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A Presidency Characterized by Paradox

Certainly no more improbable star has crossed the American political firmament than Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California and 40th president of the United States. Reagan left the presidency in January 1989, the only modern president to emerge from office more popular than when he entered. He was the eternal optimist, amiable but stubborn. He put a happy face on even the grimmest realities, often relying on dubious anecdotes and statistics. He romanticized the past and drew on an essential American optimism about the future. Reagan was perhaps the ultimate television president, a man schooled not in gritty precinct politics but in Hollywood movie acting.

Instead of enjoying twilight years as an adored elder statesman of the Republican Party, however, he began a long descent into the nothingness of Alzheimer's. As the disease advanced he was increasingly out of sight, yet his conservative ideology became a permanent fixture of politics.

Reagan's fiercely protective wife, Nancy, kept the descent of his mind mostly private. But in a speech in May she pleaded to President Bush for looser reins on stem cell research, which could lead to therapies against Alzheimer's. She sadly described her husband as being "in a distant place where I can no longer reach him."

His death at 93 came Saturday.

As president, Reagan was genial, ever-smiling — ignoring unpleasant facts, idealizing hopeful fantasies. He was supremely suited to take advantage of the electronic media that now dominate and shape modern political dialogue, placing image over substance. He brought to his White House tenure the grit, drama, pathos and courage of a Wild West movie hero, surviving an assassination attempt and a bout with cancer. Even detractors said that Reagan, who was notoriously detached and inattentive to the details of the presidency, was essentially playing his best role ever. "He is the ideal past, the successful future, the hopeful present, all in one," wrote the historian Gary Wills. Bush's admiration of Reagan is evident in his similarly sunny, uncomplicated style.

The mark of Reagan's presidency was paradox. Having campaigned as an implacable foe of government deficit spending, he left office with a federal debt that was nearly triple its level when he was inaugurated. He succumbed, as Bush has, to the fallacious "supply side" economic notion that government revenues rise if taxes are cut. He reviled the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" but ultimately met repeatedly with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and worked out a detente that led in the end to the fall of communism.

A New Deal Democrat in his youth, Reagan was in the vanguard of the Republican conservative revolution that is today the Republican establishment. Although he vowed to shrink government and eliminate Cabinet departments, he wound up adding one, the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Reagan, the first former union president (of the Screen Actors Guild) to win the White House, earned union enmity, although wide public praise, for firing striking air controllers in 1981, ultimately destroying their union. While espousing basic small-town American values, he was a divorced man with estranged children. His rhetoric against nascent Middle Eastern terrorism notwithstanding, his administration undertook to supply arms and spare parts to Iran in an arms-for-hostages deal that seriously undermined his second term. The oldest president ever, he appealed especially to young voters.

Hero though Reagan was to so many Americans, his legacy is marred. Economically, the Reagan years were epitomized by a freewheeling entrepreneurialism and free spending. But the affluent got more affluent and the poor got poorer. The number of families living below the poverty line increased by one-third. The Reagan administration's zeal for deregulation of industry helped create the savings and loan debacle, which left taxpayers holding the bag for billions of dollars in losses. All of this presaged a recurring malaise among American workers, who continue to see jobs lost to corporate downsizing and outsourcing.

His administration's resistance to federal hegemony in social issues led to significant retreats in civil rights. And Reagan's political caution on the AIDS scourge — an attitude driven by the connection to homosexuality — allowed valuable years to pass before the federal government took an assertive role in researching and preventing the disease.

The old Reagan has been gone for years, hidden within an irreversible fog. But he changed American politics for the long term. Enduring as well is the image: the cowboy hat, the genuine smile, hand aloft in greeting. Even his politics were friendly compared with today's, a lesson to those who hope for as big a legacy.

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This Times editorial appears in the news section because the Sunday Opinion section was printed before the news of Reagan's death.

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