics," to all of the nighttime folks, you know, saying he was radical and dangerous and a threat to world peace. Tell me why you started with that. It's just such a great lesson.
AC: We were really pleased with the way that exhibit turned out. It's called the Reagan critics. And you're right. It's a 4- or 5-minute film recounting some of the most vicious attacks on the president from left, right, middle, you name it and I have to tell you, when we when we first installed that exhibit I'm afraid some of our wonderful volunteer docents, who clearly love and admire and respect Ronald Reagan, that's the reason they give so much of their time to the center, they were shocked and horrified that we put in such an exhibit.
But as you're suggesting, I think that is such a critical, important part of the story to tell for a couple of reasons. We do quickly forget, we have this image of Ronald Reagan today as a kindly, grandfatherly figure. And certainly that was part of his appeal. He made Americans feel good about themselves, the way a grandfather might. But it is of critical importance that we remember what he was up against, and how firmly he stood on the principles in which he believed, that he had spent decades developing, refining before he ran for the presidency in 1980. And so we think to truly appreciate his courage, his boldness, his fortitude, you have to understand what he was up against, the way he was attacked. There are also, as I'm sure you would relate to, there are eerie echoes of some of the rhetoric we hear today. And I think that is also a good lesson. As young people hear conservative leaders today viciously attacked and these horror stories about what's going to happen if conservative principles are turned into policy. We need to remember that Ronald Reagan faced the same thing and faced down the same critics.
BM: I'm so glad you mentioned that, Andrew, because it is so easy to get caught in the later years of the Reagan presidency, where he was such a beloved figure, to realize that he did have to really stand up and speak out even against his own party, even against people who he thought were his friends. But to be able to do that, and then to achieve all of the things that he achieved, I think just speaks volumes there.
I want to shift a little bit now, Andrew, and kind of visually take people up to the ranch. This is not an easy place to get to. So it really is a ranch in the sky, as the name suggests. Tell us about some of the people who've visited there and give us an insight into why you think Reagan was so drawn to that space.
AC: Sure. Well, you mentioned the Reagan Ranch Center earlier. And I'm glad you brought that up because that is our schoolhouse for Reaganism in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, just two blocks from the waterfront, easily accessible and also includes free exhibit galleries. And so that is a place that I encourage anyone interested in the ranch and the mission and work of Young America's Foundation to visit if you're anywhere near the Santa Barbara area.
You're correct that the ranch itself is far more remote. It's tucked up on a peak in the San Ynez mountains, you take a winding, 7-mile mountain road to reach the entrance to the property. Certainly the sort of road that put off Mrs. Reagan the first time they visited the ranch when they were considering buying the place, but he instantly fell in love with it. And it became his retreat. There are so many ways you know, and we've been able to understand just how important this place was to Ronald Reagan. One indication is the amount of work he put into it. When he was at the ranch he wanted to get away from the Washington, D.C., lifestyle. He wanted to not only ride his beloved horses in the mornings, but spend the rest of the day clearing brush, chopping wood for the fireplaces, building telephone pole fencing, laying the stone patio in front of the home, retiled the roof himself, everything about the ranch reflects the President's own hand and what he invested in the property. You also know the significance of the ranch, as you suggested, by who he invited there. This was not a place they did a lot of entertaining, it really was a place they guarded closely. They wanted a retreat for the two of them to enjoy each other, where the President could think, reflect, pray, go back to Washington recharged. But they did invite Mikhail Gorbachev, George and Barbara Bush, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, the Prime Minister of Canada, to visit them there at the ranch. And I think Ronald Reagan, that there was something about him and his connection to that property that he thought they would better understand if they visited him at the ranch.
Certainly, it was an eye-opening experience for somebody like Mikhail Gorbachev, who, though he espoused the principles of communism, lived as other as every other Soviet leader did with access to the retreats, the doctors and the Black Sea that were only available to the Soviet elite, which is not the sort of way that he was accustomed to meeting with an important world leader. But that was who Ronald Reagan was. And, of course, he often talks about the ranch. So many of the great letters that have been published, and speeches and addresses, his final words to the American people. His farewell address from the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan talks about the bittersweet prospect of leaving Washington, D.C., and the White House behind, but the joy of returning to California, the ranch and freedom. Those were two concepts that were always linked in his mind. I think it's why he signed the economic recovery tax there in 1981, because with his economic policy he was returning the American people's money to the American people. It was all about freedom and that's the way he looked at the ranch.
