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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2004

Reagan dies at 93

BY DAVID M. SHRIBMAN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

Ronald Wilson Reagan - a Hollywood actor whose greatest dramas were performed in the White House, and a New Deal Democrat who reinvigorated American conservatism - died yesterday.

"My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has passed away after 10 years of Alzheimer's disease at 93 years of age. We appreciate everyone's prayers," his wife, Nancy Reagan, said in a statement.

Nancy Reagan, along with children Ron and Patti Davis, were at the couple's Los Angeles home when Mr. Reagan, the nation's 40th president, died at 1 p.m. Pacific Time of pneumonia complicated by Alzheimer's disease, said Joanne Drake, who represents the family. Son Michael arrived a short time later, she said.

"This is a sad hour in the life of America," President Bush said after speaking with Nancy Reagan by telephone. "A great American life has come to an end. Ronald Reagan won America's respect with his greatness, and won its love with his goodness. He had the confidence that comes with conviction, the strength that comes with character, the grace that comes with humility, and the humor that comes with wisdom."

Blinking back tears, President Bush added: "He always told us that for America, the best was yet to come. We comfort ourselves in the knowledge that this is true for him, too. His work is done. And now a shining city awaits him."

The U.S. flag over the White House was lowered to half-staff. At ballparks and at the Belmont Stakes, there were moments of silence.

Mr. Reagan's body was expected to be taken to his presidential library and museum in Simi Valley, Calif., and then flown to Washington to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. His funeral was expected to be at the National Cathedral, an event likely to draw world leaders. The body was to be returned to California for a sunset burial at his library.

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

Like all forceful leaders, Mr. Reagan made some people very angry - but his gift for communication and his bedrock optimism attracted far more supporters than critics. At 69, Mr. Reagan was the oldest man ever elected president when he was chosen in 1980, by an unexpectedly large margin over the incumbent Carter.

In 1984, he was re-elected with the largest number of popular and electoral votes in U.S. history. Though the nation has added 50 million people since then, no candidate has surpassed his record. His electoral vote landslide that year was among the most lopsided in history.

Over two presidential terms, from 1981 to 1989, Mr. Reagan reshaped the Republican Party in his conservative image, fixed his eye on the demise of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communism and tripled the national debt to $3 trillion in his single-minded competition with the other superpower.

Crystallizing the final stage of the Cold War confrontation between Western liberties and Soviet repression, he visited the Berlin Wall in 1987 and challenged Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down. In a perfect summary of his core faith, Mr. Reagan declared: "After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor."

Five years after leaving office, Mr. Reagan broke the news of his incurable illness that destroys brain cells, in an affecting letter to the American people in his own hand, a gesture of farewell that softened his critics and deepened his countrymen's understanding of the disease.

Mr. Reagan 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 theatrical arts, grafting them onto the political arts and earning for himself a reputation as the "Great Communicator."

He was also deeply controversial. His economic nostrums of lowering taxes to feed the economy were the subject of furious debates. Mr. Reagan's laissez-faire views and his policies and language celebrating entrepreneurship and business provided the soundtrack for a decade of economic vitality. But that very success, in the view of some critics, led to excesses and ostentation and a widening gulf between rich and poor.

It was also during his presidency that the United States became preoccupied with the danger of terrorism, which echoes in our own time. It was during the Reagan years that Americans were singled out as targets in the Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking of 1985 and the Beirut explosions of 1983.

Though the nation had a policy against negotiating with terrorists, the Reagan administration nonetheless plunged into the Iran-Contra affair, in which arms were sold to Iran with the profits being diverted to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Mr. Reagan denied any involvement in the affair 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 Pope John Paul II - Mr. Reagan still managed to make his time in office among the yeastiest and most active in peacetime years.

During his two terms, Mr. Reagan sent American troops to Lebanon only to remove them after they were subjected to a barrage of terrorist attacks. He dispatched forces to Grenada to prevent Cuba from using that Caribbean island as a launching-pad for revolution. He initiated military strikes against Libya in retaliation for terrorist attacks.

