On Saturday, June 5, 2004, Ronald Reagan passed away. The national—and international—response was overwhelming. Watching the events of the following week unfold, one got the sense that the media, though ready with pre-packaged retrospectives, was unprepared for the outpouring of emotion.
From the millions of eyes glued to television sets, to long lines of mourners waiting throughout the night to pay their last respects as his body laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda, to the thousands who lined roads in Southern California as his casket was transported to its final resting place, the legacy of Ronald Reagan’s remarkable life and leadership was on full display. Most in the press appeared befuddled by the breadth and depth of the response–but then, the mainstream media never did “get” Ronald Reagan.
It quickly became apparent that we all had our own Reagan story. Perhaps we campaigned for him, perhaps we even met him–or we simply saw the impact of his remarkable leadership on our families, our businesses, our country.
If so many average citizens understood, and still understand, Ronald Reagan (he regularly appears at the top of Gallup’s poll of our greatest Presidents), why is it still largely true that the press, academics, and so many on the Left don’t understand the man whose popularity has only risen in the years since his death?
In large part, it’s because they are willfully blind to what the rest of the country saw: a man of courage and conviction who was free from artifice. They liked to paint him as an actor, incompetent, a pawn. More recently, they’ve sought to remake him in their own image, as a moderate who would somehow be at odds with today’s conservatives.
Those who knew Reagan well knew that nothing could be further from the truth. “What you saw was what you got,” former Secret Service agent and regular riding partner John Barletta likes to say.
Nowhere is that more apparent than at Ronald Reagan’s beloved home in the mountains above Santa Barbara, Rancho del Cielo. It’s the place where Reagan spent many, many hours on horseback with John, his protector and friend. Our organization, Young America’s Foundation (an ally of Reagan’s since he joined YAF in 1962), stepped forward in 1998 to save the Reagan Ranch when it was in danger of being lost to history.
Today the Ranch serves as a monument to Reagan’s leadership, and a schoolhouse where young people can be inspired by the ideas that animated him.
What is it that we are preserving at the Reagan Ranch? Certainly, we’re preserving a home and an important Presidential site. The Washington Post called it a “true national treasure” shortly after we stepped forward to save the property. Like other Presidential homes–Mount Vernon, Monticello–we believe that the Ranch needed to be saved.
But the Ranch is more than that. Like no other place on earth, it provides visitors, many of them born after Reagan’s Presidency, with an opportunity to meet the man. To Reagan, the Ranch represented freedom. Today, the Ranch introduces young people to the character and personality of a great leader and to a set of principles, a set of ideas, a way of life that we must share with future generations.
Our country needs those lessons now more than ever. Recent Young America’s Foundation national polling, done in partnership with the polling company, inc., suggests that young people are turning away from the big government policies of the current administration. But frustration with the status quo doesn’t necessarily lead to the right alternative. Students need to understand that conservative principles–based on a commitment to limited government, free enterprise, a strong national defense, personal responsibility–are not just untested theories. The Reagan administration proved that these ideas work, and Reagan’s unshakable commitment to this set of principles led our country into a period of national pride, economic prosperity, and freedom for millions across the globe.
All of this is on display at the Reagan Ranch, in ways that are tangible and instantly relatable. From volumes such as Witness by Whitaker Chambers that grace the bookshelves, to his well-worn chainsaws up in the garage, to the modesty of the simple adobe that he called home, the way Ronald Reagan’s personal life connected to his policies is immediately apparent.
It’s up to us, the generation that knew and benefited most directly from Ronald Reagan’s leadership, to continue to tell that story, and to share these lessons. We cannot depend on the media to do this—nor, sadly, can we depend on teachers or textbooks. That’s why we saved the Ranch, and that’s why Young America’s Foundation is launching a new project, called “Remembering Reagan,” timed with the 10th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's passing. We are asking those who lived through the Reagan years, those who care most deeply about the continuation of Ronald Reagan’s principles, to write down their personal reflections on his life and leadership.
We would simply like you to share your own Reagan story.
There is no right or wrong way to share your memories. This is, after all, your story. Send your casual reflections or a detailed account complete with photographs. It’s up to you.
All submissions will be permanently catalogued and stored in the Reagan Ranch Center archives. Select submissions will be publicly displayed through special exhibits at the Reagan Ranch Center beginning June 5, 2014. (We are continuing to accept and display submissions after that date.)
You can find more details on guidelines for this important project here: yaf.org/rememberingreagan. We’re also happy to accept materials such as news clippings, correspondence, or photographs with your story, as long as you are willing to have these copies or originals permanently reside in our archives.
Ronald Reagan left us with this challenge in his final words from the Oval Office. He acknowledged, with typical modesty, that his administration made some progress–but then warned:
This national feeling is good, but it won't count for much, and it won't last unless it's grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge. An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? … Our spirit is back, but we haven't reinstitutionalized it. We've got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom–freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It's fragile; it needs protection.
Reinstitutionalizing freedom. That is the task ahead of us. Recent leaders have not taken up that challenge, and so we continue to look to Ronald Reagan for guidance and inspiration. He probably did not know the important role his California ranch might play in that process. It was, after all, simply his rustic Santa Barbara home.
But Reagan certainly understood the power of the past to inspire us to action in the future. He stood on the steps of George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, and asked the nation this question in 1982: “Let us ask ourselves, ‘Are we keeping faith with his [Washington’s] trust in us?’”
For Reagan, the answer was clear: “George Washington and his generation of Americans met their challenge. We can, we must, and we will meet ours.”
Though Reagan may have been too humble to see us looking to his example in the same way as he looked to Washington’s, we now have the benefit of doing just that. He did know, as he reminded us in his farewell address, that he was passing the baton. On another occasion near the close of his Presidency, he told a group of allies who had helped him accomplish much over the previous eight years:
We're counting on you to help secure for our children the brightest future the world has ever known, to help keep a promise that is as old as this land we love and as big as the sky... I know that you each will keep faith with that great American dream that burns within our souls and within the soul of every American. Nancy and I will never forget you and what you have meant to us. You've been good friends. You've served America with honor... And if you ever find yourself driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, I hope you will come on by, because up at Rancho del Cielo, where the mountains meet the sky, you have a friend."
The 10th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s death is a reminder of the man we lost in 2004. But it is also a reminder of the gifts he gave us. Reagan left behind a freer, more prosperous nation. He left us with a roadmap for meeting future challenges with the confidence that conservative ideas make lives better and the world safer. He left behind a rugged hilltop home that embodies all that he stood for, and still sits proudly “where the mountains meet the sky,” reminding us that America never had a better friend.
Andrew Coffin serves as the director of the Reagan Ranch and vice president of Young America’s Foundation. Young America's Foundation stepped forward to save President Reagan's Western White House, Rancho del Cielo, in the spring of 1998 to preserve it as a monument to Ronald Reagan to pass on his ideas to future generations. President Reagan committed himself to reaching young people with his ideas—a goal that is also central to the Foundation's mission. For more information about the programs that allow young people to experience the Ranch, please visit www.yaf.org.