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The first time Peter Hannaford met Ronald Reagan was at the 1965 midwinter Republican state convention in San Francisco. Hannaford, then a youngish political activist, had arrived early and was standing with some friends in an exhibition hall. Suddenly, Reagan, with aides in tow, ambled in Hannaford’s direction. “He was very cheerful—he introduced himself to us and chatted a moment or two,” Hannaford recalls. “I said to my friends, ‘What a nice man. Too bad he can’t win an election.’”

Years later, after Hannaford had joined the Reagan team as a senior communications adviser, he frequently sensed that even in the thick of business, some part of the boss’s thoughts were with Rancho del Cielo, the rustic homestead above Santa Barbara, Calif., that the Reagans purchased in late 1974. “He was always itching to get out there and work on the place,” says Hannaford, 70, now a senior consultant at the PR and lobbying firm APCO Worldwide. “Once I accompanied him on a speaking trip, and he was looking out the window longingly. I asked him if he was getting a ‘ranch look’ in his eyes. He said, ‘Yes—tomorrow we start putting the roof on.’”

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Reagan may have been a master of image-making, but spinmeister Hannaford—whose fifth book on the Great Communicator is the recently released Ronald Reagan and His Ranch: The Western White House, 1981-1989—is convinced that Reagan’s fondness for the ranching life was always genuine. Once, he recalls, when ABC’s Sam Donaldson cracked an on-camera joke about Reagan’s purported fondness for working his land—”If he chopped as much [wood] as they say he does, there wouldn’t be any trees left on the ranch”—Reagan had his foreman pile up all the brush he’d cleared that week, then posed next to it for White House photographers. The autographed photo that landed on Donaldson’s desk read, “Dear Sam: Here’s proof I chopped it all with my little hatchet.”

As Hannaford details in his book, most presidents have used either ancestral homes, vacation homes, or borrowed locations for their seasonal retreats. Often, this home away from home demonstrates something about the chief executive’s character—or at least the image that the president wants to present to the world. Legislative wheeler-dealer Lyndon Johnson constantly shuffled politicos in and out of his LBJ Ranch, while future Habitat for Humanity supporter Jimmy Carter vacationed on his peanut farm in unpretentious Plains, Ga. The semiotic messages sent by the summer homes of the first and second President Bushes—Kennebunkport, Maine, vs. Crawford, Texas—are especially clear.

Reagan, by all accounts a delegator rather than a micromanager, rarely mixed business with ranching, as Johnson did. While a few historic events took place at Rancho del Cielo—including the signing of the landmark 1981 tax bill, the White House’s initial response to the downing of Korean Air Lines flight 007, and meetings with such world leaders as Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher—Hannaford believes that Reagan, a man who spent virtually all of his adult life in the media spotlight, saw the ranch first and foremost as a retreat from public life. In a way, it was an embodiment of the folksy, laid-back persona he’d created for himself: Though Reagan grew up in Illinois, far from the dusty frontier, he learned how to ride horses as a young cavalry reservist and insisted on doing his own riding in the movie westerns he starred in.

After the former president was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, his family passed on a for-profit conference-center proposal, selling the ranch instead to Young America’s Foundation, which uses it for occasional retreats. Aside from those sporadic influxes of young conservatives, though, the place remains in many ways as isolated as during Reagan’s presidency, when Disney built fake boulders to hide the Secret Service’s surveillance equipment—and when, as Hannaford remembers, the only intruders to make it through the dense chaparral were a handful of seriously lost hikers and the occasional mountain lion. —Louis Jacobson