Ronald Wilson Reagan, who helped to end the Cold War abroad and start a conservative revolution at home, died yesterday after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 93.
The life of the 40th president of the United States was a drama that exceeded any of those he played during his days as a Hollywood actor.Not entering politics until he was well into his 50s, dismissed by his detractors as too old and too conservative and too uninformed, he won the nation's highest office twice by landslides, changing some of the presumptions of American politics.
Reagan died at 4 p.m. at his Los Angeles home of pneumonia complicated by Alzheimer's, said Joanne Drake, who represents the family. He was the longest-lived U.S. president.
"We appreciate everyone's prayers," his wife, Nancy, said in a statement.
Nancy Reagan, along with children Ron and Patti Davis, were at the couple's Los Angeles home when Reagan died of pneumonia complicated by Alzheimer's disease, Drake said. Son Michael arrived a short time later, she said.
The flag over the White House was lowered to half staff within an hour.
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. The body was to be returned to California for a sunset burial at his library.
Although fiercely protective of Reagan's privacy, Nancy Reagan had let people know his 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."
When Reagan relinquished the White House on Jan. 20, 1989, to his vice president and chosen successor, George H.W. Bush, he had returned stability to the presidency, the first man since Dwight Eisenhower to serve two full terms. Moreover, Reagan had fostered a generation of politicians who would usher in George W. Bush's presidency, the Republican ascendancy in Congress and American triumphalism abroad.
Although Reagan was the leader of the anti-Communist right and spared no criticism of what was then the Soviet Union during his first term, when he left office he had met more times than any president with a Soviet leader -- Mikhail Gorbachev. And during a visit to Moscow, when Reagan strolled on Red Square, he concluded with Gorbachev an unprecedented treaty to abolish hundreds of intermediate-range nuclear weapons.
To Republicans, Reagan is the man who triggered the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, and eventually the collapse of Soviet communism itself. "We meant to change a nation, and instead we changed a world," Reagan said in his Oval Office farewell to the nation.
Calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire" whose leaders gave themselves "the right to commit any crime," Reagan started a trillion-dollar arms buildup that, analysts say, caused the economic difficulties that sped up the Soviet collapse in 1991.
And while his final years were slowed by Alzheimer's, Reagan lived to see his country -- widely thought to be in decline when he assumed office -- re-emerge as the world's pre-eminent power, its economic, political and military strength unrivaled.
But that turnaround certainly came as no surprise to the ever-confident Reagan. In his first inaugural address, he exhorted his compatriots to "believe in ourselves and ... in our capacity to perform great deeds," to solve the problems then bedeviling the country. "And after all, why shouldn't we believe that?" he concluded. "We are Americans."
A polished image
Reagan's political prowess stemmed in part from the skills he had gained as a professional performer, using his husky, trained voice and comfortable manner as he made appeals directly to the American public for support of his often controversial policies. He was a master of television, delivering Oval Office speeches on issues from domestic budget cuts to Central American military aid. Despite the bemusement of some aides who questioned its importance, he also insisted on delivering a weekly radio address each Saturday.
He seemed almost impervious to attacks by congressional critics and others -- including two Democratic presidential opponents -- a characteristic that prompted creation by then-Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) of a moniker that stuck, the Teflon president.
He even endured a March 1981 assassination attempt with wisecracks and an easy grace, quipping to Nancy, "I forgot to duck," and to doctors as he was wheeled into surgery, "Tell me you're all Republicans." Four years later, in July 1985, he survived major surgery for colon cancer.
It all became part of the Reagan style: An "aw-shucks" manner, a bob of the head, a delight in the telling of stories, an affability that seldom wavered, at least in public, and an unabashed practice of delegating heavy responsibilities to aides. He himself tended to work a 9-to-6 day, taking several weeks off for vacation each summer and returning as often as possible to his beloved 688-acre ranch in the Santa Ynez Mountains near Santa Barbara, Calif., to ride horses and clear brush.
Reagan was careless with details and often wrong with facts, prompting account after account of mistakes he made in news conferences. He sometimes mistook one aide for another, at one meeting with mayors not recognizing his own secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A sizable number of his appointees left office after being accused of financial and other improprieties.
