Read an Excerpt
Riding with Reagan
From the White House to the Ranch
By John R. Barletta, Rochelle Schweizer
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2005 John R. Barletta
All rights reserved.
The Bond Is Forged
I was in what we called the down room in the White House, taking a break with a few other agents, when my shift leader came in to ask if any of us could ride. The down room is a small room near the command post with a few couches and some hooks on the wall where the agents can hang their jackets. The shift leaders had been asking all the agents the same question, "Does anyone know how to ride a horse?" At first, the question surprised me, but I sheepishly raised my hand. The boss said, "Barletta, you're going to go over to President-elect Reagan's detail out at the ranch next time."
I said in response, "Yes, sir."
Consisting of approximately two thousand agents, the U.S. Secret Service is an integrated but layered network. In its sophisticated operations, the Secret Service assigns each division with a specific area of protection. The Uniformed Division is responsible for the security of the White House and grounds, as well as foreign embassies in the United States. They outfit their command post with equipment such as infrared cameras that monitor all that is going on in or near the White House. They are usually a part of the Secret Service advance team in charge of the magnetometers, dog teams, and countersniper teams. The Technical Security Division (TSD) makes certain all the electronic systems are in place, including the ground's perimeter alarms.
Located in the West Wing of the White House, the surprisingly unpretentious Secret Service command post is referred to as W-16. When compared to the Uniformed Division, the equipment is simple — a few television monitors and a switchboard to receive incoming calls. Today it is much more sophisticated, with the supervisors' offices and plenty of state-of-the-art technology located across the street in the Executive Office Building. In this mammoth operation, everyone has a boss — supervisors, shift leaders, and working agents. On our detail, everyone answered to the shift leader first.
The entire Secret Service always faces a huge learning curve during the transition to a new administration. Following the election of a new president, the Presidential Protective Division (PPD) splits the detail between the sitting president and the president-elect so that some agents can start getting used to the new man's needs and mannerisms. Right from the beginning, President Reagan's detail started accompanying him to his ranch. With the grueling campaign over, the ranch was where he and Mrs. Reagan wanted to go to relax.
It soon became apparent that the supervisors at the ranch were having quite a time finding agents to protect the newly elected president while he was riding his horse. Horses are dangerous, and you have to know what you are doing. The rider is handling a big animal weighing about twelve hundred pounds with incredible strength and jumping and running abilities and with a brain the size of a walnut.
The problems at the ranch began even before anyone mounted a horse. First, no one had any idea how to tie a horse, the president-elect ended up saddling the horses for the agents. Things only got worse once they started riding. President Reagan would ride fast and jump fences. He was really an English equestrian rider. The agents assigned to him did not know how to ride, and they were having trouble keeping up with him. One day, an agent fell off his horse and broke his arm. The president-elect dismounted his horse to take care of the agent. Our chief supervisor at the time rightly said that was not how things should work. The President was not supposed to be giving us aid and comfort. That was what we should be doing for him.
After that incident, the detail supervisor called the White House and said, "I have a big problem out here. I need someone who can ride a horse." The supervisor at the White House put out the word to the shift leaders that they needed to find an agent who could really ride. And that's where I came in.
To deal with the new security needs at the ranch following Reagan's election, the Secret Service created the Western Protective Division (WPD), which would protect the ranch even when the First Couple was not there. In the weeks before the inauguration, agents made a trip to Santa Barbara, California. Members of the Secret Service always fly commercially unless they are working a shift. Only then do they fly on Air Force One or another government aircraft.
In Santa Barbara, the agents used dozens of rental cars that had been brought up from Los Angeles. During the first few months, we drove those rental cars from our hotel in Santa Barbara to the ranch for our eight-hour shifts, but the drive up the winding mountain road was tough, and it wasn't long before sturdier Chevy Suburbans replaced them. For the next eight years, the Suburbans were workhorses, transporting the agents on those precipitous drives to and from the ranch. The number of agents on duty at the ranch varied, depending on ever-changing circumstances such as the weather and the President's arrivals and departures. In addition to the dog teams outside the perimeter, there could be as many as fifty-four supplemental agents standing post.
The President and I first met in late November 1980 during my first trip to the ranch. On my first morning there, I was standing outside the barn with Jerry Parr, the deputy special agent in charge, when the president-elect approached us on his way to get his horse ready. A path of about fifty steps led from the ranch house to the tack room.
Built on a hill, the tack room was in a metal and brick building with two large rooms. In one of the rooms were the President's two Jeeps, a tractor, and all the ranch tools, including chain saws, pole saws, and axes. All the horse equipment was kept inside the second room, where the wall was covered with saddles hanging on racks. Some of the saddles were gifts that the President had received, while others were ones he had used for years. Near the tack room was a workbench attached to the wall, which was used for taking chain saws apart. The stables were next to the barn, and they were usually empty because the President liked to let his horses run free.
