Though raised Catholic, I was educated by Quakers, and from an early age I took my politics from the Society of Friends. They were for the United Nations and against pollution and—this being the late 1970s—terribly concerned about the bomb. We heard a lot about nuclear war at school. Our little library had an illustrated book detailing, for young readers, what it had been like for the poor souls at Hiroshima. I was only 5 years old the first time I checked the book out, but I got the message: Americans were a monstrous people, and none of this would have happened if Dag Hammarskjöld had been around to stop us.
Yet soon enough the Quaker rub made me suspicious. In the fall of 1980—I was in first grade—Ronald Reagan was running for president against Jimmy Carter. I was, as the professionals say, a low-information voter when my school held its straw poll. As I recall, Carter swept the school by roughly 120 to 1, the lone holdout being a persnickety friend of mine who was against stampedes more than he was for the Gipper.
At the time, despite my ignorance of politics, I had an intuition for probability. It seemed that a nearly unanimous sample of 120 people must mean something. Had Carter merely won a large majority—60 percent or even 70 percent of the vote—then maybe Reagan might have had a chance. But 120 to 1? Plainly, Carter’s election was a sure thing.
My sense of the political terrain was confirmed the night of the election when I asked my parents who was going to win. They replied gravely that they hoped President Carter would win, because if Mr. Reagan was elected there could well be a nuclear war.
This snapped my head back. I knew what nuclear war meant—I had seen the picture book. And so I went to bed secure in the knowledge that Jimmy Carter would be victorious. As I reasoned, our straw poll was obviously right since no one would vote to start a nuclear war.
The next morning came as a shock. Like Pauline Kael, I knew no one who had voted for Reagan. After an interval, though, the result began to make me suspicious of the entire liberal project. After all, if it was true that no one would vote for nuclear war—and that had to be true—then Reagan’s victory must mean that not everything I was being told about him was bona fide.
All of which is a long way of saying that Reagan held a special place in my political affections. But it was a distant affinity. I have almost no contemporaneous memories of the man, other than his election, his being shot, and a handful of speeches.
While visiting California a few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to tour the Reagan ranch in the hills above Santa Barbara. The kind folks at the Young America’s Foundation agreed to take me up there. The group bought the ranch from Mrs. Reagan and administers it as a historic site.
The first thing that struck me about Rancho del Cielo was its modest scale. The main house is scarcely bigger than my first apartment. It has just two bedrooms, and the master bedroom is the only room with heat. There, Reagan had taken the twin beds present when he bought the place, pushed them close, and lashed the metal headboards together with plastic zip ties. This is where the most powerful man in the world chose to rest his head with his wife.
In addition to the bedrooms, there’s a kitchen, a dining/living area, and
a sitting room. That’s the entire house—the home into which the president welcomed Margaret Thatcher, the queen of England, and, after both men had left office, Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s the retreat where he enjoyed his most private moments.
There’s one other room, actually. Behind the house is a barn with a garage that doubled as Reagan’s workroom. His chainsaws still hang there in a row up high; a long shelf is crammed with WD-40 and the assorted oils, cleaners, and greases that are always helpful for men who work with their hands. His bench grinder, worn and dirty, sits clamped to a side table. I’ve always wanted a bench grinder.
And there on another shelf is his hardware. Every man has his own system for sorting washers, toggle bolts, nails, and the like. Reagan favored clear plastic cylindrical organizers. It’s a fine choice.
I’d always thought that Reagan was essentially unknowable, and as a political figure he may be. But at his ranch, for the first time, I thought I got a glimpse of what he was like as a man.