But he remained endlessly upbeat and confident of the direction he wanted the country to move, seemingly untouched by controversies and problems. Even those who disagreed with his policies openly admired his style and command.
Charting the nation's course
His opponents almost always underestimated him, a fact that frequently worked to his advantage. When he arrived in Washington as president in 1981, House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (D-Mass.) informed him he was in "the big leagues" now and would have to learn how the town worked. During the next 18 months, Reagan set a new national direction while O'Neill and other Democratic leaders struggled to pull themselves together from their campaign losses.
In his first year in office, he pushed through stunning tax reductions, cutbacks in federal domestic spending and a dramatic build-up in defense spending. Although in subsequent years resistance grew to both goals, he succeeded in presiding over two terms in which the spending priorities of the federal government were shifted. Not a single major new social program was enacted, and others were cut -- in part because of the huge budget deficits his across- the-board tax cuts had wrought.
In October 1986, he signed into law the most sweeping revision of the U.S. tax code in its history, cutting rates and eliminating many special preferences, a proposal he had made a centerpiece of his 1984 re-election campaign.
He had less overall success in foreign policy, battling an often-reluctant Congress to pursue more interventionist policies in Central America. Hopes that the progress of his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, would be continued in seeking a Mideast peace foundered during his administration, and Reagan's decision to send a peacekeeping force to strife-torn Lebanon ended in an embarrassing and costly retreat in early 1984 after 241 U.S. servicemen were killed in a terrorist bombing in Beirut.
Ultimately, Reagan's single-minded efforts to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua led to the worst crisis of his presidency -- the Iran- Contra affair. Frustrated by his inability to free Americans who had been kidnapped and were imprisoned in Beirut and despite early pledges of retribution against terrorists, he authorized a scheme to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the freedom of the hostages. And as a result of Reagan's determination to help the Nicaraguan rebels -- the Contras -- any way he could, high-ranking national security aides lied to Congress and converted profits from the Iran arms sales to the anti-Sandinista forces.
Revelations about the arms-for-hostages swap and the links to the questionable support of the Contras exploded in scandal in November 1986, just as Republicans were losing the congressional elections and the control of the Senate that Reagan had enjoyed since 1981. And through much of 1987, despite a change of command on the White House staff, the administration seemed leaderless at times and was preoccupied with defending itself.
Reagan sought to quiet the storm by appointing a commission under the late former Texas Sen. John Tower to investigate the affair, but its conclusions were scathing. They placed the blame on Reagan for not knowing or paying attention to what his highest aides were doing in his name.
Perhaps his most popular move abroad was the decision in October 1983 to send U.S. Marines to put down what he saw as a leftist threat in Grenada, a tiny Caribbean island previously little noticed by Americans.
Raising the conservative flag
While his most fervent core of supporters included so-called New Right conservatives who emphasized social issues such as abortion and school prayer, Reagan during his two terms delivered rhetoric but little action to them.
He did, however, appoint two new conservative justices to the Supreme Court -- Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman ever appointed to the high court, and Antonin Scalia, the first Italian-American -- and elevated the most conservative associate justice, William Rehnquist, to chief justice of the United States. Reagan lost in the Senate a bitter battle about another high court nominee, Conservative Robert Bork. But his subsequent nominee, Anthony Kennedy, was confirmed and went on to strengthen the conservative tilt of the court, as reflected in decisions restricting abortion rights and affirmative action. Reagan also appointed what was then a majority of the nation's federal judges to lower courts.
And under Reagan, conservatism became downright fashionable. Conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation thrived, and a new generation of conservatives got on-the-job training in his administration. He was elected and re-elected with the help of a distinctly Reagan coalition of Christian fundamentalists, disaffected blue-collar Democrats and young professionals.
The Democratic coalition first formed by Franklin D. Roosevelt that had ruled American politics for a half-century was shaken at its foundations, and to the delight of Republicans, Reagan raised the possibility of making the GOP the nation's majority party again. Led by conservatives casting themselves as Reagan's heirs, the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in 1994. The Democrats recaptured the White House in 1992 and held it in 1996 only with a nominee, Bill Clinton, who moved his party well to the right of its previous orientation.