BM: One of the great visuals to me at the ranch, you mentioned this comparison, that this was not an opulent palace for the rich and famous. One of my favorite visuals at the ranch is to walk into their bedroom and to see that it was two single beds pushed together and held together with a zip tie. Ronald Reagan could have had any mattress in the world and yet he's still did that. What do we learn from that?
AC: You know, the bed is amazing because the ranch is such a humble place. And it's comfortable but it's modest, it's only about 1,800 square feet, there's no central air, no heating except for the fireplaces, and it's that bed that really sticks with people. Those twin beds were there in the home when they bought it. It was a working cattle ranch when the Reagans purchased what was then known as Tip Top Ranch. They renamed it Rancho del Cielo. And those beds were there, they pushed them together, used plastic zip ties and the headboard to keep them from sliding apart. At about 6-foot-1, Ron Reagan was tall for a twin bed. So you probably remember a bench at the end where his feet might hang over. Just the simplicity, the humility, the fact that as you walk from their sitting area, their living room, into the bedroom, you're not walking down the halls lined with pictures of the president with world leaders or with other movie stars from his Hollywood days. It just helps you understand, I think, how and why he was able to connect with the American people the way he was. There was a reason that people were so prepared to listen to him and what he had to say.
BM: Yeah, there was an authenticity there that I think is quite unique in leadership. You mentioned earlier him working on the ranch, clearing the brush and so on. But you also mentioned this fence, which to me, I think, says a lot about just having something to come to. Describe a little bit about how this fence came about. And how it really became kind of his eternal mission to work on.
AC: Well, like most of the projects at the ranch, the president didn't want to start something and then have somebody else finish it in his absence. He would pick up where he left off the next time he was at the ranch. It didn't matter what he was doing, that's the way he handled it. And the fence project is something he started in the mid 1970s, shortly after he purchased the ranch. He wanted to create a little corral next to the home, and learned that Pacific Bell had some used telephone poles available, made the call himself to make the arrangements to purchase the poles and have them delivered to the ranch. And he didn't finish the project until 1987. He'd get one section done, and one of his buddies who worked with them up there, Dennis LeBland, said they'd be sitting on the front patio and he could just tell by the look in the president's eye that he'd come with a new project, a new section of fence that he wanted to put in. That is certainly one of the ways he relaxed. I mean, he was out there with a chainsaw. He developed the plan for the fence himself, kind of an interesting thing, the polls arrived and they were 45 feet long. And he developed a way of cutting the polls down for the posts and the railings that used all the pole except for three feet. And those last three feet of the pole he used to put in steps leading from the home to the tack barn, which is set up a little hillside just above the Reagans' adobe. So again, just indicative of the way he thought about things. He got the poles and he wanted to use every last bit of them.
BM: Now that's good frugality. And I think a good lesson in terms of just having something to go to, you know, to have a place to go to. Most people don't realize that he spent almost a full year of his eight years as president actually at the ranch. Is that right?
AC: Yes, that's right, just over 350 days. So one of his eight years in office was spent here at the ranch, it truly was the Western White House.
BM: So I want to shift to some of the principal components and some of the things that you're trying to pass on, especially through the Young America's Foundation, in terms of some of these important legacy pieces. But before we leave the ranch itself, I think there's one other experience and story that I think everyone needs to understand, just in terms of President Reagan's ability even as he was winding down and as the disease was progressing, that he was still worried about the people around him. And you mentioned his love to go out for the ride. I know they went through a few Secret Service folks with broken arms and limbs who couldn't keep up, but take us through a little bit of that history and then lead us up to the last ride at the ranch.
AC: Oh you're asking a lot, Boyd. That's a difficult story to tell but I'll do my best. You're right. I mean, there's really nothing except perhaps spending time with Nancy that Ronald Reagan enjoyed more than his horses, more than getting out on the trail. And that was a challenge for the Secret Service. You know the Secret Service is pretty accustomed to the official responsibilities of the presidency. What really creates some unique challenges for them is what a president likes to do in his free time. Whether it's downhill skiing or powerboating or, in the case of Ronald Reagan, horseback riding. So they cycled through some details that really were not well-equipped to keep up with the president. He was an excellent equestrian, loved riding these rugged, rocky trails in the far reaches of the ranch property. Nearly 20 miles of trails snake through the scope of Rancho del Cielo. And so pretty early in the presidency, they assigned a young agent named John Barletta to come out to the ranch and ride with the president. John had a bit more riding experience in his background than his fellow agents. And after an initial ride that went just as they'd hoped it would, the President was able to do what he wanted to do and wasn't held back by John or the detail. John was told whenever the president so much as thinks about a horse you're going to be there. His fate was sealed. And you know, John was on the presidential protective detail when he was back in the White House. He traveled the world with the president, but their unique relationship was really formed through their hours and hours together on the trails at Rancho del Cielo in particular, but John rode with the president and Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle as well. And other places like Camp David, where the president had opportunities to ride. And ended up staying on his detail for 17 years, which is unheard of in the Secret Service. That's not a typical career path, probably will never be repeated. But John stayed with the president even after the presidency until John retired from the Secret Service in 1997.
