He had an unsinkable optimism and he transformed the country and the world, changing the self-image Americans had of themselves after Vietnam, Watergate, and what previous President Jimmy Carter called a "malaise" and in setting in motion forces that crumbled the Soviet Union.
That's the way some Republicans remember Ronald Reagan, America's 40th president, who died Saturday at age 93 after a long battle with Alzheimer's Disease. In 1994, Reagan informed the nation by letter that he had Alzheimer's disease. A passage from his note read, "When the Lord calls me home, whenever that day may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future."
"He had an unsinkable optimism about the country and about its future," said Walter Baker of Glasgo, Ky. who served two years in the Reagan Administration as Assistant General Counsel for International Affairs at the Pentagon."That contrasted directly with the previous administration where President Carter kept telling us we should expect less rather than more," Baker said. "President Reagan believed the best was yet to come, and he persuaded an entire nation of that belief."
Reagan's body has lain in repose at the Ronald Reagan Library in California for the past two days as thousands upon thousands of mourners passed by the casket to pay their respects. In a very poignant moment Monday, Reagan's beloved wife, Nancy, walked to his casket in the library after a short service and gently laid her head upon the flag that draped it. She was then embraced by her pastor before leaving the library to allow mourners to pay their respects.
Baker spoke of Reagan's uncanny ability to connect with the American people, which made him known as the "great communicator." Baker said Reagan "spoke to the hearts of the American people. He had an almost boyish patriotism that resonated across this country."
CSE Chairman and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey made the following comments: "Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE) and our 360,000 members nationwide remember Ronald Wilson Reagan with sadness, affection and pride. Ronald Reagan changed the world. We have no doubt that history will remember him as the greatest modern American President," Army said. "He came into office in 1980, when the U.S. economy was floundering, Soviet tyranny dominated Eastern Europe, and pessimism abounded. Reagan changed all of that. In the face of withering criticism and political peril, he returned the country to its roots, cutting taxes, deregulating markets, encouraging trade, and confronting Communism in clear moral terms. As a result, America became once again a place of growth and optimism."
Even Democrats had good things to say about Reagan -- in retrospect. Bobby Richardson, former Democrat Speaker of the House in Kentucky's General Assembly, said Reagan "was one of the most personable people I've ever had the opportunity to have contact with. "He was a great leader and a great motivator and obviously a great communicator," Richardson said. "Even though I didn't agree with his politics at the time, he was a good person for the presidency at that time."Reagan inherited an economy that featured raging inflation and soaring interest rates, and at first his solutions didn't seem to help as the nation fell into a deep recession. But Reagan never wavered in his beliefs in smaller government, reduced taxation and stalwart defense.
He reduced taxes, wrung inflation from the system and presided over a defense build-up that eventually forced the Communist leadership of the Soviet Union to buckle. But his policies did run up huge national deficits.
"He literally built our military might to the point where the Soviet Union could no longer compete," Baker said. "That was one of the fundamental causes of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the cold war. We out-produced them, we out-gunned them, we out-spent them -- they couldn't keep up. The flip side of that, of course, is we created an awful lot of additional national debt, but I think it saved us from the possibility of a third world war."
Baker credits Reagan as well for restoring the country's standing as an international leader willing to use its power against its enemies. He recalls meetings he attended about Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and North Korean threats, from neither of which Reagan shrank."He was willing to use the might of this nation to support its policies," Baker said while recalling a meeting at the White House when the administration decided to test Gadhafi's stance on territorial waters in the Mediterranean.
"The question came up: 'What would we do if they shot down one of our planes?'" Baker recalled. "And the President said, 'You'll chase them all the way back into the desert and bag them!'"
Reagan, who didn't register as a Republican until the early sixties, was previously an admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he won over huge segments of traditional Democrat constituencies, including blue-collar rank and file labor, who were subsequently labeled "Reagan Democrats," and began shifting traditionally conservative Democrats to the Republican side.
Ronnie Ellis The Glasgow (Ky.) Daily Times, a CNHI publication and Susan K. Lamb contributed to the Story.