And the victories of George W. Bush in 2000 and his party in the 2002 midterm elections confirmed the Republican ascendancy -- as well as Reagan's enduring influence on a new generation of conservative political leaders. Nevertheless, the glow of the Reagan years was dimmed, not only by the large scandal of Iran-Contra, but by smaller ones involving dozens of administration officials who resigned, were fired or prosecuted. And Reagan's legacy suffered with revelations of greed in the programs of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the troubles of the savings and loan industry.
But Reagan's personal popularity remained high, for as author Garry Wills wrote in "Reagan's America," reality doesn't necessarily get in the way of how the nation sees Reagan.
'Tom Sawyer' childhood
His father immediately dubbed his newborn son "Dutch," a nickname that was to endure for the rest of his life. The future president was born on Feb. 6, 1911, in a five-room flat over the Pitney General Store in Tampico, Ill., the second son of Nelle Wilson Reagan, a religious woman whose memory he revered, and Jack Edward Reagan, a shoe salesman and an alcoholic. One of his strongest early memories, related in his autobiography, "Where's the Rest of Me?" was coming home at age 11 to find his father "drunk" and "dead to the world" on the front porch. The elder Reagan lost his job one Christmas Eve during the Depression, eventually getting a patronage job in Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration.
But Ronald Reagan, ever the optimist, described his boyhood as "one of those rare Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn idylls" marked by little money, old-fashioned values, "woods and mysteries hunting and fishing." His mother also took him to hear the speakers at local chautauquas, popular turn-of-the-century gatherings that attracted famous persons and cultural activities to summer campsites.
He graduated from a small Christian Church school, Eureka College, in Dixon, Ill., receiving a degree in economics and sociology he was later to describe jokingly as "honorary," given his greater interest in sports and student activities than academics. While his grades were only average, he was student body president, swimming team captain and a member of the football team.
Graduating in the midst of the Depression, in 1932, he landed a job as a radio sports announcer, first at WOO in Davenport, Iowa, then at WHO in Des Moines, providing play-by-play for University of Iowa football games and Chicago Cubs baseball games.
An actor and family man
While visiting Hollywood for spring training with the Chicago Cubs in 1937, he took a screen test at Warner Bros. and launched a new career, his second of several. In his first role, in a forgettable movie titled "Love Is on the Air," Reagan played a radio announcer. About 50 other movies followed in which he played a gangster, a college football star, a Navy war hero, a chimpanzee's companion, a playboy and even a Secret Service agent, achieving popularity but never becoming a top star. His most famous roles were in "King's Row" and "Knute Rockne -- All American," in which he played Notre Dame football star George Gipp.
Some of his most famous political lines came from his days as an actor -- he repeatedly borrowed Rockne's exhortation to "win one for the Gipper" -- and he seemed to prefer reminiscences about Hollywood to political stories even after becoming president. Actors and actresses were heavily represented at state dinners during his White House tenure.
In 1940, he married actress Jane Wyman, who during his presidency more than 40 years later would star in the popular television series "Falcon Crest." They had a daughter, Maureen, born in 1941, and an adopted son, Michael, born in 1945, who now hosts a popular conservative-oriented talk radio program. Maureen Reagan died of cancer in 2001.
That marriage ended in divorce in 1948, and in 1952 he married actress Nancy Davis. Their two children are Patti Davis, born in 1952, an author and once an aspiring actress, and Ron, born in 1958, a television personality and writer. While their children were sometimes estranged from their parents, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, often pictured holding hands, were virtually inseparable. And her role as perhaps his closest adviser became a matter of controversy, especially when it was disclosed that she consulted an astrologer. More recently, Nancy Reagan has made news for her support of funding for embryo stem cell research, which she says may help prevent diseases such as Alzheimer's. The Bush administration opposes the research.
During World War II, Reagan was assigned to a unit making training films for the Army Air Forces. Afterward, he found his roles improving and his salary increasing, but discovered much of his income was taken by taxes and tax surcharges left over from the war. That experience reportedly contributed to his increasing conservatism and his conviction 30 years later that high tax rates discouraged workers from trying to earn more money.
