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Reagan legacy recalled on his 100th birthday

Late president’s stature grows with nostalgia

Nancy Reagan, 89, and others gathered yesterday at a celebration of the late president’s 100th birthday in Simi Valley, Calif. Nancy Reagan, 89, and others gathered yesterday at a celebration of the late president’s 100th birthday in Simi Valley, Calif. (David Mcnew/ Pool/Reuters)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post / February 7, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Ronald Reagan, whose 100th birthday anniversary was celebrated yesterday, is remembered as a transformative president, the creator of the contemporary Republican Party, and the very definition of conservatism.

Reagan, who died in 2004, is the object of both mythmaking and revisionism. As his presidency has undergone examination and reevaluation by conservative and liberal scholars, his place in history has grown larger. But he remains both misunderstood by some of his followers and underappreciated by his detractors.

Reagan’s iconic stature among conservatives is a source of inspiration for a Republican Party that, despite its victories in November, still hungers to recapture the high points of his presidency. Yet to many Republicans, “Reagan nostalgia’’ is an obstacle to the party’s hopes of moving forward in an era with challenges different from those of the 1980s.

Although Reagan helped fuel the conservative ascendancy, he was not, in the estimation of scholars, a conventional conservative, certainly not by today’s standards.

Steven Hayward, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of two volumes under the title “The Age of Reagan,’’ said that accepting the 40th president’s unique qualities is key to understanding his impact and influence. “His particular brand of conservatism,’’ Hayward said, “was idiosyncratic. . . . He was unconventional even from a conservative point of view.’’

Lou Cannon, the author of “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,’’ questioned whether Reagan would be comfortable with the elements of today’s party who demand near-purity as the measure of a true conservative.

“The Republicans want to hold onto this pure ideological vision of a Reagan that really never existed, or if did exist, didn’t sustain one week in Sacramento or Washington,’’ he said.

At the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., yesterday, actors, musicians, former advisers, and friends paid tribute to the former president, who was 93 when he died on June 5, 2004, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Nancy Reagan, 89, placed a wreath on her husband’s grave and briefly greeted the crowd of about 1,200 guests. James Baker III, former Cabinet secretary and close Reagan friend, and actor Gary Sinise spoke. Lee Greenwood and the Beach Boys performed.

Baker said the “Reagan Revolution’’ is still relevant. “The lessons Ronald Reagan taught us about freedom and common sense and self-reliance remain every bit as true today as they were then.’’

The former actor had his national political debut in 1964, with a televised speech for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. He was elected governor of California in 1966, and by 1980 he was the acknowledged leader of a conservative movement and captured the nomination for president.

During his two terms in office, Reagan sought to reverse the flow of power to Washington that began with the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he did not attempt to dismantle key elements of the New Deal and lived with big deficits throughout his presidency.

Reagan made tax cuts a central component of Republican economics but accepted tax increases as governor and as president. He signed a liberal abortion bill as governor of California, though he was an opponent of abortion as president. He called the Soviet Union the “evil empire’’ but toned down his rhetoric as he moved to negotiate with the Soviets to limit nuclear arms.

He changed the Republican approach to economic and fiscal policy by combining his call for smaller government and less power for Washington with a pro-growth message that emphasized deep tax cuts.

He embraced fierce nationalism in foreign policy and reversed the policy of detente with the Soviets that was a product of the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford era.

Of equal importance, he brought social and religious conservatives — symbolized by the rise of the Moral Majority under the late Rev. Jerry Falwell — together, even though he rarely attended church. The coalition not only united the Republican Party but gave birth to a new class of GOP voters: Reagan Democrats.

The most memorable line from his first inaugural address underscored the core of his philosophy: “In this present crisis,’’ he said, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.’’

Yet there were many compromises that seemed to belie that principle. He pushed through a major reduction in income tax rates in 1981 but agreed to legislation the next year that partly offset those cuts with other tax increases. The deal included prospective spending cuts that never materialized.

He appointed a bipartisan commission to fix Social Security and accepted a package that included tax increases and benefit cuts. In 1986, he signed a major overhaul of the federal tax code that further lowered individual rates but also broadened the tax base and eliminated loopholes.

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