He described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" but, worried about his place in history and sensing that his military buildup made the Soviets vulnerable, he began a rapprochement with his onetime foes and signed arms agreements with them.

And he 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.

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, and 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. His sweeping re-election victory in 1984, 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 was.

He lured young people from the ranks of the liberals and the Democrats, giving the Republican Party a strong foundation for the political battles of century's end and the early years of the 21st century.

Married to two strong women - Jane Wyman, whom he divorced, and then Nancy Davis, who accompanied him in his romp through American politics, guarding his interests and often asserting her own views - Mr. Reagan was a spokesman of "family values." But often he was estranged from his own children.

Mr. Reagan's oldest daughter, Maureen, from his first marriage, died in August, 2001, at age 60 from cancer. Three other children survive: Michael, from his first marriage, and Patti Davis and Ron from his second.

Even at the moment of his greatest personal peril, when he was shot by John Hinckley, Jr., outside the Washington Hilton in 1981 in his first year in office, Mr. Reagan showed enormous grace, even joy with life. When he recovered from his wounds, he spoke to a joint meeting of Congress to deafening applause and used the moment to propel his legislative agenda through the maze of committees, conferences and floor battles on Capitol Hill.

His performances were so masterly, 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 into Middle America, or at least in the middle of America, delivered on Feb. 11, 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 gave him the nickname "Dutch" (Jack Reagan said his son looked "like a fat Dutchman") and an early disdain for prejudice (the father refused to stay in a hotel that barred Jews, a story that Mr. Reagan repeated often).

Mr. Reagan was a popular Depression-era undergraduate at Eureka College in Illinois but 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.

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

But Mr. Reagan 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 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 for Knute Rockne - All American, in which Mr. Reagan played George Gipp, the gifted Notre Dame football player, and uttered his most famous cinema line: "Win one for the Gipper." During World War II he made movies for the Army, including This Is the Army.

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, 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.

He became well-known as the host of television's General Electric Theatre and Death Valley Days, but his first appearance on the national political scene came in 1964, when his speeches on behalf of Barry Goldwater were the only bright spot in a Republican presidential campaign that would be buried in the Lyndon Johnson landslide. He could not, and did not want to, resist the demands that he run for governor of California two years later.

Mr. Reagan's victory over Gov. 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 [of] the sit-ins, the teach-ins, the walk-outs" and he vowed to organize a "throw out," and once elected, he began to replace scores of state officials.

All around Mr. Reagan there had gathered a coterie of advisers, schemers, and dreamers whose ideas were too big for Sacramento. Mr. Reagan didn't resist these notions, and he mounted a challenge from the right to Gerald R. Ford, who had been appointed vice president and who ascended to the White House upon the resignation of Richard Nixon. The GOP primary challenge produced some intoxicating moments for the Reagan band, but fell short.

Four years later, Mr. Reagan took aim at all the vulnerabilities of Jimmy Carter, who had defeated President Ford in 1976, identifying the Panama Canal Treaty, high rates of inflation and interest rates, American helplessness at the storming of the Teheran embassy and the capture of its diplomats. He prevailed in the GOP primaries, riled some of his loyalists by selecting his principal rival, George H.W. Bush, as his running mate, and swept to victory in the fall.

The new president changed things from the very beginning. Unlike past presidents, he faced west instead of east as he took the oath of office, and he undertook a struggle with Congress to cut taxes and spending. The changes that Mr. Reagan initiated lasted beyond his eight years in the White House, and live today in the political environment he altered, in the skepticism toward big government that he fostered, in the anti-tax impulse that he capitalized on and, especially, in the millions of people whom he inspired.

His legacy will forever be a matter of controversy among professional historians, but his place in America's history is safe, and large.

Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry said that Reagan's "love of country was infectious. Even when he was breaking Democrats hearts, he did so with a smile and in the spirit of honest and open debate."

Although she was fiercely protective of Reagan's privacy, Nancy Reagan let people know the former president's mental condition had deteriorated terribly. Last month, she said: "Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him."

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. David Shribman is the executive editor of the Post-Gazette. This report includes information from the Blade's wire services.



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