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Ronald Wilson Reagan, 1911-2004

My strongest feeling about the passing of Ronald Reagan is not much feeling at all. Part of this is simple ambivalence: I was at my most liberal during Reagan’s presidency, didn’t vote for him, resented his yanking of the country to the right, the silliness of “just say no,” the bizarre disconnect of being an affable father-figure to a nation but a distant, uncommunicative father to his own children.

Yet I have come to accept the importance of his grasp of symbolism and message communication: Reagan’s ability to project unwavering power and determination to our Soviet-bloc rivals and “morning in America” optimism to the masses at home.

Besides personal and political ambivalence, it also feels very odd to suddenly focus lavish attention upon a figure who has been slipping away bit by bit for over ten years, drifting off into the wilderness of his own mind, wandering alone, incommunicado, for all intents and purposes dead to the outside world and a stranger even to Nancy.

With all the sudden attention, it’s as if he has suddenly reappeared only to REALLY disappear: “Hello, I must be going. I’d love to stay but I came to say ‘I must be going.'”

But having finally dragged myself into this mindspace, let’s see what’s going on:

    SIMI VALLEY, Calif. – A black Cadillac hearse arrived at the hilltop library that bears the name of former President Ronald Reagan on Wednesday morning for the first leg of his journey to Washington for state funeral ceremonies.

    The Reagan family was to escort the body from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to the nearby Navy base at Point Mugu for a flight to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington aboard a presidential Boeing 747. From Andrews, the body was to be taken to the Capitol to lie in state until a funeral at the National Cathedral on Friday.

    The casket will then be returned to California for burial at the presidential library that evening. [AP]

To show you how oddly my brain is working right now, after reading the above the first thing I thought of was Weekend at Bernie’s: those are some seriously peripatetic remains.

He certainly remains popular:

    More than 100,000 Reagan admirers filed past the former president’s flag-draped coffin at the library on Tuesday, a steady stream of well-wishers that continued past nightfall.

    “It’s a lifetime event. I wanted to show my gratitude. I wanted to show my love,” said Jesse Garcia, 52, who with his wife traveled down from their home in Northern California.

    Reagan, the nation’s 40th chief executive, was 93 when he died Saturday of pneumonia, as a complication of Alzheimer’s disease. He announced he had the disease a decade ago.

    His death revealed that the popularity of the former Republican president, California governor and movie actor remained strong despite his long absence from public life.

    “It is unbelievable what I am seeing on TV,” Reagan office chief of staff Joanne Drake quoted Nancy Reagan as saying Tuesday. “The outpouring of love for my husband is incredible.”

    ….About 106,000 mourners passed by the coffin from noon Monday until the public viewing ended Tuesday night, library officials said. The viewing period was originally supposed to end at 6 p.m. Tuesday, but the overwhelming turnout forced an extension to 9 p.m.

    The steady stream was occasionally interrupted by the arrival of political figures and celebrities. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry stood quietly before the casket, made the sign of the cross, put his hand over his heart and left.

    Visitors to the library Tuesday included Govs. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, and celebrities Morgan Fairchild and Bruce Boxleitner, who arrived as representatives of the Screen Actors Guild, which Reagan once led.

An interesting look at the man who saw America as a “shining city on the hill” comes from the program description of the PBS American Experience ’98 Reagan bio-film:

    On the eve of his election, Ronald Reagan was asked, “What is it, Governor, that people see in you?” He responded, “Would you laugh if I told you that they look at me and they see themselves?”

    Ronald Reagan was America’s most ideological president in his rhetoric, yet pragmatic in his actions. He believed in balanced budgets, but never submitted one; hated nuclear weapons, but built them by the thousands; preached family values, but presided over a dysfunctional family. His vision of America divided the nation, yet no matter what people thought of him politically, Reagan always won them over personally. “People don’t reckon with the power of charm,” says son Ron Reagan. “When my father turns the high beams on, even somebody like Gorbachev tends to melt.” A seemingly simple man, Ronald Reagan was consistently underestimated by his opponents; one by one, he overcame them all.

    ….Reagan was produced with unprecedented access to the Reagan family. Nancy Reagan agreed to be interviewed on camera for the first time since leaving the White House, as did three of Reagan’s four children, and the family also provided home movies. Also for the first time, Edmund Morris reveals insights gleaned from his twelve years spent working on Reagan’s official biography. Among the forty-two people interviewed are members of Reagan’s inner political circle‹his “California Cabinet”‹and his counterparts on the world stage, including former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who negotiated historic arms agreements with Reagan.

