Times 2

The movie actor who became President

By Susan Shepherd

LONDON, February 6, Graphic News: By the time Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th President of the United States, died at his home in Bel Air, Los Angeles, on June 5, 2004, his once-photographic memory had vanished and he could recognise only a handful of faces -- that of his devoted wife of 52 years, the former First Lady, Nancy, among them.

In an open letter to the American people 10 years earlier, Reagan, son of a shoe salesman from Dixon, Illinois, who'd started out a Democrat and ended an icon of the Republican right, had spoken frankly about his diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. Facing what then lay ahead, the one-time Hollywood regular, who'd first married actress Jane Wyman and made more than 50 films before entering politics, declared that he was beginning the journey "that will lead me into the sunset of my life".

When he finally succumbed, at the age of 93, his body was flown across the country to lie in state at the Capitol and a national day of mourning was declared.

Debate continues about both his legacy and the onset date of his progressive brain disease. Reagan was famous for his so-called "gaffes" -- welcoming Prince Charles and Princess "David" to a glamorous White House dinner, toasting the people of Bolivia -- in Brazil, and his frequent lapses mid-speech, when Nancy would hiss a prompt.

Yet, with his actor's skill and some fine writers -- including Peggy Noonan, who scripted his televised address to the nation on the day the Challenger space shuttle was lost -- Reagan proved he could deliver his lines flawlessly.

In Berlin, in 1987, he stood at the Brandenburg Gate, the Cold War leaders he had once condemned as part of the "evil empire" now replaced by the reforming Mikhail Gorbachev, and demanded of his Russian counterpart: "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall". A piece of the Berlin Wall, which fell in 1989, the year Reagan handed over to his successor and former vice-president, George Bush Snr., stands as a focal point at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, where his remains lie.

At 73, Reagan was the oldest man to be sworn in as president, when re-elected in 1984. Attempts by the Democrat candidate, Walter Mondale, to portray this as a disadvantage back-fired when Reagan told a live television debate that he refused to make a political issue of his opponent's youth and inexperience.
The resulting landslide saw Reagan, who'd started out as Governor of California in 1966, beaten Jimmy Carter in 1980 and survived an assassination attempt just weeks after his 1981 inauguration, take 49 out of 50 states to win a second term. Such popularity helped exonerate him from scandal, such as the Iran-Contra affair in which members of his administration -- notably Lt. Col. Oliver North -- dealt arms to the then-embargoed Iran, to fund rebel activities against the government in Nicaragua and to try to secure the release of western hostages being held in the Middle East.

His conservative soulmate, Margaret Thatcher, a frequent visitor to his Santa Barbara ranch while British Prime Minister and who, like him, gave her name to radical economic policies of the time, said at his funeral: "We have lost a great president...I have lost a dear friend."

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