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Reagan ranch life is subdued, modest by California scale

By Marshall IngwersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 1985

Santa Barbara, Calif.

``. . . with the President,'' signed off a radio reporter this week, ``in Santa Barbara.'' In fact the hundred or so reporters traipsing along after the vacationing President seldom get within 30 miles of Mr. Reagan.

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But then, neither does Mr. Reagan's chief of staff, Donald Regan. He was graced with a quick tour of the ranch on his first trip west with the President in February, but has not been up the mountain since.

Instead, sporting a healthy tan and an open collar, Mr. Regan has spent the past week working out of a bungalow at the expansive Biltmore Hotel here.

Robert McFarlane, national-security adviser, has discussed the coup in Sudan and the summit offer by Mikhail Gorbachev with the President. But the only actual visit he took to the Reagans' obscure mountain aerie was for Easter lunch with the first couple.

The press, meanwhile, has packed a conference room in a beachfront hotel here each morning for the past week to catch tidbits sent down from the mountaintop in a briefing by White House staff members.

There is not a pin-striped Washington uniform in sight.White House spokesman Larry Speakes presides in a striped polo shirt and designer jeans.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan are a world away, isolated and obscure, and for over a week now have made no brush with this madding crowd.

While the White House press adopts the tennis-and-golf motif here, the President manages to escape on his ranch to a life of rugged individualism after the 19th-century model.

The rumor in White House corridors, overheard by the Washington Post, is that Reagan may spend more time at the ranch he obviously adores during his second term. Larry Speakes denies this.

During his first four years in office, the President was on the ranch 166 days, according to the reigning authority on Rancho del Cielo, Santa Barbara News-Press reporter Jerry Rankin.

The President does real work here, by informed accounts. He does not chop wood. He cuts it with a chain saw, then splits it with an automatic log splitter Nancy gave him.

Now that his longtime foreman, Lee Clearwater, has passed on (in early March), he has two working companions, retired highway patrolman Barney Barnett and a former policeman now on the White House payroll, Dennis LeBlanc.

Woodcutting is part of a never-ending battle to keep the trails that crisscross the 688-acre ranch on the spine of the Santa Ynez Mountains clear of fallen limbs. It also stokes the two fireplaces that provide the only heat in the two-bedroom house.

Few who have seen the Reagan house, their only private address, have been impressed with it. It is very comfortable and very small, Mr. Rankin says. There are rattan chairs with Indian-blanket covers, red-tile floors laid by the first couple themselves, and shelves of history and Western Americana books above the couch.

``All of their friends live better,'' Rankin says. ``There are a lot of ordinary people in Santa Barbara and Goleta who live a lot better than they do.''