    “I don’t think Ronald Reagan has gotten the credit he deserves for ending the Cold War,” says producer Austin Hoyt. “Gorbachev deserves enormous credit, too‹but for losing it gracefully. Reagan wanted to win the Cold War. He saw the Soviets were vulnerable, and went for the kill. In the process, he scared a lot of people half to death, including himself.”

    “Reagan was not a man given to introspection,” notes producer Adriana Bosch. “As his son Ron told us, ‘No one ever figured him out, and he never figured himself out.’ We had to search long and hard for Reagan’s personality and found many clues which allowed us to draw what we think is a revealing sketch: distant and appealing, determined, willfully optimistic, and always playing the hero.”

    “Lifeguard” follows Reagan from his youth in the American heartland to the triumph of his “revolution” in 1981. The program traces the origins of Reagan’s difficulty forming attachments to his itinerant childhood and a painful episode with his drunken father. The young boy turned to his mother and the teachings of her Fundamentalist church, The Disciples of Christ, which gave him a belief in predestination and a strong sense of good and evil. After the family settled in Dixon, Illinois, Reagan spent his summers working as a lifeguard on the Rock River and was credited with saving seventy-seven people from drowning. “Reagan’s subsequent political career can be seen in terms of rescue,” notes Edmund Morris. “I think he felt in the late 1970s that he could rescue Jimmy Carter’s America from a period of poisonous self-doubt and carry her safely back to shore.”

    Reagan’s anti-communism began in Hollywood where faced down “communist agitators” in the Screen Actors’ Guild. After his movie career dried up in the 1950s, he became a corporate spokesman for General Electric and began speaking out against high taxes and big government. His political philosophy set, Ronald Reagan burst on the national scene in 1964 as a spokesman for conservative politics.

    His marriage to actress Jane Wyman ended in divorce, but Reagan found the perfect companion in his second wife, actress Nancy Davis, “the other half of the circle,” says daughter Patti Davis. According to political adviser Stuart Spencer, Nancy would serve as Reagan’s “personnel director” during his political career.

    After barely losing the 1976 Republican primary, Reagan triumphed over Jimmy Carter in 1980. He projected optimism and confidence, believing his mission was to restore America’s trust in itself. An assassination attempt only seventy days into his presidency elevated him to near-mythic status, but as “Lifeguard” reveals, in 1983, near the end of his first term, Reagan’s conservative revolution was threatened by economic recession and a popular revolt against his defense buildup.

    ..”An American Crusade” focuses on Reagan’s battle with the Soviet Union and his resolve to end the Cold War, which the program sees as his principal legacy. Morris calls Reagan’s hatred of Soviet communism “the only negative emotion he had in his life,” and says Reagan believed that, with the pressure of a defense buildup, he could “bring this hostile totalitarian system to its knees.” The program identifies two turning points in the Cold War: Reagan’s bold deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, and a hastily called summit with rival Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, considered a failure at the time.

    If the superpower summitry of his second term was the high point in Reagan’s presidency, the Iran-Contra affair was its lowest moment. The publi perception that Reagan had traded arms for hostages with terrorists in Iran caused his credibility to plummet. “I went to the White House to buck him up,” recalls Ron Reagan. “It was the first time I ever saw him with the wind completely out of his sails.”

    Five years after leaving the White House, when Reagan celebrated his eighty-third birthday at a gala in Washington, many people noticed what close family and friends had been seeing more and more: Reagan was faltering. “We met beforehand to do all the photographs, and he was very quiet and not very communicative at all,” recalls Margaret Thatcher. “Nancy had to lead him toothe platform holding him by the hand. And when she put up her hand to wave, immediately she said to Ron, ‘Wave.'”

    Tests soon confirmed what many had suspected: Reagan had Alzheimer’s disease. On November 5, 1994, Ronald Reagan bid a public farewell to the American people in a poignant letter: “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

David Shribman compares the current president to Reagan:

    In truth, the two men have much in common. They are ridiculed on the left for their malaprops. They are reviled in Europe and the Middle East as Wild West cowboys. They also have left scores of people in their wake who made the mistake of underestimating (or, as Bush would say, misunderestimating) them.

