Reagan Era Changed American Politics

Before Ronald Reagan (search) captured the White House, jellybeans were for kids. Teflon was for pots and pans. Movie stars weren't serious enough to govern. And 69 was too old to be elected president.

Ronald Reagan's eight years in office accompanied - and sometimes set in motion - so many lasting changes that in many ways the Reagan era lives on, and the America before he took office feels far removed.

Mortgage rates were double what they are now. The deficit spending that so many worried about was a trickle next to today's torrent.

Usama bin Laden was a young scion of a wealthy Saudi family, not yet America's mortal enemy. And George W. Bush (search) was a Texas oilman whose entree to the White House was his father's vice presidency.

The GOP seemed a little lost, still under the shadow of Watergate (search) and groping for a unifying philosophy. Most Republicans wanted to shrink government, all right, but none since Barry Goldwater had mocked the federal bureaucracy with Reagan's enthusiasm.

"Government does not solve problems, it subsidizes them," Reagan quipped. Nonetheless, the U.S. government grew during Reagan's two terms and keeps growing.

And it was Reagan who made cutting taxes the party mantra, long before the current President Bush. Reagan called the tax code "a daily mugging."

Before Reagan's 1980 victory over Jimmy Carter (search), Democrats held all the cards - the House, the Senate, the presidency. Candidate Reagan's coattails helped carry a Republican majority into the Senate for the first time in a quarter-century - beginning the party's halting march toward its current domination of Congress, the presidency and a majority of governorships.

By pure force of personality, Reagan pushed the GOP and the nation toward the right. What had seemed staunchly conservative has become middle of the road; even Democrats don't call themselves liberal anymore. He created Reagan Democrats, Reaganomics and what he and his fellow crusaders liked to call the Reagan Revolution.

The presidency was without luster when Reagan took the oath of office Jan. 20, 1981. Richard Nixon had sullied the Oval Office, Gerald Ford merely occupied it, and Carter never appeared comfortable there.

Where Carter shunned pretense - believing a folksy, of-the-people White House bespoke his honesty - Ronald and Nancy Reagan (search) brought a Hollywood fondness for pomp and glamour.

Tuxedoes, designer gowns and limousines came back in style. Mrs. Reagan ordered expensive White House china, setting her critics sniping. John Travolta and Princess Diana danced together at a state dinner.

There were comparisons to the glamor of the Kennedy White House - and complaints that the president socialized with the wealthy while abandoning the poor and AIDS patients.

No president since has matched Reagan's fanfare, but none has tried a return to Carter's just-folks style either.

Reagan won over a cynical, weary nation with optimism and absolutes. It was "morning in America." The Soviet Union (search) was an "evil empire." Today that moral certitude is admired, and echoed, by President Bush, who deemed rogue nations an "axis of evil."

As terrorism has taken over Bush's tenure, the Cold War (search) defined Reagan's. Many historians credit his trillion-dollar arms buildup with hastening the Kremlin's demise in 1989.

During Reagan's time, it was the Soviet Union - not the United States - at war in Afghanistan. And bin Laden was a U.S. ally of sorts, fighting against the common Soviet enemy.

During the Carter administration, yellow ribbons on trees and mailboxes were emblems of support for the 52 American hostages in Iran - becoming a reminder of the U.S. military's botched attempt to rescue them. The hostages were released on Reagan's first inauguration day.

Today, yellow ribbons are a tribute to service members who are almost reflexively honored, even by critics of war in Iraq. Reagan rejuvenated the military - not only through his huge increases in defense spending but by inspiring the kind of old-fashioned, unabashed, flag-waving pride in the troops that had been out of fashion since the Vietnam War.

In 1980, Americans were nervous about the nation's $909 billion debt, an amount that seems quaint today.

Reagan declared the federal budget "out of control," then charged ahead with tax cuts and deficit spending that nearly tripled the national debt to $2.6 trillion in 1988. The president shrugged, the sky didn't fall, and these days few voters get worked up over a deficit topping $7 trillion.

Of course, it's easier to be unflustered about the risks of deficits with low interest rates and mild inflation. As the '80s dawned, paychecks couldn't keep up with runaway prices and homebuyers paid more than 13 percent interest on their mortgages. Gasoline shortages were fresh in the public memory.

Reagan walked into that picture with a faith that never flagged, even in his parting note in 1994, announcing he had Alzheimer's disease.

"I know that for America," he wrote, "there will always be a bright dawn ahead."