NEW YORK – Ronald Reagan (search) was the most modest of men who held the most noble of convictions, those who were close to the 40th president said upon learning of his death Saturday.
"This was a great man. This was a political giant who strode across the stage," William Bennett (search), who served as Reagan's secretary of education, told Fox News.
Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (search) described Reagan as "the most dominating president of the 20th Century. He changed the map of the world. He defeated communism. He destroyed the Soviet Union. He tore down the Berlin Wall and he fought for the rights of the individual."
Reagan — a Hollywood actor who discovered an affinity for politics that led him first to govern the state of the California and later the nation — was often underestimated. But for those who knew him well, Reagan was just being Reagan.
Ed Rollins, who was political director in the Reagan White House, said that although Reagan "didn't understand the nuts and bolts of politics," he had a firm grasp of what was really important. "He always knew what was going on in the minds of his countrymen," Rollins said.
"He was bolder than any American president in a very long time and that was the source of his greatness," said Fox News' Tony Snow. "Ronald Reagan laid out a clear line. You knew where he was going to be on an issue."
Perhaps Reagan's most lasting impact was his staunch opposition to communism and his unrelenting opposition to what the Soviet Union stood for. One of his initiatives was to begin research on a missile shield that was designed to protect the United States from nuclear weapons the Soviet Union or another nuclear nation might launch.
But when Reagan said he wanted to build the Strategic Defense Initiative (search) — dubbed "Star Wars" as shorthand for the media and as mockery by political opponents — he sent a strong message to those who might challenge the United States.
"SDI really was the straw that broke the Soviet's back. They had to know we were willing to spend the money and put the resources into trying to make it work," said Richard Allen, Reagan's national security adviser.
"His basic disposition was to throw away nuclear weapons, but he was absolutely intent on protecting America as long as someone else had them."
George Shultz, secretary of state for most of Reagan's presidency, recalled how Reagan not only stood up to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (search), but also how he became his adversary's friend.
"He taught us the importance of freedom, freedom in economic life, freedom in political life. And he taught us the importance of understanding ideas, translating them into action," Schultz said. "He understood very deeply the ideas he was advocating."
Besides his resolute attitude, Reagan was remembered for his humor, his decency and his spirit.
Former President George H.W. Bush, who served as Reagan's vice president and followed him into the White House, said Reagan was "a great president and for us a great friend."
"On a personal basis, it was his kindness, his decency, his sense of humor — unbelievable — and he had a way that if you disagreed with him ... he was never disagreeable himself, he was never mean-spirited."
Some of those who worked in the Reagan White House remembered that he had a small sign on his desk in the Oval Office that offered this reminder to himself: there is no limit to how far a man can go or what he can achieve as long as that man doesn't worry about who gets credit.
"He was a strong leader with an uncommon trait — he had an ability to make everybody feel good," said James Baker, Reagan's chief of staff. "It's hard to find anybody in Washington during those eight years who didn't like Ronald Reagan as a person."
Reagan also adopted a similar attitude when it came to dealing with his Democratic foes in Washington. Though he might disagree with them at times, he always respected his adversaries and would praise them wherever he could.
"There's a lesson in it for every politician today and yesterday," Bush said from his summer home in Maine.