His conservatism also was encouraged by his involvement in the Screen Actors Guild, which he served as president from 1947 to 1952. He fought what he saw as an attempt by Communists to take over the movie business, testifying as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In the 1950s, no longer attracting leading-man parts, he appeared as host of television's "General Electric Theater" and then "Death Valley Days." He became well known for his conservative views as he delivered speeches at GE plants, finally changing his party registration in 1962 to Republican from Democrat. He had gone from what he called a "near-hopeless, hemophiliac liberal" Democrat to conservative Republican.
Springboard into politics
In 1948 he supported Democrat Harry S. Truman for president but by 1952 he was backing Republican Dwight Eisenhower, and in 1964 he was to deliver what is still considered one of the most powerful political appeals ever made, a last-minute fund-raising speech for Republican candidate Barry Goldwater.
That political debut came on Oct. 27, 1964, with a televised appeal in which Reagan repeatedly quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt, declaring, "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny," and calling the United States "the only island of freedom that is left in the whole world." Goldwater went down to disastrous defeat a week later, but Reagan's political career was launched with that so-called prairie fire speech.
A few months later, a group of conservative California business leaders -- some of whom were to form a "kitchen cabinet" when Reagan became president -- approached Reagan to run for the California governorship against incumbent Edmund "Pat" Brown, the first of a series of political opponents who underestimated Reagan's appeal. Brown said the "notion" that Reagan could be governor was "absurd."
Reagan won that election by a million votes. Four years later, he won re-election against Democrat Jesse Unruh by about half that margin.
As governor, though he had campaigned on a promise not to raise taxes, Reagan faced a massive deficit and won approval of the biggest tax increase in the state's history. He signed a liberalized abortion law, a decision he later said he didn't fully understand and came to regret. He became an outspoken critic of student militants on college campuses.
He was considered a presidential possibility almost from the beginning, becoming a favorite-son candidate for the Republican nomination in 1968 and flirting with an all-out effort for the nomination against former Vice President Richard Nixon and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. In 1976, he ran hard against President Gerald Ford for the nomination and came close to winning it.
Four years later -- despite jibes that he was too old, too conservative and too long out of office -- he won the GOP nomination, beating back challenges from a half-dozen younger candidates, most notably George Bush.
With Bush as his running mate, Reagan then took on Carter, himself weakened by a primary challenge from Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. The turning point, many political experts believe, came late in the campaign at the sole debate between Carter and Reagan, when the incumbent seemed tense and driven and the challenger appeared relaxed and authoritative.
"Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" Reagan asked the audience in his closing comments -- a devastating line that was borrowed, it was later discovered, from a radio speech by Roosevelt.
Presidency of popularity
On Election Day, Reagan won 51 percent of the popular vote and 44 of the 50 states, an electoral-vote landslide that helped sweep into office a Republican- controlled Senate for the first time in nearly three decades and opened what partisans dubbed the "Reagan Revolution."
At age 69, he was the oldest person ever elected president. And, while he seemed to embody an earlier America of small towns and family values, he was also the first divorced president. He brought back liquor to White House functions -- Carter had served only wine -- and was known to enjoy an off-color joke. He almost never went to church, and his relations with his own children often were strained.
None of that seemed to affect his fatherly image or his standing among the so-called religious right -- or anyone else. Running for re-election in 1984, he lost only Minnesota, the home state of his opponent, Democrat Walter Mondale, who had served as Carter's vice president. He polled 59 percent of the vote.
Reagan's re-election seemed threatened only after he faltered in the candidates' first televised debate, looking confused and defensive and showing his age. But in the second and final debate, he came back with a patented Reaganism to a question about whether age should be a factor in voters' decisions.
"Not at all ... " he said, in a quip some thought sewed up his victory. "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
One sign of his phenomenal personal popularity was the boomlet of support -- fueled in part by a fund-raising campaign by the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee -- that emerged during the 1986 midterm elections for repealing the 22nd Amendment. That amendment, passed by Republicans in the wake of Roosevelt's unprecedented fourth term, limits presidents to two terms each.
Despite their best efforts, both his Democratic opponents and his would-be Republican successors were at a loss to dissect Reagan's appeal. Part of it was his ability to communicate; part of it his obvious ease with himself; part of it his absolutely bedrock convictions and part his message that harks back to earlier, easier times and a nation without limits.
