Ronald Reagan Dies
Like all forceful leaders, Reagan deeply angered some -- but his gift for communication and his bedrock optimism attracted far more supporters than critics. In 1984, he was reelected with the largest number of popular and electoral votes in U.S. history. Though the nation has added about 50 million people since then, no candidate has surpassed his record. His electoral vote landslide that year was among the most lopsided in history.
He entered the White House older than any previous occupant, and yet as the candidate of fresh ideas, from supply-side economics to welfare reform. He intrigued and imprinted students of the 1980s much as John F. Kennedy had done for the previous generation, dispatching them into the mills of commerce rather than the halls of government.
It had been 20 years since a president had completed two full terms. Five administrations had been cut short: by assassination, Vietnam, Watergate, rampant inflation and civic malaise. In a sense, Reagan's signal achievement was that he restored in Americans their hope for normalcy.
"He got the country to believe in itself again," his longtime aide Michael K. Deaver said in an interview before Reagan's death.
Beyond that, experts argue over his record. Among the ranks of Republican conservatives who live and breathe Reagan's catechism of low taxes, small government, unregulated liberty and a strong military, he is rated one of the most important presidents in U.S. history. They credit him with winning the Cold War.
"Ronald Reagan was a president of great historic impact who led the United States with strength and conviction, and the positive impact of his policies is still felt today here and around the world," Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie said. "Because Ronald Reagan lived, people across the globe live in greater freedom and prosperity."
Reagan's critics acknowledge that he dramatically recast the nation's political agenda, replacing the aging New Deal consensus with an entirely new language. But they see little good coming from it.
As Walter Williams, professor emeritus of the University of Washington, put it in a recent book, "Reaganism -- with its antigovernment, antiregulation, antitax, and probusiness philosophy -- achieved its objective of hamstringing the federal institutions concerned with domestic policy." Williams blames failures from the Enron scandal to inadequate airport security on that achievement.
In a recent history of the Republican Party, Lewis L. Gould of the University of Texas rates Reagan as the most important president in terms of his influence over the party, but gives him a more mixed report as chief executive. "Reagan stands supreme as the embodiment of GOP virtues and conservative ideals," he wrote. "Reagan transformed the Republican Party into a conservative unit with a diminishing band of moderates on its fringes. . . . Reagan thus serves as a talisman of what it means to be a Republican."
Reagan's successor, president George H.W. Bush, quickly discovered just how deeply Reagan had carved the new creed into Republican stone. Bush's decision to raise taxes as part of a broad budget deal with congressional Democrats outraged the GOP base and crippled his bid for reelection in 1992.
Gould added, however, that "when hard choices loomed, Reagan and the people around him preferred a conservatism of gestures rather than one of substance."
At the end of his presidency, Reagan lamented that he had not substantially cut domestic spending, despite years of rhetoric, nor had he come close to balancing the federal budget.
Unquestioned was Reagan's ability to connect with the American public through formal speeches, offhand remarks, even mere gestures. He was the most effective presidential communicator since Roosevelt and probably one of three greatest to hold the office -- Abraham Lincoln, master of the written speech; Roosevelt, master of the radio address; and Reagan, master of television.
Wounded in an assassination attempt shortly after taking office in 1981, Reagan quipped, "I forgot to duck."
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