    The current President Bush is a true supply-sider. He believes in the ascendancy and singular moral purpose of the United States. He knows what he thinks, and he doesn’t think in nuance. This, like the Reagan years, is not a period of nuance anyway.

    Reagan, like Bush, wasn’t dumb, nor the beneficiary of its fortunate cousin, dumb luck. “Dumb people don’t get to where he got,” Colin L. Powell said of Reagan in an interview. “People don’t luck up to being elected governor twice and president of the United States twice.”

    One thing more: Reagan might not have been a man of the world, but he was a man of his word. In his speech to the book convention the other day, Bill Clinton chided critics who say they are surprised at the current president’s policies. Bush, Clinton said, had set out in the 2000 campaign precisely how he would lead the nation, and where.

    The most important factor tying Reagan with the current president is how Reagan made it possible for Bush to govern with Reagan principles.

    The first true conservative in the White House since 1933, Reagan made conservatism respectable — no, more than that: romantic — again. He influenced a generation of young people; for all his devotion to his father, the current president more nearly follows the north star of Reagan. And Reagan so moved the center of American politics to the right that many of the ideas that two decades ago would have seemed radical now seem conventional. [Yahoo]

The NY Times peers at the relationship between the Bush and Reagan families:

    like all relationships between American presidents and vice presidents, and for that matter between political wives, the truth about the Reagans and two generations of Bushes is more complicated. Although each side is offering nothing but tribute to the other during this week of Reagan nostalgia, over the past quarter-century the relationship between the families has been strained for periods by political ambition, social resentment and a lack of chemistry between two formidable first ladies.

    None of that is evident in the public words of mourning this week from the current president, who has used Mr. Reagan’s presidency as a model for his own. And yet he scarcely knew the man himself, Reagan advisers say. When Mr. Reagan was president, the younger Mr. Bush would come by the vice president’s office to see his father, telling stories with his cowboy boots on the table – and watching Mr. Reagan from afar.

    ….The intense personal emotions came from Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, one of Hollywood, the other from the blue-blooded precincts of the East Coast. Both were fiercely protective of their husbands.

    “Bush and Reagan had a very amiable relationship, and he had access to anything Reagan had, but Mrs. Bush felt she had been slighted by Mrs. Reagan,” said one former Reagan adviser who knows both families.

    The Reagans, who moved in a circle of old Hollywood friends but were still an intensely private couple, never had the Bushes in for dinner in the private quarters of the White House, Republicans recalled.

    ….The relationship between the families dates from the 1980 campaign, when Mr. Reagan and George H. W. Bush were political rivals running for the Republican presidential nomination. Mr. Bush accused Mr. Reagan of promoting “voodoo economics,” a charge that so angered Mr. Reagan that he later did not want Mr. Bush on the ticket with him. But when a plan for a “co-presidency” with former President Gerald R. Ford fell apart at the party convention, Mr. Reagan and his aides turned to Mr. Bush as one of the only men left standing, according to accounts from Richard V. Allen and other Reagan advisers at the time.

    Once in the White House, Mr. Bush established himself as the deferential second fiddle who rarely disagreed directly with the boss

    ….By all accounts, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush enjoyed each other’s company, and kept up with weekly White House lunches just as the current president and Vice President Dick Cheney do now. “I remember the stories my dad would tell of his great sense of humor,” the younger Mr. Bush told Mr. Brokaw. “He had a wonderful Irish sense of humor – keep people off guard by being humble and funny.”

    ….On Friday, both President Bushes will speak at the funeral service for Mr. Reagan at Washington National Cathedral. Republicans note that it was the son, not the father, who sought to absorb the legacy of Mr. Reagan’s presidency.

    ”I think the name is Bush, but he is a true Reaganite,” said Kenneth M. Duberstein, Mr. Reagan’s last chief of staff, speaking of the current president. ”It’s bold strokes and primary colors, not pastels.”

A view of Reaganomics from Canada:

    [Reagan] will be remembered for the formula of lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation and low inflation that we now call Reaganomics. But does it work?

    ….In one sense, Reaganomics was an undoubted success. For the first time since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, an American president challenged head-on the inexorable growth of government and the ever-climbing taxes that fuelled it. Like Jack with the beanstalk, Mr. Reagan took a hatchet to the trunk of the federal government.

