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Still able to transform political moment

WASHINGTON -- From the White House lawn where he used to cup his ear as Marine One revved up, to the marble steps of the Capitol where he claimed the presidency on a memorable day 24 years ago, Ronald Reagan's spirit once again threaded its way through the nation's capital yesterday.

In death, Reagan performed some of the same political alchemy as in his life, freeing conservatives from their bitterness and forcing liberals to put aside their causes and acknowledge higher national values. Through his decade of illness the former president had only grown in stature. His was the head on the conservative coin, and his legacy was celebrated by Republicans as assiduously as Democrats ever honored Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy in death.

Thus, the news of his passing yesterday carried the power to transform the political moment. It came as the party he loved needed a bracing reminder of its first principles and as the president who sought to emulate his values needed some bolstering.

President Bush -- who proudly dubbed himself a Reagan Republican, claiming the lanky Californian as a mentor even though his own father occupied the Oval Office -- had taken to invoking Reagan to win support when his policies were under attack.

In February, when NBC's Tim Russert asked Bush about his unpopularity overseas, Bush quipped, "Ronald Reagan was unpopular in Europe when he was president," and added, "So, first of all, I'm keeping pretty good company."

Now, with many occasions to honor Reagan in the months leading to the Republican National Convention, Bush will be joined in the public mind with the most popular conservative president of the modern era, a figure of affection to many who didn't even agree with his policies.

Reagan always welcomed a chance to promote the party he reinvented as definitively as Roosevelt reinvented the Democrats a half-century earlier.

Before Reagan and, at times, since his presidency, conservatives presented themselves as hard-headed realists, delivering to voters the news that the world wasn't everything they wanted it to be.

Previous GOP presidents and nominees like Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon all directed their appeals more to the head than the heart, leaving the Democrats to inspire the public's passions.

Dwight Eisenhower had some of Reagan's warmth and fatherly manner, but deviated too often from conservative principles to be a transforming figure in the Republican Party.

As the historian Garry Wills has noted, Reagan brought friendliness back to the GOP. He told voters they had the power to begin the world all over again. He promised that average people with their private investments, encouraged by tax cuts, could transform the economy. And even in foreign affairs, where he is remembered for overseeing the largest defense buildup in history, he punctuated his warnings with a down-to-earth sense of humanity.

In trumpeting his favorite initiative -- the Strategic Defense Initiative, derided as "Star Wars" by Democrats -- Reagan promised to eventually give the technology to the Soviet Union so each rival could be free of nuclear terror.

Reagan's SDI, like others of his programs, have become part of the standard Republican platform. This year, Bush has proposed an additional $10.2 billion for missile defense. Likewise, Reagan's support for tax cuts, opposition to abortion, and embrace of religious values have become staples of the modern GOP.

Reagan's charm, however, has proven to be more of an elusive commodity. To many of Reagan's admirers, the first President Bush was friendly but not sufficiently optimistic, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was optimistic but not friendly.

The current President Bush ran in 2000 on both personal charm and optimism. Both have been tested by events and have been little in evidence in his reelection campaign. Bush has insisted that the world is a dangerous place and that he is, by necessity, a "war president." The 2004 campaign promises to be long and grim and contentious.

In truth, there have been only flashes of Reaganesque uplift -- moments that stir the memory of a cocked head, jaunty smile, or gentle quip -- on either side of the political aisle: A few inspiring speeches by Bill Clinton, some tension-reducing humor from Arnold Schwarzenegger, a spirited defense of private virtues over government waste by Ross Perot.

Yesterday, Bush got the news of Reagan's passing not far from the beaches of Normandy, where Reagan gave one of his most memorable speeches on the anniversary of D-day in 1984. Today, Reagan's words will hover over Bush's effort to pay tribute to the soldiers who led the invasion that freed Europe.

In the days to come, as Bush pays tribute to one of America's most significant presidents, he will stand at Reagan's side.

It's a place where future politicians and future presidents will want to be.

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