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Posted on Sun, Jun. 06, 2004
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The 1980 official campaign portrait of Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.
Associated Press Archives
The 1980 official campaign portrait of Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.


   PDF: Download the 16-page commemorative section on Ronald Reagan (1.5 MB)
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   For critics, death resurrects controversies, bitterness
   Advisers' tales of the boss
   Strong reactions vary in Bay Area, state
   Sacramento reflects on his legacy
   Funeral set for 4 days; viewings on both coasts
   The Mystique
   The First Lady
   The Californian
   The Pragmatist
   The Economy
   The Politics
   The Performer
   Alzheimer's sufferers die once, then again
   More on Alzheimer's
   TV empowered Reagan to spread his appeal
   Timeline | Reagan and his presidency
   Graphic | Reagan's two terms as president
   On the Web | Official Ronald Reagan site
   Important speeches by President Reagan

40th president rode boundless optimism

Mercury News

Ronald Reagan rose from Depression-era poverty to Hollywood fame. He governed California during its most tumultuous era since World War II. He transformed modern politics and hastened the fall of communism. And he survived an attempted assassin's bullets to become one of the most popular presidents in history.

A decade after announcing to Americans in a letter that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Reagan, 93, died Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Bel-Air home where he had spent his final years in seclusion with his devoted wife, Nancy. The cause of death was pneumonia, a spokeswoman said.

The 40th president of the United States leaves a giant legacy, hardly free of controversy, but marked by a folksy optimism that captivated America and the world.

``A great American life has come to an end,'' President Bush said in Paris, where he had traveled to attend today's 60th anniversary celebration of D-day. ``His work is done. And now a shining city awaits him.''

Elected at age 69, Reagan was the oldest ever to serve as chief executive, and he lived longer than any other president.

When asked what his greatest role was, the onetime B-movie actor told biographer Lou Cannon: ``President. That was the role of a lifetime.''

Reagan the politician mixed simple but unshakable personal beliefs with a sunny disposition. He defined his times -- the go-go 1980s -- better than all but a few American presidents. He was a fierce Cold Warrior who faced down the Soviet Union and inspired a conservative revolution. He resuscitated the Republican Party in the post-Watergate era.

In California, he served from 1967 to 1975 at the helm of a state that was the envy of the world for its can-do attitude, even as he cracked down hard on students demonstrating for free speech.

His star shot into the political firmament in San Francisco's Cow Palace during the 1964 Republican convention. The former screen actor gave a rousing endorsement of conservatism and party nominee Barry Goldwater, who went on to be trounced by Lyndon Johnson.

It took 16 years for the movement he inherited from Goldwater to become the Reagan revolution, a political tide that swept him into office.

Critics say his fabulously expensive defense buildup, while it forced the Soviet Union into bankruptcy and collapse, was a reckless strategy that nearly bankrupted the United States, too. They charged that his ``trickle down'' economics -- the idea that everyone benefits when those at the top of the salary ladder pay less in taxes and keep more money -- was a sham and a cynical slap in the face to America's poor. They howled that his romantic notion of returning America to an earlier, simpler time hinted at a desire to erase decades of social reform.

Remembering him Saturday, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said, ``I don't think anybody has ever lived more of the American Dream.'' The Democrat credited him for policies that led to the fall of the Soviet Union, but said his economic strategy led to huge federal budget deficits.

``He was not one who believed much in social policy,'' she said. ``What he always said was the problem was government itself.''

For most Americans, Ronald Wilson Reagan was ``Dutch,'' ``the Gipper,'' the guy who stood in Berlin and demanded: ``Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!'' -- then watched a few years later when the wall was torn down.

`Great Communicator'

And, perhaps most important, he was ``the Great Communicator,'' a president who was so affable and so connected to the public, even his political opponents found it hard not to like him.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who molded his campaign for governor on Reaganesque themes, said in a statement Saturday, ``He had the courage to tell us that it was all right to stand tall and believe in our country, and believe in ourselves.''

Born poor but blessed with a magnetic personality, Reagan succeeded at almost everything he ever tried -- sports, radio, acting, politics -- before twice winning election as president of the United States.

