He could always draw a crowd. And the long lines of Americans who paid their respects to Ronald Reagan last week demonstrated again his remarkable grip on the public imagination, even though he had been out of office for 15 years and out of public sight for nearly a decade. Yet there were 100,000 mourners in California, another 100,000 in Washington, teenagers in shorts, men in fancy suits, women in summer dresses, fathers and mothers carrying their infants and toddlers as they passed his flag-draped coffin. There were few black or brown faces in those crowds, a reminder that many felt left out of Reagan's world. And while the mourners were respectful and somber, few wept openly, since Reagan's passing, at 93, came after a long twilight fight against Alzheimer's disease.
But thousands felt the need to make a final gesture of solidarity, to connect with him one last time. "He's one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century," said Taryn Solcoff, a 33-year-old financial analyst who traveled from Boston with her mother to the Capitol to watch the funeral procession. "He shaped the way I saw the world."
He had that effect on millions, but what tends to be forgotten is that when the former film star and California governor took office on the unseasonably warm afternoon of Jan. 20, 1981, he was seen by much of the country as a curiosity, an intellectual lightweight, or a dangerous cowboy who might lead the nation to ruin and war. He had defeated Jimmy Carter, in large measure, because of public disdain for his Democratic predecessor's failures and because Americans, frustrated with the status quo, wanted to try something new. Unlike the down-to-the-second choreography that characterized his meticulously planned funeral services last week, the course of his presidency was full of potholes, wrong turns, detours, and unexpected obstacles.
At the start of the Reagan era, many social critics feared that the presidency was too big a job for one person and that the United States was on an inexorable slide from greatness. Inflation and unemployment were in double digits. The nation was still reeling from a series of international embarrassments that reached their nadir in the Iranian hostage crisis, when 52 Americans were held for nearly a year. Oil shortages, symbolized by soaring prices and endless gas lines, had decimated national morale. Life, it seemed, was spinning out of control.
Into these darkling skies, Reagan's optimism struck like summer lightning. "We have every right to dream heroic dreams," he said in his first inaugural address. "We're not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing."
The attempt on his life came on March 30, 1981, the 70th day of his presidency. When Reagan arrived at George Washington University Hospital with a bullet lodged in his chest, Secret Service agents tried to help him out of his limousine; Reagan waved them off. Slowly, the president climbed out of the car, hitched up his pants, buttoned his suit jacket, and walked stiffly through the hospital doors. Inside, he collapsed to one knee. It was only then, in private, that he allowed the agents to help him. "He believed it was part of the role of the president of the United States to show strength and confidence to the American people," recalls former White House media adviser Michael Deaver. "You never saw weakness."
Yet there were extraordinary tensions at the core of Reagan's presidency. He called America a "shining city on a hill" but showed little sensitivity to the poor, the homeless, and others who needed help from their government. Critics charged that his embrace of laissez-faire attitudes promoted an atmosphere of greed and profligacy. He talked of fiscal sanity but allowed the deficit to balloon, cutting income taxes while he ramped up defense spending. He left the federal government with enormous structural budget deficits and an immense national debt, but still, the economy boomed.
Reagan saw himself as a man of conviction, but he was not above cutting a deal to get results. He vowed not to make concessions to terrorists but sent arms to Iran in an attempt to win the freedom of Americans held hostage in Lebanon. The resulting scandal almost destroyed his presidency.
On social issues, Reagan hewed to a hard conservative line, opposing abortion, supporting prayer in schools, favoring the abolition of the Departments of Education and Energy, backing tough anticrime bills, appointing conservative judges to the bench, and opening public lands to private development.
One question will dominate historians' assessments of the Reagan era: Did his policies cause, or at least hasten, the collapse of communism? Reagan's defenders say his defense buildup--he increased military spending from $185 billion in 1982 to nearly $304 billion in 1989--and his relentless diplomatic and military pressure and covert actions broke the back of communism, an achievement of profound importance. But his critics argue that communism was collapsing anyway, a victim of its own excesses and structural flaws, and say Reagan wasted billions of dollars on a fool's errand.
The available evidence suggests a middle ground. Anatoly Chernyaev, one of Mikhail Gorbachev's closest aides, believes Reagan's policies were neither inconsequential nor overwhelmingly decisive in forcing the Kremlin's hand. Instead, those policies served as a contributing factor pushing Gorbachev toward political and economic reforms at home and arms-control agreements with the West.
Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative was a constant preoccupation in Moscow. Gorbachev worried that SDI would escalate the arms race to undreamed-of levels, straining Soviet resources to the breaking point, and this fear helped to push him toward accommodation, even though such a system remains unproven. By 1986, Reagan was so convinced that Gorbachev was a practical-minded reformer that he almost took one of the most dangerous gambles in the history of superpower relations. When the two men met again during a wintry October weekend in Reykjavik, Iceland, their talks started with great promise. Gorbachev expressed his willingness to eliminate all Soviet medium-range nuclear missiles from Europe. Talks quickly moved into dangerous territory: Reagan, to the consternation of his hard-line aides, said he would be willing to eliminate all U.S. nuclear weapons if the Soviets did the same. That, Reagan's experts agreed later, would have been a massive error that would have made the West vulnerable to Moscow's huge advantage in conventional forces. Only when Gorbachev insisted that Reagan abandon SDI did the president balk. The summit quickly broke down.
It was his anticommunism that aides appealed to in persuading Reagan to send missiles to Iran, warning of growing Soviet influence there. That gambit, coupled with Reagan's disengaged management style, produced his worst foreign-policy debacle. Then a few of the president's men compounded the damage by diverting the proceeds from missile sales to another anticommunist crusade, the contra rebels in Nicaragua. For months starting in late 1986, the administration was battered by charges of illegality and deception. Reagan himself was widely blamed for either approving the gambit directly or for failing to pay enough attention to what was going on in his own government. Amid concern that he was losing his grip, the 76-year-old commander in chief endured a rapid decline in his job approval rating among voters.
Gradually, however, things turned around. Increasingly prosperous and secure, Americans lost interest in the scandal, and Reagan's popularity rebounded. He was, his critics complained, a "Teflon president."
Through the ups and downs, Reagan carried himself without the sense of burden that plagued so many of his predecessors. Early in his presidency, Reagan told a friend he didn't understand why Jimmy Carter had complained so much about the demands of office. "This job isn't all that tough," Reagan said. "The big problem is all these meetings. Once you get used to them, you just realize you set a course and stay with it." He did, often leaving the Oval Office about 5 p.m. to have an early dinner with Nancy. At 69, he was the oldest man ever elected president, and he was careful to give himself plenty of time to relax (though that didn't prevent him from dozing during cabinet meetings). He took long weekends at Camp David and spent weeks in seclusion at his Santa Barbara, Calif., ranch every summer.
From the day he walked into the Oval Office, Reagan considered himself an ordinary guy with a few extraordinary skills. Now that the nation is searching for a set of truths that will guide it through the 21st century, perhaps it is most appropriate to remember Reagan for the simple personal precepts he represented: a lifelong belief in the goodness of the American people and the firm belief that if someone sticks to his guns, he can truly change the world.