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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Democrats Lose One for The Gipper

April 27, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — When the news came that a conservative foundation had bought Ronald Reagan's ranch for a leadership training ground, I whimsically envisioned a horde of cadet brownshirts goose-stepping across the meadow with assault rifles.

A new generation of Reagan Youth would be indoctrinated with the Gipper's philosophy and inspired to become foot soldiers--then leaders--in the national conservative movement. The Reagan Revolution would reignite for the next millennium and last for 1,000 years.

And--getting to the real point of this fantasy--it would serve them right, the liberals that is. The Reagan haters who yelped at the notion of taxpayers buying the historic ranch so it could be preserved and opened up to everyone--not just certified conservatives--will be getting what they deserve: An ideological boot camp for their political enemy. A nurturing ground for right-wingers.

That much is real. The Young America's Foundation--descendant of the old YAFers (Young Americans for Freedom), born in the Barry Goldwater era--will use the ranch as the focal point of its new Ronald Reagan Leadership Development Program.

There won't be any brownshirts with assault weapons; just earnest college kids. Cause-driven true believers, like Reagan. Conservative crusaders bent on battling liberalism.

The libs should have gone for a state park.

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Nancy Reagan had been asking $5.95 million for the 688-acre mountaintop ranch 30 miles north of Santa Barbara. Locals said it was way overpriced, given the modest, 1,300-square foot adobe main house. The foundation paid $4.5 million.

This seems a good deal all around. Nancy Reagan unloads the place and gets money to care for her 87-year-old husband, who has Alzheimer's. The ranch is preserved as the former president loved it; there'll be no "Presidential Estates" or "Reagan Ranchettes." The property is used to burnish Reagan's legacy for the next generation. And the foundation acquires a conservative mecca.

"The majority of campuses across America do not teach the true Reagan legacy," asserts Marc Short, 28, who with his wife, Kristen, 24, are moving to Santa Barbara to direct the project. "They teach that the '80s were the decade of greed and the Soviet Union would have imploded on its own. We believe that Ronald Reagan was directly responsible for eliminating the Evil Empire and spurring the largest economic growth in peacetime history. Most importantly, he restored a sense of patriotism and pride in America."

Reaganism 101.

The initial plan is this, says Frank Donatelli, the program chairman, who was a White House political director under Reagan:

Students in groups of 50 to 75 will be quartered in Santa Barbara for weekend seminars and weeklong summer sessions. Guest lecturers will include former Cabinet secretaries, academicians and political leaders. The highlight will be a day trip to the ranch to look into the soul of a president, to see first-hand where he rode beloved horses and reveled in common physical labor, where he recharged and ruminated.

The foundation also wants to buy a Presbyterian retreat that is uphill from the ranch. Then students would be housed there, giving them easier access to the remote ranch.

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Not everybody is overjoyed.

"I'm literally in mourning," says Michael Reagan, 53, son of the former president and a radio talk show host. "It's no longer going to be in the family, a place where we could go and be with our kids. From a selfish standpoint, I'm tired of whenever I want to visit something of my father's, it has to be in a monument-like setting."

But he concedes that there's no way the family could have held onto the ranch.

Gov. Pete Wilson says he has mixed feelings. He's happy for Nancy Reagan and applauds the foundation's goals. But he preferred his own plan, offered last fall: A $5-million federal grant to buy the ranch, with him raising private money to operate it as a state park, open to everyone.

That proposal collapsed primarily because the late Rep. Walter Capps (D-Santa Barbara) hadn't been consulted and loudly protested that the project was "being foisted on us in the dead of night." Then the congressional sponsor, Interior subcommittee chairman Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), inexplicably folded.

Wilson scoffs at a popular theme that Reagan himself would have objected to spending tax money to buy the ranch, noting that as president he approved at least a dozen such projects.

Reagan knew you get what you pay for. This time, the public gets nothing. No access. The Reagans and the right-wingers make out big.

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