And then of course they'd become so close John was one of the few people who continued to visit the president at his home in Bel-Air all the way up until the end, all the way until the president passed away. So they really did have a unique bond and a unique relationship. But what you're referring to is John's account of what happened in 1994, that same year that the president wrote his letter announcing that he had Alzheimer's. And as I mentioned earlier, the president was still coming to the ranch regularly, still horseback riding. But that was becoming increasingly difficult, to the point where one day at the ranch on one of their morning rides, the president was having enough trouble with his horse that John ended up dismounting from his own horse and leading the president's horse in. And you know, this is something that's terribly embarrassing for John. Their whole friendship, their relationship is built around the horseback riding, and he's also worried, he's concerned about where they are. And so John talked to Mrs. Reagan when they returned from the ride and said, "You know, I don't think I can protect him out there anymore. I think we need to stop riding." And he thought that would be the extent of his responsibility. But Nancy had also became very close to John. She said, "John, you're gonna have to tell him, he'll take it better coming from you."
Not what John wanted to hear. But he wasn't gonna say no to Nancy, and so later that afternoon, Mrs. Reagan called up to the Secret Service command post, which is still on the property. And said "John, it's time, why don't you come down to the house." John walks down the gravel drive, knocks in the front door, and there's the president sitting by the fireplace. John sits down in the chair opposite to him and says, "You know, Mr. President," and as close as they got, he always called him Mr. President. "You know, Mr. President, we're not having fun out there anymore." John took that approach because he would tell you every morning before their ride, they would stand in the tack barn, look at a map of the ranch, scope out the plan for the day, the trails the president wanted to take. And the president would always say, "John, do the fellows want to take this ride today, do the fellows want to see this spot?" He wanted everybody else to enjoy the ride as much as he did. And so John said, "We're not having fun out there anymore. I'm not enjoying it. And I don't think you are either." At this point, of course, John is having a hard time getting the words out, he was tearing up and he said the president stood up from his chair and walked over to him, put his had on his shoulder and said, "It's OK, John. I know."
And that was it. They never rode again. And they never talked about it again. And to John, that one mental moment typified their whole relationship. Here's one of the president's darkest days, nothing he enjoyed more than horseback riding. And he's thinking about how difficult this must be on John to break that news to him.
BM: That's great. Thank you so much for sharing that, Andrew. I think it to me, that encapsulates not only the spirit of the ranch, but the spirit of the man, the president, and so much of what he was really all about, and why he connected so well with American people across the spectrum in such a powerful way. In just our remaining couple of minutes. Andrew, I want to just have you share briefly just kind of the vision of sharing these principles, these stories, these experiences, this great legacy of Ronald Reagan in what you're doing with the young people across the country.
AC: Thanks, Boyd. So that is absolutely essential to understanding why we saved the ranch and how we use it today. The ranch itself is not open to regular public tours. Part of that is just the logistics of it. One of the things that the president loved so much about the place is that it wasn't easy to get to. He used to say when you get there, the world is gone. And it's not the sort of place you would have hundreds of thousands of people come through every year and preserve it as we are now. But it's also a matter of strategy. It's a matter of priorities. We think the most important audience we can reach with the ranch and the lessons that it holds are young people during those formative high school and college years. And that's what we've been doing throughout the history of Young America's Foundation. We were founded by Bill Buckley in 1960 in Sharon, Connecticut. By 1962, Ronald Reagan had joined our advisory board and was our honorary national chairman later in the '60s. And that started really four decades worth of working together to introduce young people to conservative ideas. We're a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so we don't get involved in elections, campaigns, candidates, but we are unabashedly committed to making sure that at some point during their high school and college years, as many young people as possible in the country are introduced to the three enterprise traditional values: individual freedom, strong national defense, limited government — those core Reagan values that inspired his leadership, that were at the heart of the founding of our nation, and yet sadly, are too often shut out of the classroom experience for most young people.
