Published June 05, 2004
Ronald Wilson Reagan (search), the 40th president of the United States, died Saturday at his home in California. He was 93 years old and had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
"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," Former First Lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement. "We appreciate everyone's prayers."
In Paris, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said President Bush was notified of Reagan's death in Paris at about 4:10 p.m., EDT, by White House chief of staff Andy Card. Bush offered his condolences to Reagan's widow shortly thereafter.
"He always told us that for America the best is yet to come," Bush said of Reagan. "We comfort ourselves by telling ourselves that the same is true for him. ... We know a shining city is waiting for him."
The United States flag over the White House was lowered to half staff within an hour.
Reagan's body was 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 was expected to be at the National Cathedral, an event likely to draw world leaders. The body was to be returned to California for a sunset burial at his library.
Reagan, known as "The Great Communicator," was elected to office in a landslide victory over incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980 and is credited with revitalizing the country's stagnant economy and forcing the end of the Cold War (search) during his two terms in office from 1981 to 1989.
His charismatic personality and staunch conservatism led the nation in a Republican resurgence that kept the GOP in the White House for 12 years.
Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani 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 remained largely out of public view since announcing he had Alzheimer's disease (search) in November 1994. He came to symbolize Alzheimer's, which has no cure, during the last decade of his life. Reagan turned the disclosure of his disease as an opportunity to make a final address to the nation, expressing in an open letter to the American people the same patriotic fervor that had catapulted him into the presidency.
"When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future," Reagan wrote at the time. "I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead."
The Reagan Revolution
Ascending to the presidency on a pledge to restore "the great, confident roar of American progress and growth and optimism," Reagan — a former actor and two-term California governor — remade the Republican Party in his own image of fiscal and social conservatism. Reagan brought a grandfatherly warmth to Republican issues and values that attracted supporters across a broad political spectrum.
He successfully implemented most of his campaign promises: reducing government bureaucracy and regulation, cutting taxes in favor of "trickle-down, or supply-side economics — which became known as Reaganomics (search) — and building a strong defense while fighting the spread of communism. These moves won him wide appeal and an even wider margin of victory in 1984, when he won the electoral votes of 49 states.
The role of president would prove to be more dramatic than any screen role Reagan had assumed in his pre-politics career in Hollywood. Just 69 days into his first term, Reagan was shot in Washington by John Hinckley, Jr. (search), but his quick and full recovery from the assassination attempt elevated him to new levels of national popularity.
His health was a recurring theme of his presidency as Reagan underwent major surgeries in 1981, 1985 and 1987.
Reagan was hawkish in foreign policy, staunchly committed to thwarting the spread of communism. His administration gave strong financial and military support to the Contra Rebels who were fighting Nicaragua's communist government and supported the government of El Salvador's fight against communist guerillas and rebels resisting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He dispatched U.S. troops to the island of Grenada when it was perceived as succumbing to Cuba in 1983.
Reagan's war on communism led to an escalation of Cold War rhetoric and defense spending that mushroomed the national debt and brought harsh criticism upon his administration. But the efforts eventually resulted in a series of high-level summit meetings with Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev, arms reduction pacts with the Soviets and eventually the break-up of the Soviet Union. That success was dramatically symbolized by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
His fight against communism also led to the darkest moment of his presidency, when he confessed in November 1986 that the United States had secretly sold arms to Iran as part of an arms-for-hostages deal, and then used the proceeds from the sale to fund aid to the Contra rebels. The scandal resulted in the indictment of high-level government officials.
Reagan waged war not only on communism, but on terrorism, most visibly in 1986 when he sent jets to bomb Libya in retaliation for the death of Americans in a Berlin dance club.
Born Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill., Reagan graduated from Eureka College in 1932 and worked as a radio sportscaster in the Midwest before being discovered by a Hollywood agent and being signed by Warner Bros. He made his acting debut in "Love Is in the Air" in 1937, made Air Force training films during World War II, and went on to make 52 movies. Reagan also served as a spokesman for the General Electric Company, hosted and acted on the General Electric Theater television series, and was also host of the television series, "Death Valley Days."
Reagan and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, had two children, Maureen and Michael, before divorcing in 1948. He married actress Nancy Davis in 1952 and had two more children, Patricia and Ronald Prescott, who goes by Ron. Maureen Reagan died of cancer in 2001.
Reagan moved from acting into politics as a five-time president of the Screen Actors Guild. Originally a Democrat, Reagan's ideology shifted to the right as he sided with the government attack on the influence of communism in the entertainment world.
But it was a well-received televised speech on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964 that catapulted Reagan's political career from the sound stage to the world stage. Reagan was elected California governor in 1966 and again in 1970. He made two failed attempts at the White House in 1968 and 1976 before his 1980 victory.
Known for his personal charm and talent — and for making masterful speeches to win support for his policies — many of the foreign leaders with whom he met were said to have been more impressed with his star quality than his intellect.
"You could see it in the faces of the foreign leaders — Mitterand, Thatcher, even Gorbachev," a U.S. official who accompanied Reagan on many trips abroad was quoted as saying by Lou Cannon in his biography, "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime."
"They didn't pay much attention to what he was saying. Either they had heard it before, or they realized it was just talking points. But Reagan the man, the politician, fascinated them. It was almost as if they were saying, what does this man have that works so well for him? It was like they wanted to bottle it and take it home and use it themselves."
The question of whether the commander in chief had a harder-edged side behind closed doors was the subject of some speculation and even humor. In a "Saturday Night Live" skit in the late 1980s, the late comic Phil Hartman portrayed a Reagan who was gentle and grandfatherly to Oval Office visitors but, behind closed doors, transformed into a sharp-minded scowling dictator who barked orders to his advisers.
While he wasn't always cooperative with reporters, avoiding unwanted questions by feigning deafness as he approached a waiting helicopter, he maintained a genial relationship with the White House press corps, whose members nicknamed him the Gipper in reference to the character he portrayed in the film, "Knute Rockne, All American."
Reagan's approval rating remained high through his eight years in office, and Democrats struggled for years against the image of old-fashioned values, patriotism and hard work that Reagan fashioned for himself and his party.
As a tribute to Reagan's legacy, Congress and President Bill Clinton officially changed the name of Washington National Airport to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in February 1998. And in 2003, former First Lady Nancy Reagan was on hand to christen the USS Ronald Reagan, the Navy's newest nuclear powered aircraft carrier.
But perhaps the image of Reagan that will be remembered most was his ability to unite the nation under the strength of his convictions, such as when he spoke to all Americans, and
specifically schoolchildren, in the wake of the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger:
"It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons," he said. "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them."
Reagan is survived by his wife and three children.