Reagan was dressed to go riding; he had on his jodhpurs, one of the three shirts he always wore, and the best English riding boots, brown Dehner three-buckle field boots from Omaha. These boots were from the old school, and few people wear them anymore.
The President saw us and said, "Good morning."
"Good morning, Mr. President," Jerry responded. "This is agent John Barletta. He is from the White House detail, and he is going to ride with you today." A quiet, soft-spoken, intelligent man, Jerry looked like Walter Matthau. All the shift members liked him, and their respect for him was immense. He was highly experienced and really knew his job.
The President nodded and smiled, but you could tell by the look in his eyes that he was skeptical. Oh no, he was thinking, not another one that I am going to have to babysit. I won't be able to do what I want, because these guys can't ride.
My boss knew nothing about horseback riding, and he had never seen me ride either. Still, Jerry was anxious to give me a try. Before we went into the tack room, he gave me explicit instructions on how to handle the president-elect and his requests while riding with him. "John, the President may ask you if it's all right for him to do something while riding. Always tell him that he can do whatever he wants to do and that you will keep up with him."
"Mr. Parr," I reminded him, "you've never seen me on a horse. You don't even know if I can ride or not."
Jerry shot back, "You told me you could!"
When we entered the barn, the President was expecting to gather his tack (saddle, bridle, halter, and cleaning gear). There were usually six horses at the ranch. President Reagan was a very particular rider, and he knew just how he wanted the slipknot for his horse tied. He also wanted his saddle positioned and secured in just a certain way. The horse's shape determines the exact placement of the saddle, and the front of the saddle needs to fit over his withers, the place where the neck comes into the shoulder of the horse. Some horses do not have good withers, making it extremely difficult to secure a saddle on them. When you tighten the saddle, it needs to be done just right. If it is too tight, the horse will have difficulty breathing, and if it is not tight enough, it will come loose while you are riding. Cinching a saddle properly takes some practice.
The President usually got his own horse ready. For the most part, good riders want to saddle their own horses, but on my first morning there, I wanted everything just right, so I had tacked up his horse before he got to the barn.
I followed him to his horse, and I could tell he was surprised that the horse was ready. I had groomed the horse, picked his feet, put his halter on, lifted his stirrups, and placed the saddle on securely. Of course, I was nervous as he started looking his horse over. Soon I heard him say, "Now John, I want to show you a couple of things. I like to tie my horses this way," but when he looked at the slipknot, he realized that I knew how to do that. "Oh, I see you've done that before."
Then he talked about the way the saddles are positioned. "Now, John, my saddle — Oh, I see you've done that before too."
When he lifted one of the horse's hooves to clean it and saw that it had already been done, he just said, "Oh, my, my." Following a few such observations by the President, I could see that he had a little bit more trust in me, but after all he had seen over the past few weeks, he was still leery.
Ready to go, we mounted our horses and started walking them. The President rode a big, black thoroughbred mare that he had raised himself. Since the Secret Service had not obtained any of its own horses yet, I rode one of the President's — Gwalianko, a beautiful gray. The weather that morning was bright and seasonable. It is usually seventy-five degrees and sunny in Santa Barbara in November, but the weather at the ranch can be more variable. On that morning, it was close to perfect. As we rode toward the tiny adobe ranch house, painted white with a red Spanish-tiled roof, it looked as if it was just a small part of a painting under the vast blue sky. The land was flat where the house was built, but from that spot, there was a panoramic view of the mountain range and the groves of imposing oak trees.
As we passed the house and entered the pasture, the President asked, "Can we pick up the pace and trot?"
"Mr. President," I said, "you can do anything you want."
We started trotting; it was a test. If I could not have kept up, he probably would have stopped, as he had done in the past with the other agents, but I stayed right with him, and soon we were in the field. The grass was swaying, and the field looked like a green ocean. We continued trotting, and before I knew it, we were talking. He started calling me John right away. Although mindful of my purpose in riding with the President, I was at ease with him, and there were moments when I almost forgot that this was our first ride together.
If you're not a good rider, your butt slaps the saddle as soon as you start trotting. The President kept watching me closely, and he noticed that I wasn't slapping the saddle. He looked at me and smiled.
When we reached a fence, we needed to open the gate. Along the path we were riding on, the gates had been left closed but unlocked. Once the ride was over, however, they were again secured by a combination lock. It is dangerous to lean over the horse and undo the latch. Not wanting me to have to open it, the President leaned right over his horse and said, "John, I'll get it."
"No, Mr. President, I will get that for you." Instead of leaning over the horse, I sidestepped my horse up to the gate and undid the latch. Again he looked at me, but this time he gave me one of those big Irish smiles that goes right through you.
