- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

Former President Ronald Reagan, regarded as one of the greatest U.S. presidents for having changed the cultural debate in America and the history of freedom worldwide, died yesterday of pneumonia.

With his children and former first lady Nancy Reagan at his bedside in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, the longest-living American president was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. PDT.

“My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has passed away after 10 years of Alzheimer’s disease at 93 years of age. We appreciate everyone’s prayers,” Nancy Reagan said in a statement.

Son Michael Reagan said, “I pray that as America reflects on the passing of my dad, they will remember a man of integrity, conviction and good humor that changed America and the world for the better.”

The former president was remembered for having faced collapse of what he famously declared the “Evil Empire” in the Soviet Union, for championing the then-radical economic theory of supply-side economics and the largest income-tax cut in history and for seeing through a political realignment in America every bit as dominant and as lasting as former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in the middle of the century.

Mr. Reagan always appears among the greatest presidents when polls are taken. In a 2001 Gallup poll for President’s Day, he was at the top, chosen by 18 percent of Americans as the greatest.

More than the accomplishments, though, his friends and those who served with him remembered him for being a gentleman. Former President George Bush, who was Mr. Reagan’s vice president for both terms, praised Mr. Reagan’s “kindness, his decency, his sense of humor — unbelievable.”

“I think both Presidents Bush learned a great deal from Ronald Reagan,” he said yesterday evening.

“History will give him great credit for standing for deep principles … and thus setting an example for the American people, whether you agreed with him or not,” he said.

When White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. told President Bush of Mr. Reagan’s death, the president said: “It’s a sad day for America,” according to White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.

Mr. Bush, who was in France for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, said Mr. Reagan’s passing was “a sad hour in the life of America.”

“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,” Mr. Bush said. “He leaves behind a nation he restored and a world he helped save.”

Mr. Reagan’s body is 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 is expected to be at the National Cathedral, an event likely to draw world leaders. The body will be returned to California for a sunset burial at his library.

Hollywood to Washington

Politics was a second career for Mr. Reagan, and the Republican Party was his second political affiliation.

He was a sports radio announcer in Des Moines, Iowa, before going to Hollywood in 1937 and spending the next 25 years acting in movies.

Probably his best-remembered role was as Notre Dame football star George Gipp in the 1940 film “Knute Rockne: All American.”

It was in that film that he delivered the classic line, “Win one for the Gipper,” which would become a favorite slogan for Republicans as Mr. Reagan entered his second career in governing.

At first a liberal Democrat, by the early 1950s, he had taken an interest in conservative politics, and in 1962, he joined the Republican Party.

Neoconservative leader David Horowitz said yesterday he was one of the first prominent Hollywood liberals to have second thoughts about liberalism.

“He was a Roosevelt Democrat before he became a progressive conservative,” Mr. Horowitz said.

In 1966, he defeated an incumbent Democrat to become governor of California and won re-election in 1970.

He ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for president in 1976, losing to President Ford, who then would lose the general election to Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Four years later, Mr. Reagan would defeat Mr. Carter, 51 percent to 41 percent, and usher in an era of Republican government that continues today with his party controlling the presidency, both chambers of Congress and a majority of governorships.

Mr. Reagan’s unwavering stand against the Soviet Union, and his willingness to spend expansively on the American military, is widely credited with ensuring the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

Standing in front of the wall dividing Berlin in 1987, Mr. Reagan called upon Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to end repression: “Open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

His vice president, former President George Bush, recalled yesterday that those positions produced much hand-wringing among liberals but turned out to be a successful course.

In November 1989, 10 months after Mr. Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall was dismantled. The Soviet Union imploded two years later.

In America, Mr. Reagan restored confidence and made his brand of optimistic conservatism a major force in American political life.

“We know his greatness as a president by what we don’t see today,” official biographer Edmund Morris once said in a TV interview. “Where is the Soviet Union? Where is the double-digit inflation? Where is the welfare population? Where is the national malaise? They are all gone, and Ronald Reagan will get the credit in the history books for what he did as president.”

The late Stephen E. Ambrose, biographer of Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, wrote in 1989 that “Reagan will be remembered as the president who reversed the decades-old flow of power to Washington.