Henry Hugh Heclo, then a professor of government at Harvard University, described that message in a collection of essays on Reagan's legacy published by the Urban Institute in September 1986. He wrote, "To the experts who speak of limitations, economic contradictions, trade-offs, United States international decline, Reaganism offers the classic American response: Nuts."
Grim economic realities
Reagan's presidential campaigns and speeches gave not even lip service to the complexities of the modern world, and that was undeniably part of his appeal. "America is back and standing tall," he declared when he announced his bid for re-election, and his campaign ads -- soft-focus commercials that featured small-town parades and happy workers building houses -- ended with the slogan, "It's morning in America."
In fact, during his first term the country had been hit by the worst recession since the Depression. It was the only time during his term that Reagan's popularity fell precipitously, and Republicans suffered losses in the 1982 midterm elections. He was portrayed as a "rich man's president," out of touch with ordinary people.
During that recession, unemployment in major industrial cities was high, and thousands of blue-collar workers lost their jobs, some of them for good. In the rural Midwest then and for several years to follow, the falling value of land and falling export markets for agricultural products forced thousands of families off farms they had tilled for generations.
And America's poorest citizens saw benefits cut and programs trimmed as the Reagan administration's budget cuts -- nearly $50 billion the first year -- fell most heavily on the neediest. The "social safety net" Reagan had vowed to protect when he announced his first budget proposals was heavily weighted to middle-class entitlement programs, such as Social Security, rather than needs-tested programs for the poor, such as Aid to Families With Dependent Children.
In fact, throughout his political career, Reagan drew not only adulation but also ridicule and something close to contempt, with some critics portraying him as an "amiable dunce," in the words of the late longtime Democratic counselor Clark Clifford. Speaker O'Neill, who until his retirement at the end of the 1986 congressional session often served as the Democratic counterpoint to Reagan, said the president had forgotten his lower-class roots and abandoned the long-standing American commitment to help the less fortunate.
His mark on America
In assessing Reagan's legacy, contemporary historians disagree whether he in fact changed fundamentally the direction of the United States or whether he eventually would be seen as a sort of remarkable aberration in American politics.
He often was unable to transfer his personal popularity to his policies, including his determination to send military aid to Central America to fight what he saw as a Communist threat, and his belief in the possibilities of erecting a defensive "shield" against ballistic missiles over the United States -- a project revived in more modest scope by George W. Bush.
He quietly abandoned some of his campaign promises in the face of political reality, including pledges to abolish the Energy and Education departments. In 1980, he also had promised to balance the federal budget by the middle of his first term as he ridiculed Carter's double-digit deficits as unacceptable.
By the time Reagan ran for re-election in 1984, however, he had not simply failed to eliminate or reduce the national debt. He had nearly doubled it, fueled by the across-the-board tax cuts and the trillion-dollar defense buildup. During his second term, the federal debt reached $3 trillion, giving him the unwanted distinction of having amassed more debt than all 39 predecessors combined.
And while Reagan succeeded in reducing the welfare state, he did not eliminate its fundamentals. Because of congressional and public resistance, the basics -- Social Security, the civil-rights acts, consumer protection, federal aid to education -- remained on the books, albeit some of them funded at lower levels.
Still, he succeeded more than any other president since Roosevelt, the president to whom he was most often compared, in controlling the nation's political debate.
During his tenure, the discussion centered not on what new social programs should be tried but on what existing ones should be saved. And because of the continuing need to reduce the deficit that ballooned under Reagan, the discussion remained focused on that question for many years after he left office, until the economic boom of the 1990s temporarily eliminated the deficit.
While in office, he projected national self-confidence and authority abroad, ending what some had called the Vietnam syndrome of uncertainty and a sense of powerlessness. He launched a bombing raid on Libya in response to a terrorist attack on American servicemen. He ordered the invasion of Grenada and supported anti-government rebels in Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Afghanistan's Taliban rebels would later become foes of the United States for harboring terrorist Osama bin Laden, who launched the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on American soil.
Reagan rehabilitated the office of the presidency, which had been buffeted by two decades in which one president, Lyndon B. Johnson, had left office haunted by an unpopular war; another, Nixon, had been forced to resign in the midst of a political scandal; and a third, Carter, had seemed overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the office.
Ronald Wilson Reagan, by contrast, made it look easy.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times