    In his very first year, he pushed through what he called “the largest tax cut in history” — 25 per cent. Later, he lowered the top marginal tax rate to 28 per cent from 70 per cent, and simplified the tax code to get rid of loopholes, inconsistencies and politically motivated breaks for interest groups — an achievement that every subsequent president and Congress has worked to destroy. Those cuts helped boost the U.S. economy after years of inflation and uneven growth.

    ….But in other ways, Reaganomics was a flop. As hard as Mr. Reagan tried to control the size of the state, government spending as a proportion of economic output was almost as high when he left office as when he began. It has continued to grow since. Outlays by all governments in the United States reached 35.9 per cent of gross domestic product in 2003, up from 31.4 per cent in 1980. (In Canada, for comparison, the figure grew to 40.1 per cent from 38.8 per cent, and in Britain stayed steady at 43 per cent.)

    Far worse was the Reagan balance sheet. Because he cut taxes at the same time as pursuing a multibillion-dollar military buildup, Mr. Reagan put the United States in a deep fiscal hole. After running for election on a platform denouncing government waste and deficit budgeting, he himself ran the deficit to 5 per cent of GDP, up 86 per cent from the previous administration. The notion — called supply-side economics — that tax cuts would create so much economic growth that federal coffers would fill up again proved to be a mirage.

    The lesson for Reagan imitators today is obvious. You can’t cut taxes and raise spending and expect to balance the books. That fact of life seems to be lost on Mr. Bush, who has slashed taxes while raising spending in the war on terror and finds himself with a deficit heading to $500-billion. When Vice-President Dick Cheney reportedly said that “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter,” he was dead wrong. Sustained deficits are a tax on the future, a way of passing the cost of profligacy to the next generation. That is something no government — and particularly no conservative government — should do.

    It makes nonsense of conservatism to ram through tax cuts that you cannot finance. Real conservatives believe in reducing the role of government, but they also believe in a government that pays its way. [Globe and Mail]

And don’t forget, Reagan came from Hollywood:

    Many Hollywood friends will not be in Washington, but instead will pay their respects at the burial service at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley on Friday, said A.C. Lyles, a producer at Paramount and a longtime friend.

    “Reagan was the most important figure that ever came from Hollywood,” said Lyles, who first met Reagan in 1936. “For years, he was Mr. Hollywood, when he was an actor and when he was president of the Screen Actors’ Guild. I told friends in 1958 he would become president of the United States. If you met Elizabeth Taylor when she was young, you knew she would grow up to be beautiful. If you met Ronald Reagan, you knew he was destined to be president.”

    ….Like the artfully chosen backdrops that often accompanied Reagan’s presidential speeches, the three-day tribute in Washington will be choreographed with precision and symbolism.

    After the casket arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, about 5 p.m. today, the U.S. Air Force band will perform four “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “Hail to the Chief.”

    A motorcade will carry the casket to Washington. There will be no music as it is transferred, at 16th Street near the White House, to a caisson accompanied by a riderless horse that will then make its way to the Capitol.

    Thousands are expected to line Constitution Avenue to witness a piece of history.

    Reagan’s casket will enter from the Capitol’s west Mall entrance directly into the Rotunda, where he took his second oath of office in 1985 when inclement weather forced the proceedings indoors.

    Mrs. Reagan will walk into the Rotunda alongside the president’s casket, with family and friends behind it. On hand to greet the official party will be Vice President Dick Cheney, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate President Pro Tem Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

    Four television cameras were installed inside the Rotunda on Tuesday, with two others in the Capitol dome, to broadcast the ceremony. [LA Times]

If, as I said, symbolism counts, then presentation is what sells the symbol, something Hollywood knows better than most.

And what of all those currently mournful liberals?:

    The mid-1980s economic boom that much of the country fondly associates with Reagan passed by Anacostia–a poverty-plagued, mostly African-American community separated by a polluted river from the gleaming white-marble buildings that hold the seats of American political power.

    Their feelings about Reagan find strong echoes throughout liberal America, which decries Reagan’s policies while expressing sympathy at his death. Though he won powerful majorities–including a 49-state rout in 1984–a substantial segment of the public also strongly disagreed with him on education, the environment, abortion and civil rights, views that now help to complete a fuller portrait of the 40th president.

    In Anacostia, people remember the Reagan years for the hard times and the cutbacks in programs for the poor–at a time when AIDS (news – web sites) crept through the land unchecked and crack cocaine poured into the inner city.

