The Western White House
During the 1980s, Rancho del Cielo took a profound turn, transforming from a mere ranch high atop a hill in Santa Barbara County to no less than the West Coast headquarters of the presidency. The Ranch came to be known as the “Western White House,” as President Reagan would spend a full year’s time there during his two terms as the nation’s chief executive. The small ranch home became a remote extension of the Oval Office, equipped with a simple push-button telephone that served as a line of communication between the American president and the outside world—though certainly not the only connection, as the Secret Service set up a fully functional compound beyond the ranch house, which included all of the latest telecommunications technology. Despite his distance from Washington, D.C., the 40th president was fully capable of performing his official duties from the Ranch.
Presidential duties at the Ranch were quite varied, ranging from telephone calls to heads of state and Cabinet members to celebrities such as comedian Jerry Lewis and baseball player Willie Stargell. President Reagan also played host and held meetings at the Ranch. He met there with White House staff, his Cabinet, Vice President Bush, and with heads of state including Queen Elizabeth II.
There were dozens of significant events that occurred while Reagan was at the Ranch, including several that required immediate presidential action.
These include the August 1981 signing ceremony for the Economic Recovery Tax Act and the president’s decision that same month to fire 11,359 striking air-traffic controllers. The latter moment came during Reagan’s road to recovery from the assassination attempt where the Ranch once again worked its therapeutic magic on the man’s body and soul.
At the Ranch, the president also grappled with how to react to several national and international tragedies involving the painful loss of American lives, from the April 18, 1983, bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon—which killed 32—to the calamitous explosion of the U.S. space shuttle, The Challenger, on January 28, 1986.
Perhaps the gravest moment the president faced at Rancho del Cielo occurred on September 1, 1983. Early that morning, Reagan received a call from National Security Adviser Bill Clark informing him of preliminary reports that a South Korean airliner, Flight 007, en route from New York City to Seoul, had been shot out of the sky by Soviet fighter planes. “Bill,” Reagan reacted, “let’s pray it’s not true.” It was true. The plane held 269 passengers, including 61 Americans. There were no survivors.