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The Reagan centennial: Is the Gipper's legacy winning?


rr Credit: Getty

A hundred years ago this Sunday, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in the Land of Lincoln, Illinois. And like his Republican Party presidential counterpart from the Civil War, The Gipper has entered a transformed party’s pantheon of grand old presidents.

While no can deny that the actor-turned-president who led the nation through a recession and to victory in the Cold War has reached icon status, his ultimate legacy among the greatest of presidents is still hotly debated, 22 years since he left office. Where his legacy as a political deity is most assured is in the party he helped shape.

“The Republican party is what it is today because of Ronald Reagan,” said Craig Shirley, author of “Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America.” “There’s a mythology associated with Reagan, just as there is with icons like Washington, Lincoln and MLK.”

The centennial celebrations of Reagan, who died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2004, will include a video homage at the Super Bowl, speeches in Congress and a 21-gun salute and wreath-laying at his California gravesite.

They are a testimony to how much his legend has grown, despite how polarizing a figure he can still be.

Reagan is evoked in speeches — including those by Sarah Palin and Meghan McCain — more than any other GOP leader, Shirley said. His larger-than-life status isn’t lost on Democrats either.

President Barack Obama, who has commended Reagan’s emphasis on “accountability and change,” holds himself up to the standard Reagan set in rewriting government, Shirley said.

That’s not to say liberals have reconsidered Reagan’s policies. “He was not a friend of labor unions or the working man and was generally at the forefront of regulation repeal that eventually led to the financial crisis,” said Democratic media consultant Joseph Mercurio.

Republican consultant Mike Edelman, who says Reagan’s legacy rivals that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy Jr., applauds the Great Communicator’s conviction.

“Reagan believed in the power of ideas. He used the bully pulpit; he didn’t do it by sending troops in,” said Edelman, referencing Reagan’s aggressiveness toward Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the Cold War. “He changed the destiny of the free world.”

Reagan also all but defined the modern GOP platform.

“He set the tone of smaller government by lowering taxes and building the economy up,” said blogger Karol Markowicz, whose brother is named “Ronald” after the president. “But he wasn’t living up to someone else’s ideals or conservative ideals, these were his core beliefs. It was so authentic with him.”


Ronald Reagan in symbols

Jelly beans:
Reagan began eating his famous candy when he quit smoking in the 1960s. He famously kept a jar of them in his office and passed it around at White House meetings. He also put a stash on the space shuttle Challenger in 1982 to surprise the astronauts. Jelly Belly has released commemorative candies in honor of Reagan’s centennial and is sponsoring the Reagan float in the Rose Bowl parade.

After a 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan, the president and first lady Nancy frequently consulted an astrologer, Reagan’s chief of staff Donald Regan claimed in a memoir. The couple also used horoscopes to plan the president’s schedule and dictate their attitudes toward Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during the Cold War, Regan said.

Reagan was often photographed blissfully riding his beloved horses with a cowboy hat perched on his head. He and Nancy Reagan kept Arabian horses on Rancho del Cielo, their sprawling property near Santa Barbara, Calif.

Bonzo the chimp:
The chimp was star of “Bedtime for Bonzo,” one of Reagan’s most famous films of his pre-presidency acting career. In the comedy, Reagan’s character is a college professor who takes Bonzo from a science lab to prove that nurture can trump nature.


Highs and lows of Reagan's presidency

Victory in Cold War:
“Tear down this wall!” Reagan said at the Berlin Wall in a 1987 challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The Gipper helped negotiate the end of war. He poured cash into the arms race and ultimately forced the Soviets into economic ruin, but did so at the expense of domestic programs, said Democratic media consultant Joseph Mercurio

The economy:
His famous supply-side economics, which would become the fiscal platform of the modern GOP, rescued the nation from the high inflation and unemployment of Jimmy Carter’s administration. Critics, however, say his “trickle-down” economics never trickled down enough, and inflicted long-term economic damage, including a massive budget deficit and national debt.

The Great Communicator:
Reagan uplifted a troubled nation with his charisma, unabashed patriotism and larger-than-life personality. He was a talented writer always ready with the one-liners who had impeccable delivery. “He said his greatest accomplishment was to restore Americans’ belief in themselves,” said Reagan biographer Craig Shirley.

Iran-Contra scandal:

In 1986, the U.S. was found to be using cash raised from secret arms sales to Iran to bankroll Contras rebel groups in Nicaragua. Reagan was never implicated, but the International Court of Justice found the U.S. guilty of war crimes in Nicaragua.

Social issues:
Reagan’s small-government agenda included tax policies that boosted the upper brackets but hurt unions and the working-class. He terminated Social Security benefits for disabled recipients, a purge campaign that resulted in a slew of lawsuits.

Lebanon bombing:
More than 240 U.S. troops including peacekeeping forces deployed by Reagan were killed in a suicide truck bombing in Beirut in 1983 during the Lebanese Civil War. He reportedly called the attack his darkest day.

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