    Personal criticism that was often uttered during his presidency has been muted since his death, as most liberal political leaders set aside policy differences and focus instead on the former movie star’s charisma and signature optimism.

    Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (news – web sites) suspended campaign appearances for a week, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lauded Reagan’s “special grace, optimism and humor.”

    Beneath the decorum, though, the struggle between left and right continues in a closely divided, highly polarized country. Much of that division has been fueled by the conflict over policies that Reagan set in motion. And Reagan’s legacy remains anathema to supporters of liberal causes.

    Ralph Neas, president of the liberal think tank People for the American Way, said that after the mourning for Reagan, more questioning of his policies should and will likely come.

    “As people start looking at the real record, we have been candid in saying Ronald Reagan had an absolutely abysmal record in terms of civil rights, the environment and reproductive freedom,” Neas said.

    That sentiment is not far from the surface on the streets of Anacostia. While Reagan lived in the White House, a surge in homicides gave Washington the label of the nation’s “murder capital.” A good number of the victims fell in the back alleys and streets of Anacostia

    ….Even at the peak of his popularity in 1984 Reagan was resoundingly defeated in Washington, D.C., the one of nation’s most heavily African-American electorate.

    Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who represents a district on Chicago’s South Side, said there was “respect for his family and the fact that he passed, but there’s no remorse. Most folks I run into didn’t view him as someone who was their friend.”

    Bev Smith, host of a national call-in show syndicated to black-oriented stations through American Urban Radio Networks, said she spent three hours on Reagan’s death on Monday night and not one caller spoke favorably of his presidency.

    The view among her callers was that Reagan’s treatment of minorities “was neglect, avoidance, lack of concern. . . . It’s as if African-Americans didn’t exist,” Smith said.

    ….In office, his administration roiled civil rights leaders by backing tax-exempt status for Bob Jones University despite segregationist policies that the school maintained at the time.

    His use of the image of a Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” struck many African-Americans as an unfair stereotype. And he again drew criticism for failing to recognize his only black Cabinet member, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel Pierce, when he encountered Pierce at a White House reception. [Chicago Tribune]

Whoa, that’s cold. And yet there is always another side:

    As the nation’s capital prepares for the public viewing and state funeral of former President Ronald Reagan, members of the African-American leadership network Project 21 are expressing their profound sympathies to the late president’s family and friends and celebrating his achievements in making America stronger and spreading freedom and liberty throughout the world.

    To follow are personal comments from Project 21 members about President Reagan and his legacy:

    – Ak’Bar Shabazz (Atlanta, Georgia): “We all mourn the passing of a great leader. As Americans, we bask in the freedoms that Reagan had the clarity of vision to secure. All future presidents will be measured by the great examples that he provided.”

    – James Coleman (Los Angeles, California): “I spent my youth as a leftist radical after becoming disillusioned with what I saw as the hesitant policies of the civil rights mainstream. Ronald Reagan convinced me that the conservative movement was my home. As for African-Americans, we can only hope that someday we all recognize the benefits we experienced and continue to experience from the Reagan legacy. Black businesses and businesses owned by women prospered greatly in the 80s. There is a national purpose that was solidified and set the basis for the optimism that sustains our youth and keeps our military vital in such dangerous times. Whether we realize it or not, Ronald Reagan set a philosophical tone that lasts to this day and may indeed sustain us through the hard times ahead.”

    – Donald Scoggins (Springfield, Virginia): “Through his determination and forward thinking, President Reagan paved the way that saw the destruction of communism abroad, as well as here at home. After decades of paralyzing government social programs, Reagan was instrumental in establishing a national climate that allowed for the elimination of welfare as we know it.”

    – Mychal Massie (Zion Hill, Pennsylvania): “Leaders such as the late President Reagan can only be fully appreciated in their passing. While they are admired and referenced in life, it is history that ultimately provides their legacy. I believe that history will reward Ronald Reagan with the honor he justly deserves. He reminded America that ours was a country to be proud of and that our way of life was the envy of the world. And this he did in a way few have before him and none have since him.”

    Several Project 21 members took part in a candlelight vigil held at Lafayette Park across from the White House on Sunday, June 6.

Fascinating – for a supposedly “simple” man, Reagan sure leaves a complicated legacy.

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About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected], Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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