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US, World Remembers Ronald Reagan - 2004-06-05

Former President Ronald Reagan has died at the age of 93. Correspondent Jim Malone has a look back at the life of the 40th president of the United States.

He was born Ronald Wilson Reagan on February 11, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. He grew up in middle America and went on to have a long and varied career - sports announcer, movie actor, conservative spokesman, California governor, and finally, President of the United States.

He swept into the White House on a conservative tide in the elections of 1980, seeking to restore faith and pride in an America worried about its economic fortunes and humbled by a year-long hostage crisis with Iran.

In his 1981 Inaugural address, President Reagan put the country on a new course - which included changing the role of the federal government.

"The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades," he said. "They will not go away in days, weeks or months. But they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom. In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

The new president moved quickly to cut taxes and government spending. After a rocky recession in 1982, economic growth surged, and Mr. Reagan easily won a second term in 1984.

But more than his economic successes, Americans liked his style. They applauded Mr. Reagan's efforts to restore America's pride at home and its credibility abroad. They especially liked the way he handled himself with grace and humor after a 1981 assassination attempt. Four years later, the President also survived a bout with colon cancer.

There were also challenges on the foreign policy front. Mr. Reagan will be long remembered for his contributions to arms control, especially the 1987 treaty with the Soviet Union to eliminate short and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe.

Mr. Reagan also held four summit meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, meetings that helped to thaw the Cold War between the United States and the country the president once called The Evil Empire.

In June 1987, Mr. Reagan spoke of his visit to the Berlin Wall in a radio address to the American people.

"No American who sees first-hand the concrete and mortar, the guardposts and machine-gun towers, the dog runs and the barbed wire can ever again take for granted his or her freedom is actually the birthright of all humanity and that is why as I stood there, I urged the Soviet leader, Mr. Gorbachev, to send a new signal of openness to the world by tearing down that wall," he said.

In October 1983, Mr. Reagan authorized the U.S. invasion of Grenada following a Marxist coup, still considered by many one of his administration's foreign policy successes. But the invasion came only two days after one of his biggest foreign policy failures - a devastating terrorist attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 U.S. troops. That incident eventually led to the withdrawal of American forces from Lebanon.

Conservatives in the U.S. Congress hailed his support for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua during the 1980s. But the administration came under intense criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike for the 1986 Iran-Contra Scandal in which the proceeds from secret arms sales to Iran to free U.S. hostages were diverted to the Contra fighters in Central America.

Mr. Reagan's popularity fell after the Iran-Contra scandal and it will be up to historians to judge how much that affair tarnished his administration's accomplishments. But by the time he left office in January 1989, the president's approval rating had rebounded. He held the highest favorability rating of any retiring president since the Second World War.

When reporters once asked him about the secret of his popularity in 1988, the president had a simple response.

"What I get in the mail and what I hear from people when I get out of Washington is that, once again, they are proud to be Americans," he said. "And if I had anything to do with that, that is what I would be most proud of."

In a 1994 letter to the American people, Ronald Reagan revealed that he was suffering from Alzheimer's, a debilitating disease that affects the brain and causes memory loss. The ex-president's memory may have failed him in his final years - but his conservative supporters never forgot his contributions. They continue their search for someone who will carry on his political legacy.

As for Mr. Reagan himself, moments of self-reflection were rare - but they did occur. On this particular occasion, it was a speech to a student audience in Chicago in 1985.

"You have moments, things that you will never forget, such as the death of our Marines at the hands of a fanatic terrorist in Lebanon," he said. "Those things you have to learn to live with. But...all I can tell you is, every morning when I wake up, I thank God for having given me the opportunity to serve."

It is perhaps that sense of optimism, both about himself and about his country, which will remain Ronald Reagan's enduring legacy.