The Reagan administration passes into the hands of history today, leaving vivid memories and a long legacy. When Ronald Wilson Reagan flies off to California this afternoon, he will be remembered as an amiable yet curiously stubborn man who inveighed against the works of government while restoring confidence in the presidency. Many Americans will miss him, and even some of those who won't appreciate his grace sense of style. As the first chief executive since Dwight D. Eisenhower to complete two terms, Reagan did much to restore the stability of the presidency. In the process he also challenged conventional notions of what it takes to be a successful president and redefined the nation's political agenda. Reagan will be remembered for heroism, humor, soaring rhetoric and silliness. He will be honored as the "Great Communicator" and scorned as a president who knew too little and relied too much on his cue cards. He leaves office with a remarkably high approval rating, but many Americans remain skeptical about the ultimate consequences of his economic policies and doubt his conflicting explanations of the Iran-contra affair. He is widely admired by a large majority of whites and distrusted by an even greater proportion of blacks. He is the oldest president in history, and his greatest following is among the young. Who will soon forget Reagan's courage and quips when a would-be assassin fired a bullet within an inch of his heart 70 days after he became president? Reagan captured the imagination of Americans with his one-liners in the emergency room, when he said to the surgeons who were preparing him for the operation, "Please tell me you're Republicans." Four years later he survived a major cancer operation and was riding the range again at his California six weeks later. And who will forget Reagan, certifiably the most anticommunist president in U.S. history, strolling with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Red Square and afterward proclaiming a "new era" in U.S.-Soviet relations? Reagan will be gone, all right, but he will not soon be forgotten. Long after his departure, Reagan's most significant policy imperatives will remain firmly embedded in the Bush presidency. Bush has a running start in U.S.-Soviet relations because of the ties forged between Reagan and Gorbachev. At home, Bush will be severely limited in launching any social initiatives to achieve the "kinder, gentler nation" he promised by an inheritance of mountainous national debt and unprecedented peacetime budget deficits. Facing these problems and opportunities left behind by Reagan will be such surviving stars of the old administration as Secretary of State James A. Baker III and budget director Richard G. Darman. In many ways, the new cabinet has an old Reagan look. Bush himself, proudly saddled with his Reaganesque pledge of no new taxes, is the most conspicuous element of the Reagan legacy. He was handpicked by Reagan as his running mate in 1980 for practical political reasons after an abortive effort to put former President Gerald R. Ford on the ticket collapsed of its own improbability. Reagan, perhaps recalling the memorable evening in Nashua, N.H., when he seized control of the microphone and the Republican presidential nomination from a hapless Bush, initially held a low opinion of his running mate. Only a few weeks before the Republican convention in Detroit, Reagan turned aside aides who were boosting Bush by saying, "He just melts under pressure." Once Reagan was in the White House, however, he developed a new appreciation of Bush, a loyalist with enormous government experience. Reagan, naive to the ways of Washington, was surprised when private conversations with aides and congressmen began popping up in print and on national television. He was even more surprised--and angered--when former aides and cabinet members created a minor cottage industry in scathing memoirs that tended to portray Reagan as ignorant and out of touch. Bush, totally dependent upon Reagan for any influence, commended himself to his boss with total loyalty. He defended most Reagan policies in public and kept quiet about his private talks with the president. Valuing this loyalty and reticence, Reagan came to think of Bush as a friend and trusted ally, then as his heir apparent. Perhaps he benefited more than is known from their weekly lunches where Bush, in Reagan's words, shared "his support, his friendship and his solid advice." In any event, the 77-year-old Reagan threw himself into the 1988 campaign, working nearly as hard for Bush as he had for his own reelection four years earlier. When a friend remarked to Reagan after the campaign that it would be sad to see him leave the White House, Reagan replied that he was leaving the presidency "in good hands." This willingness to leave the presidential stage without regret once the performance was over typified Reagan's unassuming approach to his job. Aides found him unfailingly courteous, if a bit detached. Both privately and in public he displayed a compelling, self-deprecating sense of humor of which his age and work habits were frequently the targets. This "regular guy" aspect of Reagan's personality may have been a principal reason for his popularity with the American people, whose affection for Reagan remained undisturbed by memoirs of his aides or the skepticism of the media. The bond between president and populace was highly personal and many thought it was based more on Reagan's values and character than his policies. The great American journalist Walter Lippmann, speaking of France's leader Charles de Gaulle, once said of him that it was not so much that De Gaulle was in France as it was that "France was in De Gaulle." In the same sense, it might be said that America is in Reagan, and everybody knows it. Reagan himself came to believe, or so he said, that Americans liked him because he liked them. But this mutual affection was not entirely mystical. It is also true, for most Americans, that economic times were better during the Reagan years. Those who did not share in the prosperity tended to be far more critical of Reagan than those who did. And when unemployment deepened and the economy staggered during the 1981-82 recession, Reagan's popularity plummeted, much as Eisenhower's had fallen during the recession of his presidency. The notion that Reagan was a "Teflon president" rather than just a highly popular one does not survive a close reading of the public opinion surveys. Through good times and bad, Reagan never thought of himself as a politician. He jumped on aides, a rarity in itself, if any one of them was witless enough to argue that a policy ought to be pursued or an intiative taken because of its political utility. Reagan's master political strategist Stu Spencer believes that Reagan formed a bond with the American people, usually understood their aspirations and did not trouble himself with ordinary political considerations. In this sense Reagan was truly the "citizen-politician" that he had advertised himself as in his first campaigns. "In White House meetings, it was striking how often we on the staff would become highly agitated by the latest news bulletins thinking how often his presidency was about to descend into a deep valley," wrote former White House communications director David Gergen in U.S. News and World Report. "Reagan saw the same events as nothing more than a bump in the road; things would get better tomorrow. His horizons were just not the same as ours." Reagan's horizons were so boundless they made him seem the youngest president since John F. Kennedy instead of the oldest American president of all time. He embodied dearly held national values and reflected them back to his audience, transforming the Oval Office into an electoric version of the "bully pulpit" celebrated by Theodore Roosevelt and perfected by cousin Franklin. Optimism and faith in the future were the most essential values. Reagan's favorite story, told so often even he reportedly grew tired of it, concerned an over-optimistic child whose parents tried to introduce to reality by leaving him in a room filled with horse manure. Undeterred, the boy happily shoveled through the manure, saying, "There's got to be a pony in here someplace." The story was a kind of self-assessment. A more deliberative one came from historian Garry Wills, who wrote of Reagan, "He is the ideal past, the successful future, the hopeful present all in one." It was Reagan's ability to share this past, present and future with other Americans that made him special. He rose to tense occasions with a quip and turned away hard questions with one-liners that delighted his supporters and infuriated his adversaries. Sometimes he groped for words. But there were also moments when he spoke to the hopes and fears of all Americans and became the great comforter in the Oval Office. The best of these moments may have been Jan. 28, 1986, after the Challenger disaster, when Reagan postponed his State of the Union address and in a brief and moving speech from the White House vowed to continue America's quest in space and assured a shaken nation that its "seven heroes" had not died in vain. "I know it's hard to understand that sometimes painful things like this happen," said Reagan. "It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery, it's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the faint-hearted, it belongs to the brave."