WASHINGTON -- His policies were controversial and polarizing, but Ronald Reagan will be remembered as a president whose confidence, conviction, and good cheer transformed the office, realigned American politics, and left the nation feeling more optimistic and secure than had any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, historians say.
As the country recalls the 40th president and awaits the national funeral tomorrow, Reagan's legacy is the subject of vigorous debate. Conservatives revere him as the anticommunist champion who won the Cold War and remade the Republican Party in their image. Liberals say he shredded the social contract with the poor and disenfranchised, and got off scot-free in the Iran-contra scandal.
But Reagan's stature has only grown since he left office in 1989, historians and social commentators say. They say it has been elevated partly by sympathy for his long struggle with Alzheimer's disease and partly by comparison with President Clinton's personal behavior, but mostly because his traditional values and views on the role of government have become embedded in every administration that followed.
''I don't for a moment want to sugarcoat the Reagan record, which was very controversial," historian Richard Norton Smith said. ''But we don't spend a lot of time talking about the legacy of Chester Arthur. The fact that [Reagan's] will be debated for decades by historians is a testament to how important a president Reagan was -- arguably, along with FDR, the most important president of the 20th century."
Smith, who heads the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library at Springfield, Ill., and spent three years working at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., said the force of Reagan's personality and the power of his ideas fundamentally altered the political landscape. He not only transformed the GOP from a party dominated by the values of East Coast moderates to one controlled by Sun Belt social conservatives, but he also moved Democrats from left to center, a shift that was underscored when Clinton declared that ''the era of big government is over."
''That was a bigger compliment than any eulogist will pay," Smith said. ''Reagan was simply the most unconventional political figure of his time, the unlikely conservative who was a radical and an agent of change."
James MacGregor Burns, a historian at Williams College, called Reagan a ''man of conviction" and said that is the most important leadership quality a president can possess.
''I put him at a relatively high level among all American presidents because he had the one quality that is most important in leaders. . . . you always knew where he stood," said Burns, who has written several books on presidential leadership. ''I admired him, and I kind of liked him. Even if you are a liberal like me, you have to take your hat off to a man who stuck to his conservatism and won."
The country was ready for a political leader like Reagan in 1980. Its confidence in the presidency had been undermined by Vietnam and Watergate, the Iran hostage ordeal, Soviet aggression, the energy crisis, and high inflation and interest rates. Voters answered Reagan's campaign question -- ''Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" -- by sending President Carter home to Georgia.
''Reagan changed the national mood. He told the American people they were good and the Soviet Union was evil, and he offered optimism and a sense of security when the country was really shaken," said Keith Olson, a history professor who studies modern US presidents. He ranks Reagan among the top 10, citing the confidence he restored in the country.
Some historians say the Soviet Union was on its last legs by the early 1980s and would have collapsed without Reagan's strident anticommunist ideology and $2 trillion arms buildup. But Reagan's willingness to do business with Mikhail Gorbachev and give him credit for the Cold War thaw were marks of a pragmatic president who had his eyes on the prize and his legacy.
''I remember how Reagan's aides would get miffed when Gorbachev was getting good press," Smith said. ''Reagan said: 'I don't care if he gets the headlines. Heck, I once costarred with Errol Flynn.' "
Robert S. McElvaine, a biographer of FDR, said that although historians generally have been skeptical of Reagan's domestic accomplishments, there has been a growing willingness to view his role in ending the Cold War as important because Reagan correctly perceived the Soviet Union as a hollow shell.
McElvaine cited parallels between Roosevelt and Reagan. One fought fascism, the other battled communism, and both won. Each was a master at communicating through the electronic media -- Roosevelt on the radio, Reagan on television. Both survived assassination attempts -- a would-be assassin fired on but missed Roosevelt in Miami in 1933; Reagan was seriously wounded by John Hinckley Jr., in 1981-- and both lived with an almost unshakable belief and religious faith in their destiny to do great things.
''Reagan, like Roosevelt, seemed to be such a likable guy. Even those who despised their policies didn't feel it personally or viscerally, the way people do with Bush or Nixon," said McElvaine, a history professor at Millsaps College. ''There was something larger about Roosevelt and Reagan than their initiatives."
Their domestic initiatives could not have been more different. Roosevelt proposed the New Deal to aid the poor, the unemployed, the sick, and the old. Reagan mocked welfare queens, shrunk social programs, and made tax cuts and government deregulation mantras of his administration.
When Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign, he infuriated black leaders with a speech that praised states' rights in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Three years later, Reagan signed the law that made Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a holiday. Reagan opposed the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, but in 1981 he named Sandra Day O'Connor as the first woman on the US Supreme Court.
Some of his actions, and inaction, put Reagan at odds with conservative activists who had been his most ardent supporters. Reagan did not end abortion rights, close the Education Department or the National Endowment for the Arts, or put prayer back in the schools. He did not cut the federal budget, as he promised. In fact, the federal deficit, fueled by defense spending, ballooned to 5 percent of the overall economy, an increase of 86 percent during Reagan's two terms.
''He ran as Ronald the radical but governed as Ronald the reasonable," said G. Calvin Mackenzie, a government professor at Colby College. ''And he cut deals that conservatives didn't think were a good idea."
But for the conservative wing of the Republican Party inspired by Barry Goldwater, Reagan's legacy was as much about politics as policy. Reagan welcomed conservatives into the party, let them run its apparatus, and made their allegiance to fiscal restraint, limited government, a conservative judiciary, traditional family values, and military strength the party's mainstream ideology. He turned conservative Democrats into Reagan Democrats and the South into Reagan country.
Before Reagan, social and religious conservatives ''were regarded as unwashed and not suitable for the Republican country club," said Paul Weyrich, a longtime conservative activist and chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation. ''He lifted up our spirits, but mainly he was a great president because of what he did in the Evil Empire," as Reagan described the Soviet Union.
Public opinion polls indicate that esteem for Reagan has grown over the years. His job approval rating, affected by concerns about the economy and later by admissions that his administration traded arms for hostages in the Iran-contra affair, averaged 53 percent while Reagan was president, according to the Gallup Organization. In 2002, Reagan's approval rating had climbed to 73 percent. In a 2003 Gallup poll, Reagan ranked as the third most popular US president, behind John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln, among Americans surveyed.
''Great historical figures don't just change politics," said Newt Gingrich, who, inspired by Reagan, led the conservative revolution that in 1994 gave Republicans their first majority in the US House in 40 years. ''They change the reality, and there is no debate: That's what Ronald Reagan did."