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Reagan, all-American, dies at 93

40th president led a revival of conservatism

Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood actor whose greatest dramas were performed in the White House, and a New Deal Democrat who reinvigorated American conservatism, died yesterday. The 40th president of the United States was 93.

Mr. Reagan, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1994, died at his home in the Bel-Air area of Los Angeles.

An apostle of optimism and a champion of Americanism, Mr. Reagan was one of the premier political figures of his time. A two-term Republican president in an era when commentators spoke easily of the crippled presidency, Mr. Reagan oversaw a long period of economic growth, popularized supply-side economics, led a steep military buildup that contributed to the end of the Cold War, and nurtured a renewed sense of confidence and pride in the American people.

Mr. Reagan's winning the White House in 1980 made him the foremost symbol of the great global shift rightward in the final quarter of the 20th century. Deng Xiaoping moved China toward capitalism. John Paul II reasserted papal authority. Mr. Reagan's friend Margaret Thatcher reinvigorated Britain's Conservative Party. And Mr. Reagan's onetime adversary and eventual friend Mikhail Gorbachev brought glasnost and perestroika to the Soviet Union. But none of them so caught the public imagination, either here or abroad, as Mr. Reagan.

He cultivated an image as an outsider, a horse-riding, wood-chopping Westerner who talked common sense in the salons of the East. But that image, like many others in the Reagan repertoire, was skillfully crafted. Mr. Reagan often called upon the dramatic arts, grafting them onto the political arts and earning for himself a reputation as the "Great Communicator" of American politics.

"A great American life has come to an end," President Bush said in Paris following talks with President Jacques Chirac of France. He said that Mr. Reagan "leaves behind a nation he restored and a world he helped save."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who frequently opposed Reagan's policies, issued a statement praising his "infectious optimism."

"We often disagreed on issues of the day, but I had immense respect and admiration for his leadership and his extraordinary ability to inspire the nation," Kennedy said. "On foreign policy, he will be honored as the president who won the Cold War."

Famously dubbed "the Teflon president," Mr. Reagan was nonetheless controversial, and divisive in the eyes of some critics. His economic nostrums of lowering taxes to feed the economy were the subject of furious debates, some of which still rage. His laissez faire views, and his policies and language celebrating entrepreneurship and business, provided the soundtrack for a decade of economic vitality. But critics also maintained that very success led to excesses and ostentation, a widening gulf between rich and poor, and a rash of mergers and leveraged buyouts that left some executives rich and many workers unemployed.

It was also during his presidency that the United States engaged in the Iran-Contra affair, in which arms were sold to Iran and the profits diverted to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Mr. Reagan denied any involvement, and a special prosecutor found that the president had committed no provable criminal offense, but the episode tarnished the Reagan presidency and made it easier for some Capitol Hill Republicans to differ with Mr. Reagan's conservative stance on certain social issues.

For a man who prided himself on his leisurely schedule and his afternoon nap -- the president once fell asleep in front of John Paul II -- Mr. Reagan still managed to make his time in office among the yeastiest and most active peacetime years.

Mr. Reagan's refusal to give in to striking air traffic controllers in the summer of 1981 solidified his reputation as a man of conviction and left labor unions hesitant to use their ultimate weapon. That same year he appointed the Supreme Court's first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor. In 1986 he delighted conservative supporters by elevating William H. Rehnquist to the chief justiceship and filling his place with Antonin Scalia.

During his two terms, Mr. Reagan sent US troops to Lebanon, only to remove them after a terrorist bombing left 241 Marines dead. He dispatched forces to Grenada to prevent Cuba from using the Caribbean nation as a launching pad for revolution. He initiated military strikes against Libya in retaliation for terrorist attacks.

In 1982 he described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." Five years later, he stood before the Berlin Wall and declared, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Yet even before he made that exclamation, he had begun a rapprochement with the Soviets and would eventually sign arms agreements with them.

The Cold Warrior who oversaw the biggest peacetime military buildup in US history took to quoting a Russian proverb, "Trust but verify."

"You say that at every meeting," Gorbachev chided him at the 1987 Washington summit. "I like it," Mr. Reagan happily replied.

He also pressed Congress to approve massive budget and tax cuts, patch up the Social Security system, and enact the first overhaul of the federal tax system in generations, designed to lower the top rate and remove clutter from the tax code.

