By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2004
Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th president of the United States, who transformed the Republican Party and substantially defined the terms of contemporary political debate during two momentous terms in office, died yesterday afternoon. He was 93.
Ten years after Reagan announced his Alzheimer's disease in an open letter to the American people, he reached the end of his long twilight at his home in Bel Air, Calif., in the company of his wife and their children.
"My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has passed away," former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a written statement. "We appreciate everyone's prayers."
President Bush received the news shortly after 4 p.m. Eastern time; he was in Paris and had just left a dinner with French President Jacques Chirac. In Washington and California, plans were quickly implemented for the capital's first presidential funeral in more than 30 years.
Plans call for Reagan's body to lie at his presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., early this week and then travel by Air Force One to Washington on Wednesday, where he will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Late in the week, probably Friday, there will be a funeral procession with horse-drawn caisson from the Capitol to a spot near the White House. From there, a hearse will carry the casket to Washington National Cathedral for a funeral officiated by the newly nominated ambassador to the United Nations, John C. Danforth, an Episcopalian minister and a former Republican senator from Missouri.
The body will then be flown back to California to be buried at the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
Official plans will be announced this morning, a library spokesman said.
"This is a sad hour in the life of America," 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, 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."
It was an almost unbelievable life, a melodrama, a rags-to-riches tale, a multi-part saga written by someone with boundless imagination and an infinite sense of the possible. Born in tiny Tampico, Ill., educated at Eureka College in nearby Dixon, Reagan was a radio sportscaster, a Hollywood B-movie star, host of a TV variety show, a soap salesman, a motivational speaker, governor of California and -- starting at age 53 -- arguably the most important American political figure since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
So it was no wonder that he believed all things were possible, from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he predicted even when the clash of superpowers seemed near its most menacing point, to the complete disarmament of all nuclear arsenals, which Reagan proposed in a stunning arms-control summit near the end of his administration. What seemed to some as naivete struck others as good old gumption.
Reagan was a champion salesman of the American dream, mayor-for-life of the land he called "a shining city on a hill."
Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry said, "Ronald Reagan's love of country was infectious," and he praised the late president for his "goodwill in the heat of partisan battle."
"Even when he was breaking Democrats' hearts, he did so with a smile and in the spirit of honest and open debate. Despite the disagreements, he lived by that noble ideal that at 5 p.m., we weren't Democrats or Republicans, we were Americans and friends," said the senator from Massachusetts.
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."
Dogged by worries about his age during his reelection campaign, he promised during a presidential debate: "I am not going to exploit for political gain my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Comforting a nation stunned by the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, he said: "Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue."
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, 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."
Reagan's legacy can be seen in the current White House, where his example is revered; in Congress, where Reagan Republicans captured control of the House in 1994 and have held it ever since; and on the Supreme Court, where Reagan appointees hold the balance of power on most issues. (He filled four vacancies, elevating William H. Rehnquist to chief justice and adding Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia.)
He left the public eye in 1994, soon after attending the funeral of Richard M. Nixon, the last president to die.
Reagan's farewell note to his fellow citizens was his final masterpiece. "I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience," he wrote in the same small, neat hand he used for thousands of personal letters. "When the time comes I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage."
In a recent speech promoting stem cell research, Nancy Reagan said her husband had been for several years "in a distant place where I can no longer reach him." Death in Alzheimer's disease usually results from the accumulated effects of immobility, disordered swallowing and malnutrition. Pneumonia is often the immediate cause of death. The stress of illness can also worsen underlying cardiovascular disease, triggering heart attacks or strokes. Alzheimer's is now the eighth-leading cause of death in the United States, and its rate is rising.
"In closing let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President," Reagan wrote 10 years ago. "When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future."
Staff writer David Brown contributed to this report.