Former President Ronald Reagan Dies

By David Thibault | July 7, 2008 | 8:30pm EDT

( - Ronald Reagan, one of America?s most beloved presidents, whose policies revived the nation?s conservative movement and set the stage for the collapse of the communist Soviet bloc, died Saturday after a long battle with Alzheimer?s Disease. He was 93.

On Nov. 5, 1994, the former president wrote a letter to the American people about his battle with Alzheimer?s, describing it as ?the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.? Nearly ten years after penning that memorable letter, Reagan died at his California home. His family had begun a vigil at the former president's bedside in the last few days.

Remembered for his tough approach to communism; he once characterized the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire, his determination to shrink government with lower taxes and his nearly unmatched ability to help Americans cope with their grief, the nation?s 40th president served for eight years in the White House, winning landslide elections over Democrats Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984.

His second term was marred by the Iran/Contra scandal, but most Americans remained firmly in his corner. In the first years of his political retirement, Reagan was still wildly popular, especially among those thankful to him for having ushered in the conservative era of the 1980s.

But Reagan was not just popular with conservatives. His folky charm made it difficult to dislike him, winning him millions of votes from disaffected Democrats upset at the foreign policy blunders and economic problems that had plagued the presidency of Reagan?s predecessor, Jimmy Carter.

In addition to leading a conservative resurgence in his own party, Reagan was responsible for the era of the ?Boll Weevil? Democrats ? the fiscally conservative Democrats from the South named after the beetle famous for destroying cotton crops. Reagan?s ability to reach these members of Congress was so effective, it prompted one -- then Democratic U.S. Rep. Phil Gramm of Texas to switch parties and join the Reagan crusade.

Despite being the oldest president in American history ? Reagan was elected in 1980 at the age of 69 ? he inspired a generation of young people to take up political conservatism. The ?Youth for Reagan? movement was galvanized by the former California governor?s agenda of less government control and more personal freedom accompanied by greater individual responsibility.

Reagan, a one-time Democrat himself, developed a national political following as the governor of California, first defeating Democrat Pat Brown in 1966 and then winning a second term as the Golden State?s chief executive in 1970. Many conservatives then rallied to Reagan?s side when he ran for president the first time, in a losing effort as a GOP challenger to incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976.

Of course, Ronald Reagan was already famous by the time entered politics ? famous as a movie actor. ?The Gipper? ? the nickname Reagan earned by portraying Notre Dame football start George Gipp in the 1940 film Knute Rockne, All American stuck with him the rest of his life.

But it was his role on the political stage that won Reagan his place in history.

He will forever be remembered as the president who labeled the Soviet Union, at the height of Soviet expansionism, the ?Evil Empire.? His 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals sought to expose the Soviet communist system as godless totalitarianism, which Reagan said would no longer benefit from ?simpleminded appeasement,? in Washington. The military buildup Reagan launched to overtake the Soviet Union?s previously perceived nuclear superiority ended up forcing the Soviets to spend so much money to keep up ? their economy and communist reach were destroyed.

Possibly Reagan?s most famous speech, on June 12, 1987 at the Berlin wall, called upon Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy one of the most powerful symbols of the Iron Curtain of communism. ?Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,? Reagan bellowed.

His struggles with the leaders of the Soviet Union found the president blasting the policies of the Cold War enemy in public speeches and pleading for peaceful resolution and humanitarian reformation in private summits. And while fighting communism, Reagan strengthened alliances with other like-minded nations, most notably Great Britain. Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher formed not only a political but a personal friendship in their shared fight for freedom and democracy.

Where Reagan was able to reach out to and challenge political rivals, he excelled at communicating with the American people. His ability to connect on a personal level with the masses was exemplified by his January 1986 speech that comforted a nation grieving over the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger.

He related to individual citizens with an uncommon capacity for the common touch. His library of hundreds of personal letters included a letter to the wife of a solider killed in the Grenada rescue mission in 1983. Along with the letter, Reagan contributed to the college scholarship fund for the soldier?s unborn child. He sent a $50 check to a Girl Scout troop president with the explanation that, ?All us presidents have to stick together.?

Reagan came into his first term in 1981 inheriting a nation plagued by what came to be known as President Jimmy Carter?s ?misery index? ? the combination of high inflation and unemployment. His inaugural address recognized the struggles facing America and promised that ?this administration?s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunity for all Americans ??

His conservative fiscal policy ? dubbed ?Reaganomics? ? was based on cutting taxes to give Americans more personal financial freedom. He said of the government, ?[It] is like a baby: An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.? Reagan sought to reform the financial state of America and succeeded in lowering tax rates, cutting the damage of inflation and increasing employment rates ? all in his first term.

Throughout his life, Ronald Reagan?s desire was to do his part in ensuring the freedom and prosperity of the United States. In 1984, he told a group of college graduates that, ?The house we hope to build is not for my generation but for yours. It is your future that matters. And I hope that when you are my age, you will be able to say as I have been able to say: We lived in freedom. We lived lives that were a statement, not an apology.?

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