Ronald Wilson Reagan Case Study
AS SEEN IN USA TODAY NEWS SECTION, MONDAY, JUNE 7, 2004, PAGE 1A
"Democrat for Nixon." In 1962, he changed his party registration to Republican. Two years later, he emerged as the rising star of the GOP's conservative wing.
"He was literally the Moses of the conservative movement," says Marshall Wittmann, a Republican analyst who now works for Arizona Sen. John McCain. "He brought conservatives out of the wilderness into the promised land." Reagan persuaded so many blue-collar workers to switch sides and vote for him that they took his name: Reagan Democrats. Since he left the scene, nearly every would-be Republican presidential contender has claimed to be his heir.
A career is launched
Reagan's political career was launched, appropriately enough, by a speech. He could seem uninformed when he got an unexpected question at a news conference, but he was the most skillful presidential orator since FDR when he had a text and a friendly audience. His manner was easy, his voice trained, his language vaulting.
His breakthrough speech was in 1964, when he made a televised fundraising appeal for GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. "We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth," Reagan said, "or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness."
Goldwater was doomed, but Reagan's political career began.
He was 55 when he was elected to the first of two terms as governor of California in 1966. He beat the Democratic incumbent by nearly a
million votes. Almost from the start, he and his backers had their eyes on a higher prize: He made a last-minute bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and waged a full- scale battle for the nomination against then-president Ford in 1976.
He finally won the nomination four years later.
Reagan was 69 when he became president, the oldest man to be elected to the Oval Office. By the time he left the White House eight years later, despite scars from the Iran- contra scandal, he was still popular enough to help install his vice
president, his successor.
To the regular annoyance of friends and foes, Reagan was a bundle of contradictions. Biographer Edmund Morris acknowledged his frustrated inability to figure Reagan out despite spending 14 years with special access to produce his 874-page book, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, in 1999.
Reagan preached the virtues of a balanced budget but set the stage for the biggest deficits in history. He espoused family values and attacked Democrats for abandoning them, although he was the nation's first divorced president. His second marriage to Nancy Davis was famously close, but he was often estranged from his four children and distant from those who considered themselves friends.
And he held some ideas that advisers had worried would alarm voters. He had a strain of religious mysticism, perhaps the legacy of his mother, and believed in the biblical prophecy of Armageddon. He sometimes seemed to put more faith in anecdotes than statistics. He
created a campaign conflagration in 1980 when he claimed that trees created more air pollution than cars did.
Four years later, his rambling performance in the first debate of the 1984 campaign raised concerns about his competence. He defused them in
the second debate characteristic quip.
"I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience," he said. Even opponent Walter Mondale had to join in the laughter.
Out of office, Reagan published ghostwritten memoirs and built his presidential library on a California hilltop overlooking the Pacific. In November 1994, he released what would be his last communication with the American public. The two-page,
unpretentious, unapologetic, direct. And, despite the circumstances, remarkably upbeat.
"I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease," he wrote in his tight, backward-leaning scrawl. He talked about his beloved Nancy and thanked "the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President.
"When the Lord calls me home," he wrote then, before falling silent for good, "whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future."
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