So we accomplish that mission through conferences and seminars across the country, through campus lectures and other campus initiatives, chapters on college and high school campuses all over the country. If you hear about Ben Shapiro, the most popular conservative speaking on campus or just about anywhere today, speaking on campus, that's thanks to his work with Young America's Foundation students and through the programs. Dinesh D'souza, Allen West, so many other great conservatives we send to campus. So the ranch has become really the essential training ground to accomplish all of that. And it is the one place where most high school students are introduced to the mission and programs of Young America's Foundation. We all know that a high school student today has the world in the palm of their hand with their smartphones. To really attract students to a program you have to offer something unique, an experience they can't get anywhere else. And the ranch does that for us. It gives young people who weren't even born during the Reagan years — think about a 14- to 18-year-old high school student born 2000 or after attending our programs. They have no firsthand knowledge of the Reagan presidency and yet they flock to Santa Barbara to walk in his footsteps, to learn more about his life and character, and then have that inspirational experience matched with the opportunity to hear from great conservative leaders that, sadly, they shouldn't have to travel to Santa Barbara to hear from, but just don't have access to anywhere else. And we have found that to be a powerful, powerful combination. Compelling ideas and speakers matched with the example of Ronald Reagan.
BM: That's great. As we get to the close here, we always end our program with the Therefore, What? question. And it really is the where do we go from here moment. And I'm gonna let you be the final answer on Therefore, What? What should people take away after listening to us for the last 25 minutes, what do you hope they think different, what do you hope they do different? And as you're thinking of your Therefore, What?, to me that one the most poignant moments for Reagan was his 1980 convention address.
You know this was long before Morning in America and a lot of the positive feelings and now here he was in a jam-packed stadium and as he got to the close of that speech, really the speech of his life to that point, and he could have thrown out any red meat political line in the book and the place would have gone crazy. But he didn't. He stopped, and it was almost as if you could see him at the ranch and he invited all of those who were watching on TV and those that were in that arena, that as we begin this journey together we can't do this alone. Would you join me in a moment of silent prayer? And so rather than ending with a red meat applause line, he ended with silence. And I thought that was just extraordinary, and I think he got that stillness, that silence from the ranch. And so that's one of my Therefore, Whats, as I think about the Reagan legacy, is that you don't always need the bombast, you don't always need the hyper-rhetoric, sometimes a little bit of stillness in a very turning world, as Reagan would say, really can be the answer and the solution.
AC: That's powerful. I think that's really well said. That really does capture the appeal of the ranch to Ronald Reagan. And I think the continued appeal of the ranch today. I'd leave you with a couple more things. One, I was just reflecting on this with a friend earlier today, but think back to that incredibly powerful moment during the Reagan funeral service, memorial service at the National Cathedral when Margaret Thatcher's pre-taped address is played. So many great reflections surrounding his memorials, but for me that was the high point of the week. And every word she uttered was powerful. What really sticks with me is when she was talking about the great loss to the country and the world as Ronald Reagan is leaving the seed. But she reminded us that we have something that Ronald Reagan didn't. We have his example. And I think that is incredibly important. We we look around and it's easy to tear people down from high places. But I think it is very important to recognize who our heroes are, who is worth emulating. And to ensure that future generations are exposed to and learn the same principles. And that leads me to the second thing I would say, I mentioned that it is not necessarily the easiest thing to do to, to get to the ranch. But there are opportunities to visit, especially for any young people listening, especially if you have a young person in your life. If you care about instilling these values in high school students, who I would say no matter what kind of family they come from, is in desperate need of having these ideas, values reinforced, go to yaf.org, look at the lineup for our upcoming programs anywhere in the country, but particularly the high school conferences at the ranch and look for an opportunity to send that young person through one of these programs. They are life changing experiences, they form bonds with other students who care about the same ideas that last a lifetime. They're emboldened, they realize that there are incredible resources available to them so they can bring these ideas back to their own campuses. And then of course, they learned from the example of Ronald Reagan.
BM: Fantastic, wonderful. Andrew Coffin, thank you so much for joining us today.
AC: Thank you, Boyd, I appreciate so much what you do and what you and your family have done to support our mission at the ranch. We are grateful for your good work, for Sarah's good work, and look forward to lots of opportunities to collaborate.10 comments on this story
BM: Fantastic. Thank you so much. Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is Therefore, What? Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today and be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseretnews.com/Tw and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, thanks for engaging with us on Therefore, What?