“By dismantling some federal programs, and reducing others, he forced the states and the cities to assume more responsibility for running their own shows. If he failed to break the Democratic hold on Congress, he did force the Democratic Party to move to the right.”

In the middle of his eight years in office, he trounced Democrat Walter Mondale, 60 percent to 39 percent, to win a second term.

As for changing the terms of the debate, Mr. Ambrose noted that when “Reagan entered politics 22 years ago, virtually every Democrat outside Dixie identified himself, proudly, as a liberal; today, in large part because of Reagan, almost every Democrat in the nation tries to call himself a conservative.”

Mr. Reagan was raised in his mother’s faith, the Disciples of Christ, but generally attended a Presbyterian church. His Christian faith was a guiding force, said those who knew him best.

“I am secure in the knowledge that he is with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in heaven. The greatest gift my father ever gave me was the simple knowledge that I would see him in heaven one day,” Michael Reagan said.

The Great Communicator

Mr. Reagan delivered some of the most famous lines of the American presidency, and some of the boldest predictions — none more so than predicting communism would be relegated to “the ash heap of history.”

He also fulfilled the presidential role of leading the nation in mourning and was most poignant that evening in 1986 when he remembered the crew of seven who died when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just after liftoff: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

He will be remembered by critics as having left a record national debt and for the Iran-Contra affair, when it was revealed that U.S. officials were secretly selling arms to Iran in hopes of securing the release of American hostages in Lebanon. The money was being siphoned to help the Contras in their fight against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

And although he did not begin World War III, as many of his political opponents feared, he was not afraid to use American military force around the globe, against both communist insurgents and nations that harbored terrorism.

He sent American bombers to strike Libya after it became clear that nation was involved in an attack on American soldiers in a West Berlin nightclub.

And he sent U.S. Marines to Grenada in 1983 to oust Cuban soldiers.

His foreign-policy philosophy could be summed up in two phrases popularized in the 1980s: “peace through strength” and “trust but verify.”

He proposed building a missile-defense system, dubbed “Star Wars” by his critics, which irked the Soviets as much as anything else the president did during his administration. But he also negotiated a treaty to eliminate medium-range nuclear missiles.

A lasting legacy

The tributes poured in yesterday, and President Bush ordered flags to fly at half-staff at federal buildings.

The permanent monuments are still to come, although Mr. Reagan has an airport named after him just outside the nation’s capital and there is a movement to add his face to the four busts already on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

Months after taking office, Mr. Reagan was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley in the chest. Famous for his sense of humor, as he lay on the operating table he reportedly said to the doctors, “Please tell me you’re Republicans.”

And upon seeing his wife, he joked, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”

The Reagans had two children, Patti and Ronald. Mr. Reagan had a daughter Maureen, who died from cancer in 2001, from his first marriage, to actress Jane Wyman. Michael Reagan was an adopted son.

On Oct. 11, 2001, Mr. Reagan became the longest-living president after John Adams, the second president of the United States, who lived from 1735 to 1826.

It was with strength that he told the nation in a November 1994 letter he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Mr. Reagan did not make any public appearances afterward.

“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead,” he wrote.

“Unfortunately, as Alzheimer’s disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden,” Mr. Reagan wrote. “I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience.”

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that destroys memory and, on average, causes death among victims within eight years.

Pneumonia is a leading cause of death among Alzheimer’s patients, as are falls that lead to broken hips after patients lose the will to learn how to walk again and become bedridden. Mr. Reagan fell and broke his hip in 2001 but spent just one week in the hospital.

There is no known single cause; however, late-onset Alzheimer’s affecting patients older than 65 is most often caused by increasing age or a family history of the disease. Mr. Reagan’s older brother also suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

Mrs. Reagan did not speak publicly yesterday but commented on her husband’s condition during a fund-raiser last month.

“Ronnie’s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him,” she said.

Mrs. Reagan has become a strong supporter of stem-cell research, which she says may someday find a cure for a disease that affects 4.5 million Americans.

“Because of this, I’m determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain. I just don’t see how we can turn our backs on this,” she said.

Staff writers Ralph Z. Hallow, Joseph Curl and Robert Stacy McCain contributed to this report.

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