A ruggedly handsome man who looked as good in denim as in a tuxedo, he turned charm into a political intoxicant. He loved to smile and tell jokes. His easy, avuncular manner and his warm, husky voice helped persuade people to trust and believe in him.

He stood for clear, firm principles -- individual liberty, small government, free markets, low taxes, anti-communism and military strength. He presented his views with such seemingly selfless patriotism that many who disagreed nonetheless respected his sincerity.

``Reagan was the ultimate hero because he was everything in one package,'' said Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speechwriter and now a Hoover Institution fellow at Stanford University. ``He was a genuine conservative. He was not defensive about being conservative. In fact, he was joyful about it.''

Reagan became such an icon of modern conservatives that few remember he was once a liberal Democrat who supported President Harry Truman.

He survived the Iran-Contra affair, one of the most serious political scandals after Watergate, almost unscathed. While critics blamed him for aggravating the nation's divide between rich and poor, he left office with the highest public-approval rating of any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Born in 1911 in a small Illinois town, Reagan grew up with an alcoholic father. Determined to escape his roots, he won a sports scholarship to Eureka College, where he majored in economics and sociology. He washed dishes to pay bills. He turned a Depression-era radio sports-announcing job into a springboard to Hollywood fame and fortune.

Graduating in June 1932, Reagan didn't let the Depression stop him from finding a part-time radio job announcing sports in nearby Davenport, Iowa. Soon he was working full time, and before long was winning regional attention at a station out of Des Moines. In 1937, he went to Southern California to cover the Chicago Cubs in spring training. Upon his arrival, a friend introduced him to an actors' agent, who got him a screen test, which won him a $200-a-week movie contract. He was on his way.

His athletic good looks and Midwestern sincerity helped make him a leading man. Among his most notable films were ``Kings Row'' (his favorite), ``Brother Rat,'' ``Dark Victory,'' ``Knute Rockne -- All American'' and ``Bedtime for Bonzo,'' the latter making him the butt of a running joke when he reached political prominence.

Weak eyesight kept him out of combat in World War II. He made Army training films while living at home with his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, whom he had married in 1940. After giving birth to daughter Maureen in 1941 and adopting son Michael in 1945, Wyman slowly grew distant from Reagan, divorcing him, to his great regret, in 1948.

One reason for their estrangement was Reagan's growing immersion in union politics. In 1947, he began serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild, a post he held for six terms. It put him in the center of union rivalries involving both mobsters and communists, and fueled his interest in public affairs beyond movies.

A Democrat then, he campaigned for Truman in 1948.

He found the great love of his life, actress Nancy Davis, in 1951, and married her the following year. Daughter Patricia was born in 1952, son Ronald in 1958.

After a successful 29-year career in movies and on television, at age 53 he turned his energies to politics full time, and quickly became the inspirational leader of conservative Republicans nationwide.

Reagan combined his interests in theater and public affairs in a new role with General Electric from 1954 to 1962, which spurred his transformation into a conservative. Every Sunday night, he hosted ``General Electric Theater'' on television. As a GE spokesman, he toured company plants and communities around the country. Always staunchly anti-communist, he increasingly championed core conservative values in his speeches, based on rescuing people from big government.

National following

By the late 1950s, he was the second-most-sought-after speaker in the country, behind only Dwight Eisenhower. Biographers have written that Nancy Reagan's conservatism also influenced her husband. With her, he met conservative Barry Goldwater in 1960 at a party and began to warm to his ideas. It came as no surprise when he switched to the Republican Party in 1962, about the time California Republicans were casting about for a challenger to Gov. Edmund G. ``Pat'' Brown.

Reagan's steep trajectory from political novice to president relied on the serendipity of timing and a cache of California millionaires, who broke new ground in the packaging and selling of their candidate. The Los Angeles group behind him became his ``kitchen cabinet,'' and many of its members followed Reagan to Washington, taking ideas tested in California to a national level.

