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Americans Consider Reagan's Political Legacy - 2004-06-08


Americans are preparing to say good-bye this week to former President Ronald Reagan who died in California Saturday at the age of 93. Reagan supporters and critics may argue over his policies, but there is widespread agreement that he was one of the most influential figures in U.S. politics in the second half of the 20th Century.

Perhaps Ronald Reagan's greatest political asset was his ability to connect with the average American, a sentiment many recalled as they prepare to bid him farewell this week.

Woman: "I loved President Reagan and I am very thankful for everything he (did) for us."

Man: "I come from one of those countries behind the Iron Curtain, the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. He made me feel proud to be an American before actually I [became] an American."

That likeability and Reagan charm served him well. He put the country at ease with jokes in the aftermath of his 1981 assassination attempt. And no one filled the role of comforter in chief better than President Reagan when he spoke to the nation in the wake of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January of 1986.

"The future does not belong to the faint hearted. It belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future and we will continue to follow them," he said. "We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."

Ronald Reagan's sense of optimism about the future of the country also seemed to be infectious. Former Reagan aide David Gergen recalls that his 1980 victory over incumbent President Jimmy Carter seemed to set the country in a new direction.

"And somehow, by the end of the 1970s, we got into the view that, and [pollster] Pat Caddell told [former President] Jimmy Carter this, that yesterday was better than today and today is going to be better than tomorrow," says Mr. Gergen. "We had a downward slope in our view and Reagan was the man who helped to bring us up again because he had that sense that the country's best days were ahead of us."

Former President George Bush, who served as Mr. Reagan's vice president for eight years, told NBC television that the key to Ronald Reagan's success was his plain spoken style and unbending adherence to conservative political philosophy. "But he just had certain basic principles that he tried to adhere to. Taxes are too high. Communism is bad," says Mr. Bush. "Things of that nature that are fundamental principles and he would keep coming back to them even when he had to make a little compromise here or there along the way."

Mr. Reagan's description of the Soviet Union as an evil empire alarmed some diplomats at the time. But his direct challenge to the Soviet leadership became a rallying cry throughout the free world.

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Among those who found his facedown with the Soviet Union inspiring was the current White House National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice. "He was absolutely clear that when liberty and freedom are on the march, America is safer," she says. "And when liberty and freedom are in retreat, America is weaker."

Ronald Reagan's political high point came in 1984 when he won a landslide re-election victory over Democrat Walter Mondale, winning 49 of the 50 states, based largely on a campaign theme of restoring American pride and patriotism.

It is morning again in America and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.

If 1984 was the highpoint in the Reagan presidency, the low point came a few years later with a full blown congressional investigation into what became known as the Iran-Contra Scandal. Mr. Reagan had a difficult time explaining his administration's efforts to sell arms to Iran to help secure the release of hostages being held in Lebanon and then divert profits from the arms sales to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

"But I did not know what had happened or whether there had been a diversion or any money to divert," he said.

To his critics, the Iran-Contra Scandal was evidence that Mr. Reagan was too detached from the day to day job of president and either unwilling or unable to reign in rogue assistants.

Despite the controversies, Reagan biographer Edmund Morris says it is that sense of optimism and a belief in the future of America that will largely shape Ronald Reagan's political legacy. "Well, his inclinations were basically decent and I think this was the ingredient of his charm," he says. "Even when he was mired in political difficulties, one somehow knew that he was positive and benevolent and wanted the best for America."

Ronald Reagan will be laid to rest at his presidential library in California Friday following a state funeral in Washington that is expected to draw tens of thousands of mourners.

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