After I had opened the gate, and we had ridden through it, he asked me, "John, do you want me to close the gate?"
"No, Mr. President," I said. "There is a vehicle full of agents behind us. We need to leave it open. They will close the gate."
Most of the ground at the ranch is hard and rocky. Once you get beyond the first gate, there is a nice, soft stretch across the meadow that goes down for about a mile before you get to the well. Here, the President wanted to run. "John, do you mind if we do a collected canter?" he asked, the reins firmly in his hands.
"Mr. President," I answered, "you can do anything you want."
When you do a collected canter, the horse is moving out, but not in a full run. When you canter — a moderate gallop — each horse usually tries to compete with the other. That's much harder than it looks. If you don't know what you're doing, the horse will run away with you. We started cantering, and the horses were running side by side. Anybody who rides knows how difficult that is to do. It's extremely unusual for the horses to remain next to each other. Our horses, though, matched strides, equal with each other.
We kept the horses at the same stride for about fifteen minutes until we got to the well. The President raised his hand and said, "Whoa!" just like someone in the cavalry would say it.
From the well, he liked to turn off into the brush, which was about two miles from where we started. There was a new well constructed by the U.S. Navy Seabees. The older well on the President's property was called the beehive, and it provided the water for the ranch.
After Reagan was elected president, big changes were needed to accommodate the additional people working there. No longer would just the Reagans and maybe a few friends and family be at the ranch. Instead, there could be 175 people at any one time. There were agents, special officers, Secret Service Uniformed Division dog teams, countersniper teams, and so on. To help secure the place, twenty-nine Secret Service vehicles were kept on the property. They had to build a helicopter pad for Marine One and a hangar to store it in. In addition, a plane was on-site that nobody knew about — nor would they, unless it was needed. It is hard to imagine that all of this was going on when you see the pictures of the President out for his private, peaceful rides on the trails. The agents did all they could to shelter the First Couple from intrusions, so that they could enjoy their time alone. Trees and shrubs were planted to cover many of the buildings, giving them a sense of privacy.
The brush area past the well was rocky and full of trees, and the trails were hidden by vegetation, including madrone trees, oaks, and greasewood. Looking down into the valley, you felt that you were on top of the world as you took in the moss-covered rocks, grand oak trees, and patches of twisted vines and roots. For the President, it was almost a sacred area — a place of complete solace from huge demands and decisions. While riding here, we saw many gophers scurrying around. It seemed like there were millions of them. People who love horses hate gophers, since they not only ruin the vegetation, but they make holes that could cause a horse to break a leg if he steps into one. Eight years later, I found out how dangerous those could be.
We rode together for another two hours on these narrow, roaming trails. The President didn't say a word, and I wouldn't think of starting a conversation unless I had to inform him of something. I would always wait to speak until after he'd spoken to me. I knew my place and didn't want to take advantage of my position.
Once we had entered the brush area, we lost the vehicle carrying the other agents. The agents kept calling me, wanting to know how we were doing and what was going on. After a number of these calls, I told them to reduce the radio traffic unless necessary so that I could concentrate.
When we arrived back at the house, we went to the hitching post, where Jerry was watching for us. He looked worried, his brow all crinkled up, and he waited for the President to get off his horse so he could ask him a question. The President always dismounted his horse by throwing his right leg over the saddle and jumping down, which is extremely dangerous. Most people dismount by throwing their right leg over the horse's rump, but I could never talk him out of it. He did it from day one.
While the President was tying up his horse to the hitching post, Jerry asked him, "How did it go, Mr. President? How was your ride?"
President Reagan first looked at me and then turned back to my boss. "Well, you finally got me a good one," he said.CHAPTER 2
The Unlikeliest of Friends
That first ride was the beginning of a special relationship that was forged through not only a love for horses but the many years we spent riding over the trails alone. My boss made it clear to me on that sunny November morning that from then on, I had to be prepared to come out to the ranch every time the President did, and I would go with him anywhere else he was going to ride.
There were things about Ronald Reagan I already knew I liked. The first time I saw him and heard him speak was on October 28, 1980, in Cleveland, Ohio, at the Bond Court Hotel. For members of the Secret Service, a presidential campaign always presents challenges and changes. After Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California, in 1968, Congress decreed that the Secret Service must cover any viable candidate running for president. Five individuals from different areas of the government determine viability. Once a candidate is deemed viable, he or she starts to have the aura of the presidency, because it's a lot bigger deal if a candidate shows up with a Secret Service entourage than if they just ride up in a taxi.
Excerpted from Riding with Reagan by John R. Barletta, Rochelle Schweizer. Copyright © 2005 John R. Barletta. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.