RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. — Bob Page's journalistic career has taken him to Saigon, when helicopters were lifting off from the U.S. Embassy in 1975. He's also worked in Hong Kong and London, New York and Boston.
Page thought his glory days on journalism's fast track were behind him when he moved to Rancho Santa Fe in 1992 to become chairman of the Rancho Santa Fe Review.
Boy, did he have it wrong.
At 61, Page finds himself supervising the coverage of one of the biggest stories in years and the biggest ever in ritzy Rancho Santa Fe. The suicide of 39 "cyberspiritualists" in a rented two-story mansion has made Page's adopted home the world's hottest dateline.
"Well, I'm not retired," he said with a laugh. "This may look like retirement. . . ."
Turning to the weekly's editor, Terrie Lafferty Drago, Page said: "Is this retirement? It sure ain't been this week."
Having seen what serving as an ignominious dateline has done to places such as Dallas, where President Kennedy was killed, or Waco, Texas, where the Branch Davidians burned to death, Page worries about the long-term effects on "the Ranch" once the media swarm moves on.
"These people were not from the Ranch," Page said of the Heaven's Gate cult. "They were renting a house here."
Page and his reporters are concerned about the image of a community prized not only for its elegance and beauty but for its privacy, which they see as its No. 1 lure and greatest strength.
"I've heard a lot of residents say there's going to be a stigma," said reporter Steve McDonald, 24. "Residents generally view Rancho Santa Fe as Camelot."
"But," said Drago, 37, "they don't want to be referred to as a 'swank enclave' or a 'gated, walled community.' "
"Yeah, a couple of guys from 'Nightline' asked me the other night if this was a gated community," Page said. "And I said, 'Only for you guys from New York and Washington.' "
Today's greatest fear is that, once the media flee the scene, the next contingent wishing to descend will be Hollywood film crews. Some of the media are already comparing Rancho Santa Fe to television's "The X Files."
But as Page said, "There will be no welcoming party here for a Hollywood crew."
As a veteran of the newspaper industry, who began as a reporter for United Press International before working his way up the executive ladder, Page feels mildly ambivalent about the fishbowl effect. His own career includes, in addition to Vietnam, interviews with former President Reagan and the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the prime minister of Pakistan who was overthrown and executed by the military in 1979.
Page understands the nature of reporting and how difficult it is to size up a community in less than a week--or, in the case of television, in a "sound bite." But as a resident of "the world's most desirable haven," he finds himself cringing.
"It's the typical example of why the media comes up next to last, just above lawyers, in public opinion polls," Page said. "As I walked near the crime scene [Wednesday night], I was stunned by the horde of cameras and satellite trucks and people being asked every outrageous, ridiculous question under the sun. I understand the herd mentality, but it sure wasn't like that 40 years ago."
At the same time, he said: "I still get excited by a great story--which, of course, this is."
A lanky, bespectacled man with a gravelly voice and a wall full of memories, Page covered many of the stories endemic to the 1960s. He finished his UPI career as chief operating officer, before moving on to publishing stints with the Boston Herald and the Chicago Sun-Times.
Page understands that the very thing that drew him and others to Rancho Santa Fe is the reason no one knew what was really going on in the mansion on the hill.
"The thing about the Ranch is, nobody asks you your past," he said. "Nobody has said to me, 'Gee, what'd you do before you got here?' This is a wonderful community of enormous accomplishment, but they don't wear it on their sleeve."
In many respects, Rancho Santa Fe is a small town with small-town ways. Page marvels at the fact that virtually no one has their mail delivered to their home--they go to the post office to pick it up.
He calls the post office "the great equalizer," saying the members of Heaven's Gate could be found picking up mail or packages with some of the celebrities who live here.
The anecdote Page tells to underscore the community's personality--and why the week's events are so unsettling to many here--concerns what happened about a year ago when he briefly published a "society" column.
"We got calls saying, 'We don't need a gossip columnist in Rancho Santa Fe,' " he said. "In other words, 'Please leave us alone.' Privacy is the key to these people, and Wednesday night, their privacy was shattered.
"Maybe, after this is over, [the town] can go back to being the quiet place it always was before. I sure hope so."