Americans recall Reagan legacy, mark his 100th birthday (Feature)
By Marco Mierke Feb 4, 2011, 3:30 GMT
Washington - Ronald Reagan was the political face of the 1980s, but the Republican leader who served two terms as US president during that decade was a both an idol of conservatives and a foe of liberals.
This Sunday millions of Americans will tune in to watch the Super Bowl - an annual highlight in the sporting world to decide the championship team in professional American football. But before the game starts they will remember Reagan, who would have been 100 years old on that day.
His life will be featured in a video homage, a tribute that seems to indicate that in the current turbulent times, Reagan is more beloved than ever and thus deserving of the highest appreciation that the sports-crazed country can dream up.
Thirty years after taking office and more than six years after his death, Ronald Reagan has recaptured the public imagination. Bookstores place his biography in their display windows, universities offer lecture series about his politics and Reagan followers throughout the country are planning parties to mark his birthday.
One in three US citizens call him a historically outstanding president. Among recent US presidents, only John F Kennedy is more highly regarded.
Given how he lived his life, it is not surprising that Reagan has been able to add to his popularity even after death.
He was born in 1911 in Tampico, Illinois, a town about 180 kilometres west of Chicago with a current population of about 800. The son of an unsuccessful shoe salesman and a devout Christian mother, Reagan sought and always found a path to the top.
As a college student, he was elected student body president. After becoming an actor, he was elected president of Hollywood's Screen Actors Guild, and as a politician he served two terms as governor of California before being elected US president.
He had to work for his successes, paying for college by washing dishes, for example. After graduating, he gained prominence in the Midwestern US as a sports radio broadcaster, which ultimately led to his career as a film actor and national fame.
In his 50s he decided to enter politics and finally won the presidency at age 69 in 1980 after two unsuccessful attempts to win his party's nomination.
In the 1980 presidential election many voters made an issue of his age. But now that hardly figures in his legacy. What people remember is Reagan's populism and that he brought new optimism to the country after many years of demoralizing crises, including the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the Iran hostage crisis.
They also remember his contribution to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Reagan's speech in June 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, in which he challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to 'open this gate' and 'tear down this wall,' was a decisive event in the end of the Cold War.
James Baker III, Reagan's chief of staff and secretary of the treasury, recalls that Reagan restored America's pride.
'You had a restoration of the country's pride and confidence in itself. You had peace. What more could you ask for?' he said.
Even US President Barack Obama, a Democrat, recently took a biography of the Republican president along on his vacation.
'No matter what political disagreements you may have had with President Reagan and I certainly had my share there is no denying his leadership in the world,' Obama said.
But the low points of this presidency haven't been forgotten. The Iran-Contra affair brought dark days and suspicion. Reagan was in office when the US secretly delivered weapons to Iran and illegally passed on the profits to the right-wing contra rebels in Nicaragua. Reagan always denied having known about it, which left critics asking worriedly who actually called the shot in the White House - Reagan or his advisers.
Reagan also remains an enemy of the Democratic Party because they see him as having been a gravedigger of the social state.
Republicans, on the other hand, hold his memory more reverently than ever. Politicians who share his philosophies, such as former congressional leader Newt Gingrich and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, have long positioned themselves as his political heirs. They want to copy his economic politics, lead the US into prosperity as Reagan did, as well as lower taxes and reduce the size of government.
Some experts say Reagan would have no chance with the Republican Party of today. As a pragmatist, he would have sought compromises with the Democrats rather than enter into a long trench war with them.
Also, he was anything but thrifty with the US budget. Under his tenure the deficit quadrupled. He raised taxes one time in order to firm up the US social system, a move that would be viewed with horror by today's conservative Tea Party movement.
'I doubt that Reagan could be elected today,' said political strategist Mark McKinnon.
This hasn't caused any break in the adoration for the Great Communicator - Reagan was known for his rhetorical gifts. The former president, who liked to introduce himself as Mr Normal and who preferred spend evenings at the White House in front of the television in his pajamas with his wife Nancy, has found his place in history as a man who stood for a healthy economy and family values.
Reagan died at the age of 93 on June 5, 2004 at his home in California after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease, having spent his final years almost completely out of the public eye.
When he died, thousands waited for hours to pay tribute to him at the US Capitol and at his presidential library in California.
Many also remembered his eloquent 1994 letter to the American people in which he explained that he had been diagnosed with the debilitating disease. In it he said he had begun 'the journey that will lead me to the sunset of my life.'
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