But all of these achievements, which in their time contributed to the notion that Mr. Reagan was an irresistible force in Washington, have prompted questions about his legacy. Many of Mr. Reagan's critics argue that the military buildup he oversaw gave the US economy an artificial lift that warped the economic underpinnings of large parts of the economy. Some economists believe that the Reagan tax cuts contributed substantially to the deficits and increases in the national debt that Mr. Reagan ran up in his own years and then bequeathed to his successors, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Even so, Mr. Reagan stood out on the American landscape for the buoyancy of his spirit and for the sharpness of his views, many of which were beguiling for their simplicity. He argued that, in many cases, the large federal government was the problem, not the solution, and many Americans intuitively agreed, or were persuaded by his silky smooth delivery and friendly, trustworthy manner.

America has seldom seen a political figure with the appeal of Ronald Reagan. He was the oldest man to be elected president, but his outlook was youthful, sometimes verging on the naive, almost always exuberant. He transformed American conservatism, rescuing it from its malaise and making it the most vigorous intellectual force in the nation's politics and culture.

"It's morning again in America," a campaign ad declared in 1984. His sweeping reelection victory, which saw Mr. Reagan gain nearly 60 percent of the popular vote and a record 525 electoral votes in defeating Walter Mondale, indicated just how popular his brand of conservatism had become.

He lured young people from the ranks of the Democratic Party, giving his Republican Party a strong foundation for the political battles of century's end and the early years of the 21st century. And he created an entirely new class of American voters, known as "Reagan Democrats." These were Catholics and white ethnics who, like Mr. Reagan, were reared on the verities of the New Deal but who drifted into the Republican Party to vote for him twice and for George H.W. Bush once.

Married twice -- first to Jane Wyman, then to Nancy (Davis) Reagan, who accompanied him in his romp through politics -- Mr. Reagan was a spokesman of "family values." But he was often estranged from his own children.

He was a colorful character, both a spinner of anecdotes (many of which were apocryphal) and a spawner of anecdotes. He once said that scientific studies suggested that a substantial amount of air pollution was produced by trees, and he loved to tell stories about a "welfare queen," never identified, who unlawfully used food stamps to buy alcohol.

Critics saw his frequent use of that anecdote and the launching of his 1980 general election campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., known primarily as the place in which three civil rights workers were slain in 1964, as coded racial appeals. He was the first president to veto a civil rights bill, an act that unraveled what had been a bipartisan consensus on civil rights. The US Commission on Civil Rights, created during the Eisenhower administration, descended into ideological wrangling after Mr. Reagan appointed a black conservative, Clarence Pendleton, its chairman in 1981.

Mr. Reagan was at his best at moments of high emotion, the 40th anniversary of D-day, for example, when he saluted the valor of America's liberators of Europe, or shortly after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, when he captured the nation's grief and urged America to continue explorations of the unknown.

Perhaps the most touching example came with his disclosure in November 1994 that he suffered from Alzheimer's disease and had begun "the journey that will lead into the sunset of my life." Mr. Reagan broke the news of his illness in an affecting letter to the American people in his own hand, a gesture of farewell that softened his critics and deepened Americans' understanding of the disease.

Even at the moment of his greatest personal peril, when he was shot by John Hinckley Jr. outside the Washington Hilton in his first year in office, Mr. Reagan showed enormous grace. "Honey, I forgot to duck," he joked to his wife before going into the operating room. When he recovered, he spoke to a joint session of Congress to deafening applause and used the moment to propel his legislative agenda forward.

His performances were so masterful, in fact, that critics and loyalists alike agreed that Mr. Reagan's years as an actor prepared him well for what Lou Cannon, one of his biographers, called "the role of a lifetime." In truth, it was also his years in the 1950s as an inspirational speaker for General Electric that gave Mr. Reagan the instinct and the cadence for touching America's soul and, on occasion, tugging at its heartstrings.

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on Feb. 6, 1911, in the five-room flat above the Tampico, Ill., general store where his father worked; years later he would joke that during his White House years he had come full circle and once again was "living above the store." His father, John Edward Reagan, was a traveling shoe salesman. His mother was Nelle (Wilson) Reagan.

