The Riggs Report: Ronald Reagan’s defender-in-chief

Nancy Reagan tribute planned for Monday at the state Capitol

Nancy Reagan, who will be laid to rest this week next to her husband at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, will be remembered as the commander-in-chief’s defender-in-chief.

That will be part of the discussion Monday, when members of the Reagan family visit the state Capitol for a special tribute in the Senate.

Nancy Reagan was devoted and vigilant—always on the lookout for issues that could cloud President Ronald Reagan’s record and legacy.

A good example of that involved Rancho del Cielo, the 688-acre ranch northwest of Santa Barbara that became the Western White House.

The Reagans had a permanent home in Los Angeles, but purchased the ranch in 1974 in the Santa Ynez Mountains just as Ronald Reagan was wrapping up his final year as governor of California.

During their time in the White House, the Reagans paid frequent visits to the ranch. Santa Barbara became a global dateline, as the White House press corps set up shop at a beachfront hotel to monitor the president’s activities.

I was a television reporter in Santa Barbara at the time, and attended daily White House briefings and political events as part of local presidential coverage.

Believe me, the White House reporters—CBS’s Bill Plante, ABC’s Sam Donaldson, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, among others—were not complaining about Santa Barbara duty. That was especially true for those who had spent time in Plains, Georgia, covering Jimmy Carter.

But there was periodic criticism in the media about the Reagans’ frequent stays, given the substantial cost to taxpayers for travel and security. It became a routine.

Air Force One would fly in to Point Mugu Naval Air Station in Ventura County, and the president and first lady would helicopter from there to a specially installed pad on the ranch.

Members of the Reagan cabinet, such as Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, regularly stayed at Santa Barbara Biltmore.

I attended a tax cut bill signing ceremony and news conference held at the ranch in the summer of 1981. The president hosted significant visitors there, such as Queen Elizabeth in 1983.

But primarily, the ranch was a getaway spot and off limits to the media. I always wondered whether Nancy Reagan enjoyed staying there, given that it was so remote and rustic—far from the D.C. and Hollywood social scenes.

But she knew how much the place meant to her husband, where he spent time clearing brush and horseback riding. So when questions about the cost of the trips arose, Nancy Reagan defended them, saying that a president never really gets vacations, he just gets a change of scenery.

It was, of course, a very nice change of scenery. The stories were written, but the criticism never seemed to stick.

It was just one California-based example of the role Nancy played in protecting her husband’s image—a role that will be recounted on Monday at the Capitol as part of a tribute to the only California governor and first lady to have ever reached the White House.