From his first step into political prominence -- the televised 1964 speech for Republican presidential nominee Goldwater -- Reagan was crystal clear about his agenda: emasculating big government. It was a radical notion in a time when many Americans remembered New Deal largess as their lifeline out of the Depression and were confident that the Great Society could end poverty in their lifetimes.

``No government voluntarily reduces itself in size,'' he said in the speech. ``A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!''

Reagan won his first try at public office, beating Brown to become California's governor in a 1966 landslide. Efforts to portray him as a dangerous conservative, a Vietnam hawk, failed, as they did later when he reached the national stage. He was as much centrist as conservative as governor -- restraining spending, reforming welfare, expanding parkland and liberalizing California's abortion law.

After two terms as California's governor, Reagan rolled over George Bush, John Connally and Howard Baker to win the Republican nomination for president in 1980. That autumn, President Jimmy Carter portrayed him as a reckless would-be warrior, but Reagan's genial warmth blunted the attack when they met in a face-to-face debate a week before the election.

After one hyperbolic Carter attack on his character, Reagan replied mildly and memorably, seemingly more in sorrow than in anger: ``There you go again.''

The Californian clinched the debate, and probably the election, with his summary question to voters: ``Are you better off now than you were four years ago?''

Reagan's presidency was almost cut short on March 30, 1981, when would-be assassin John W. Hinckley Jr., a 25-year-old drifter, shot him in the chest. A bullet came to rest an inch from his heart and caused massive internal bleeding.

As his life hung in the balance, Reagan's gallant emergency-room wit won the hearts of his fellow citizens.

``Honey, I forgot to duck,'' he told his worried wife, Nancy. ``Please tell me you're Republicans,'' he cracked to doctors preparing him for surgery.

Early highlights of his presidency included his ambitious 1981 tax-and-spending cuts; his appointment of the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, to the Supreme Court; and his breaking of an air-traffic controllers' strike by outlawing their union.

Four years later, he swept to a landslide re-election, winning 49 of 50 states over Walter Mondale. He left office in 1989 with the highest public-approval rating -- 63 percent in the Gallup Poll -- of any departing president since Roosevelt in 1945.

Reagan's popularity may have been uncontested during his presidency, but his record is getting mixed reviews in the history books.

He cut taxes and spending sharply upon taking power, but by the time he left office the government was bigger and spent more than ever -- and the national debt had tripled.

He calmly counseled patience through the nation's worst recession since the 1930s, then presided over one of the richest periods of prosperity in history, but did little to shrink the growing gap between rich and poor.

He greatly strengthened the military, then helped end the Cold War by boldly striking agreements with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear arsenals for the first time.

Symbolic achievements

Reagan's greatest achievements are arguably symbolic, perhaps even spiritual. He renewed the American spirit of can-do optimism after almost 20 years of doldrums from Vietnam, Watergate, economic stagnation and weak leadership.

He reinvigorated the Republican Party and led it to an era of dominance, and his conservative values reshaped American politics. Democrats could not win the presidency again until Bill Clinton amended liberal ideology in 1992 to echo such Reaganesque themes as cutting taxes, fighting crime, reforming welfare and shrinking government.

Like the sign on his Oval Office desk -- IT CAN BE DONE -- Reagan returned optimism to a nation worried over gas shortages and double-digit inflation, humiliated by foreign terrorists who held American hostages in Iran for more than a year, and humbled by a decade of racial and intergenerational tumult. While Carter spoke of ``an erosion of our confidence in the future,'' Reagan said it was ``morning in America.''

``Over time, he converted much of the country to his own views and values. His more important legacy is how much he changed our minds,'' suggested David Gergen, formerly Reagan's communications director.

Reagan's aides called him ``the Great Communicator.'' Reagan didn't invent the presidential radio chat, but he used it more effectively than anyone since its inventor -- FDR.

But his masterful public leadership was not matched by managerial prowess.

Reagan's gravest error as president was the Iran-Contra affair. It involved repeated sales of weapons to Iran from mid-1985 to late 1986, directly violating his prominent stand against arming nations that sponsor terrorism, especially Iran.

He hoped the arms sales would help free U.S. hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian terrorists, and also might ease relations with Iran, a hostile power. Instead, they led to more hostages being kidnapped than released.

