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A long run in the leading role

The massed flyover of farewells, the pundits on parade, the summations and salutes -- he deserves them all and for the reason these good-byes seem unusual. His presidency is ending as it should, closing the era of one-term presidencies that began Nov. 22, 1963.

President Reagan's most valuable farewell gift to the United States has been his survival. His has been the only "normal" two-term presidency since Dwight Eisenhower's, which ended 28 years ago.

Normalcy is hard to define in the American presidency. Reagan is the 11th president to have enjoyed a straight eight years in the office. Several were military heroes: Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Jackson and George Washington.

None of these former generals, as far as history tells, took their responsibilities as commander in chief as cavalierly as Reagan did. None indulged in the protocol-shattering habit of returning military salutes while dressed in civilian clothes. This peculiar habit surprised many in and out of the military, but they should not have been surprised.

Reagan is the first former actor (though maybe not the last) to become president. Saluting while hatless and in mufti, he was simply following some invisible director's cue. In 53 movies, he was in uniform many times, whether as Lt. Brass Bancroft in "Secret Service of the Air" or West Point cadet George Armstrong Custer in "Santa Fe Trail." He was a son of Hollywood, accustomed to cues and scripts, and that is why with all his warmth, wit and geniality, the real Ronald Reagan seems as distant as Woodrow Wilson, shuttered and shivering in his final days in office in 1920. Reagan's smile was as wide as his attention was narrow.

America and the world know full well that he wanted to "get government off our backs," that he wanted to cut taxes, reduce domestic spending and fatten the Pentagon's budget. He succeeded handsomely, to the outrage -- justified and unjustified -- of many. His success has shoved the US political spectrum several degrees to the right.

Ronald Reagan has changed his views of the Kremlin in eight years, no longer demonizing the Russians as robots of an "evil empire," but he gave government a villain's reputation that persists. Democrats and liberals are still standing in awe of Reagan, unable to counter with a vision of government as friendly, helpful or efficient.

By dodging an assassin's bullet and reacting to death with wit, humor and courage, he won millions of hearts. John F. Kennedy cited Ernest Hemingway's definition of courage as "grace under pressure." In those anxious moments in March 1981, Ronald Reagan personified courage.

When scholars assess White House occupants, they usually note whether the president strengthened or weakened the office. The conclusion is inevitably mixed. Reagan strengthened the presidency by using his theatrical talent to dramatize and to simplify. His immediate predecessors -- Carter, Ford, Nixon and Johnson -- lacked that gift, and their presidencies suffered accordingly. Reagan's rhetoric was not always apt, but most of his speeches were effective.

Reagan weakened the presidency by his distance from its day-to-day details. He campaigned as a chairman of the board against Carter the clerk and boasted about his short workday. In November 1986, Fortune magazine featured a confident-looking Reagan promising readers to share his secret about delegating authority, but at that time, revelations were seeping out. Someone in the White House sold arms to Ayatollah Khomeini and Reagan was "out of the loop." Future presidents need not be slaves to detail, but they might learn from the Reagan era that the president is the boss of his staff, not the other way around.

Reagan was not only a professional actor but also a professional after- dinner speaker, so his post-presidential life may be more candid as a result of being less scripted. Americans wish him well. When he rejoins his favorite "mashed-potato circuit," Ronald Wilson Reagan will find an attentive, friendly and mostly grateful audience.

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