Mr. Reagan was a popular Depression-era undergraduate at Eureka College in Illinois, but he was not particularly committed to his studies or aware of the great debates that were taking place in Washington and that would shape his own life and political career. "For the most part," Bill Boyarsky wrote in an early biography of Reagan, "he was untouched by the powerful political currents sweeping the nation."

Despite his easy manner, Mr. Reagan always had a touch of the rebel to him. It was evident at Eureka, where he participated in a movement to oust the college president, and in Hollywood, where as president of the Screen Actors Guild he became so involved in union matters that Jane Wyman blamed the guild for the demise of their marriage.

The road from Eureka to Hollywood had its detours, most notably in Iowa, where Mr. Reagan landed a job as an announcer at WHO, a clear-channel 50,000-watt radio station where he became known for his re-creations of Chicago Cubs games from sparse wire accounts.

But Mr. Reagan loved an audience and was destined for the silver screen, a medium with a hunger for a young man with an All-America look and a soothing voice.

His film career was successful but not especially noteworthy. He received the most attention for his role in "Kings Row" but also won notice for "Hellcats of the Navy" and "Knute Rockne -- All American," in which Mr. Reagan, playing Notre Dame football player George Gipp, uttered his most famous cinema line: "Win just one for the Gipper." During World War II he served in an Army filmmaking unit.

It was as an actor that this one-time New Deal Democrat began to drift to the right. He was determined, as Garry Wills put it in a biography of Mr. Reagan, to turn the Screen Actors Guild into a "vehicle for anticommunism" during the early years of the Red Scare.

In 1952 he voted for the Republican candidate, Dwight Eisenhower. Later, as president, he would explain that his devotion to low taxes was derived from his own experience as an actor, when high taxes sapped him of the incentive to work.

As his film career waned, Mr. Reagan remained in the public eye on television's "General Electric Theatre" and "Death Valley Days." His first appearance on the national political scene came in 1964, campaigning for Barry Goldwater. Washington Post reporter David S. Broder called a nationally televised speech Mr. Reagan made "the most successful political debut" since William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech in 1896. The speech paved the way for Mr. Reagan's California gubernatorial run in 1966.

Mr. Reagan's victory over Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown -- the first, but not the last, time that his political skills would be underestimated -- was the initial step in one of America's most remarkable political stories.

California's new governor had campaigned as a man "sick at the sit-ins, the teach-ins, the walk-outs," and he vowed to organize a "throw out." Once elected, he began to replace scores of state officials.

But all around Mr. Reagan there had gathered a coterie of advisers, schemers, and dreamers whose ideas were too big for Sacramento. Mr. Reagan did not resist such notions. He made a last-minute run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

In 1976 Mr. Reagan mounted a challenge from the right to Gerald R. Ford, Richard M. Nixon's appointed vice president who had ascended to the White House after Nixon's resignation. The primary challenge produced some intoxicating moments, but fell tantalizingly short.

Four years later Mr. Reagan took aim at Jimmy Carter, who had defeated Ford in 1976, by identifying as issues the Panama Canal Treaty, high interest rates, inflation, and the country's helplessness at the storming of the US Embassy in Iran and the capture of American diplomats.

After prevailing in the Republican primaries -- "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Breen," he famously announced when a moderator tried to remove other candidates from a debate in New Hampshire -- Mr. Reagan riled some of his loyalists by selecting his principal rival, George H.W. Bush, as his running mate. "There you go again," he said to devastating effect during a debate when Carter tried to bring up Mr. Reagan's onetime opposition to Medicare.

Aided by the presence of third-party candidate John Anderson, he beat Carter by nearly 10 points. The new president changed things from the beginning. He faced west instead of east as he took the oath of office.

The changes that Mr. Reagan made still live today in the political environment he altered, in the skepticism toward big government that he fostered, in the antitax impulse that he capitalized on and, especially, in the millions of people whom he inspired. In addition to his wife, Mr. Reagan leaves a son from his first marriage, Michael; a daughter and son from his second marriage, Patti and Ron Jr. A daughter from his first marriage, Maureen, died in 2001.

Plans call for Mr. Reagan's body to lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington. Around midweek there will be a funeral at the National Cathedral, an event likely to draw world leaders. Burial will be at the Reagan library and museum in California.

David Shribman, former Washington bureau chief for the Globe, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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