The other half of this double-barreled scandal involved diverting profits from the weapons sales to help finance anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua -- the Contras -- despite a law ruling out U.S. aid to them.

After months of public denial, on March 4, 1987, Reagan admitted in a TV address that he had tried to swap arms for hostages. He termed it ``a mistake.'' He always denied knowledge of the Contra connection, however, and investigations never proved he knew of it. Nevertheless, the Iran-Contra affair wounded his credibility and undermined his second term.

Critics said the Iran-Contra scandal revealed a Reagan flaw. Both as governor and as president, Reagan was highly dependent upon his staff, to whom he delegated an unusual degree of responsibility for running the government. He set the broad thematic agenda and made the big decisions, but he knew few details about the government he headed.

Desire to delegate

``He thought of himself as the leading man, not the producer or the director, and he usually counted on his aides and sometimes on his wife to know what was best for him,'' wrote Lou Cannon, his most authoritative biographer. ``Reagan thought in terms of performance, and those closest to him approached his presidency as if it were a series of productions casting Reagan in the starring role.''

Unlike many of the nation's chief executives, the presidency did not burden him.

He typically slept eight hours a night and worked 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with Wednesday afternoons off. ``Show me an executive who works long overtime hours, and I'll show you a bad executive,'' he said more than once.

In that spirit, Reagan spent 183 weekends over the years at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md., and 345 days of his presidency at Rancho del Cielo, his rustic home outside Santa Barbara.

But from his inauguration, Reagan doggedly made sure his agenda survived. He realized his tax-reduction dream with a three-stage tax cut -- the largest in history -- early in his presidency.

The cuts, according to ``Reaganomics,'' would free up money for business and individual investment, and the resultant prosperity would ``trickle down'' to the more modest levels of society. He also began beefing up the military in preparation for a showdown with the Soviet Union.

In practice, cutting taxes while simultaneously mounting the biggest peacetime defense buildup in history meant slashing social programs for the poor and lower middle class while creating an unparalleled national debt. Social programs continued to suffer after Reagan left office as his successors struggled to balance the federal budget he had upended.

As the consequences of the domestic policies became evident, critics said Reagan was turning a blind eye to the suffering of everyday Americans and either did not, or would not, recognize the problems before him. But for many, all that mattered less than his leadership.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher summed up Reagan's legacy this way as he prepared to step down from power:

``You have changed attitudes and perceptions about what is possible -- the most difficult thing of all in politics. And you have done it not by bowing to the wishes and whims of others, but by standing firm in your beliefs.''

``It's as if you had said at the beginning of your life in politics: `This I believe. This I act upon. This I will always believe. This I will always act upon.' And thank goodness you have,'' said Thatcher, his fellow conservative, great friend and closest ally.

Reagan left the presidency to George Bush, his vice president, in January 1989 and avoided public life thereafter.

Two years later, special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh interviewed Reagan about the Iran-Contra affair. He was saddened to find that Reagan could not remember many of the people who had worked for him for eight years. Neither could he remember heads of state or important diplomatic trips he'd made.

``It's like I wasn't president at all,'' Reagan said, according to Bob Woodward's book ``Shadow.''

The strapping Reagan, always the picture of vigor, shocked the nation in 1994 with the release of a handwritten letter from him to ``My fellow Americans.'' In the letter, he announced he had Alzheimer's disease, an incurable brain affliction.

Alzheimer's is an irreversible neurological disorder that causes progressive memory loss, impairment of judgment, disorientation and personality change. Reagan had displayed striking gaps of memory and occasional befuddlement since early middle age, but a statement his doctors released along with his letter said an annual exam had revealed that he was ``entering the early stages of this disease.''

Reagan's letter expressed hope that by disclosing his malady, people might better understand the illness and people afflicted by it.

``I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience,'' Reagan wrote. ``I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.

``I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.''

Mercury News archives, Staff Writers Jim Puzzanghera, David E. Early, retired political editor Harry Farrell and Knight Ridder contributed to this report. Contact Howard Mintz at or (408) 286-0236.