Exhibits, festivities to mark 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth

The National Archives will feature a small, changing selection of rarely displayed original documents and objects in recognition of the Ronald Reagan Centennial. The display opens Jan. 7, 2011.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 10:16 PM

A 55-foot float featuring black-and-white photographs, a bald eagle sculpture and the red roses he declared America's national flower traveled through Pasadena, Calif., during the New Year's Day Rose Parade. Eastern European cities once under Soviet domination will hoist statues in public squares. Closer to home, Reagan National Airport will unveil its own bronze likeness on its main road.

Plans for President Ronald Reagan's centennial birthday celebration in the United States - and around the world - appear to match the outsized personality of the man who occupied the White House from 1981 to 1989.

Events are planned from Washington to Prague to mark the 100th anniversary of the 40th president's birth Feb. 6, an extravaganza that kicks off locally Friday with a rare public display at the National Archives of memorabilia recalling Reagan's foreign policy.

The archives will rotate several themed exhibits over the course of the year. Among the artifacts first going on display are a copy of Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech with his own handwritten changes; some of his correspondence with Mikhail Gorbachev; and a bronze cast of the Kremlin.

A stamp featuring Reagan in a relaxed pose set against a mountain backdrop is set for release by the U.S. Postal Service Feb. 10. A gala for congressional leaders, foreign dignitaries and former members of his administrationis planned for May at the Reagan Building in downtown Washington. A joint session of Congress honoring him is in the planning stages, as are academic conferences to discuss his legacy. So far, governors of eight states, from Virginia to Hawaii, have agreed to issue proclamations in his honor.

The Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., will mark the centennial with a massive renovation that will include 26,000 square feet of new space and interactive exhibits. And on Super Bowl Sunday, which falls on Reagan's birthday, there will be a special tribute during the game at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, but the details are so far a tightly kept secret.

"For us it's a very important milestone," said John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. "It's a platform for us to get his message out and reinforce what he stood for."

The centennial's theme, agreed on by foundation officials and a bipartisan commission created by Congress, is "Ronald Reagan: Inspired Freedom, Changed the World"- a reference not just to his presiding over the end of the Cold War, Heubusch said, but also to "freedom from high taxes, high federal spending and useless regulations . . . It's relevant in today's debate, as people try to divine a way out of the economic mess we're in."

Later this month, the Heritage Foundation think tank will host a retreat at the Reagan Library for conservative members of the new Congress.

This is the country's 11th presidential centennial since 1950, and organizers assert that it will be the biggest, in part because it is entirely funded by private money. Heubusch declined to say how much has been raised beyond "millions and millions of dollars."

The single largest gift, $15 million, came from General Electric. From 1954 to 1962, Reagan hosted the weekly television series General Electric Theater and traveled as a GE spokesman to manufacturing plants. Reagan punctuated each spot with GE's tag line at the time: "Progress is Our Most Important Product."

Three decades later, he delivered the famous line declaring the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire" in a 1983 speech arguing against a nuclear freeze by the United States and Russia that was under consideration in Congress. The handwritten changes to the copy on display at the archives show how involved he was in determining his administration's foreign policy, said Mike Duggan, chief archivist of the Reagan Library.

"We tried to find things like this that the president actually saw and touched," Duggan said. "That's the kind of thing the public likes to see. Personal involvement."

Also on display are fragments of U.S. and Soviet missiles that were destroyed after the superpowers signed a treaty eliminating a class of superweapons.

Several capitals of countries in the former Soviet bloc, including Prague and Budapest, are planning centennial celebrationswith academic conferences and statues.

"A good number of people we're dealing with were in prison or threatened during Reagan's presidency," Heubusch said. "They're very emotional about this."

Reagan was born Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill., and died June 5, 2004, in Bel Air, Calif., at the age of 93.

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