Jun 5, 2004
Ronald Reagan, the cheerful crusader who devoted his presidency to winning the Cold War, trying to scale back government and making people believe it was "morning again in America," died Saturday after a long twilight struggle with Alzheimer's disease.
"My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has passed away after 10 years of Alzheimer's disease at 93 years of age. We appreciate everyone's prayers," Nancy Reagan said in a statement.
Nancy Reagan, along with children Ron and Patti Davis, were at the couple's Los Angeles home when Reagan died at 1 p.m. PDT of pneumonia complicated by Alzheimer's disease, said Joanne Drake, who represents the family. Son Michael arrived a short time later, she said.
In Paris, President Bush called Reagan's death "a sad day for America." The U.S. flag over the White House was lowered to half-staff.
Five years after leaving office, the nation's 40th president told the world in November 1994 that he had been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's, an incurable illness that destroys brain cells. He said he had begun "the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life."
Reagan's body was expected to be taken to his presidential library and museum in Simi Valley, Calif., and then flown to Washington to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. His funeral was expected to be at the National Cathedral, an event likely to draw world leaders. The body was to be returned to California for a sunset burial at his library.
Over two terms, from 1981 to 1989, Reagan reshaped the Republican Party in his conservative image, fixed his eye on the demise of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communism in his singleminded competition with the other superpower.
"Ronald Reagan had a higher claim than any other leader to have won the Cold War for liberty and he did it without a shot being fired," former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said Saturday.
Taking office at age 69, Reagan had already lived a career outside Washington, one that spanned work as a radio sports announcer, an actor, a television performer, a spokesman for the General Electric Co., and a two-term governor of California.
At the time of his retirement, his very name suggested a populist brand of conservative politics that still inspires the Republican Party.
He declared at the outset, "Government is not the solution, it's the problem," although reducing that government proved harder to do in reality than in his rhetoric.
Even so, he challenged the status quo on welfare and other programs that had put government on a growth spurt. In foreign affairs, he built the arsenals of war while seeking and achieving arms control agreements with the Soviet Union.
President Reagan served two terms and left office in 1989 with the highest popularity rating of any retiring president in the history of modern-day public opinion polls.
That reflected, in part, his uncommon ability as a communicator and his way of connecting with ordinary Americans, even as his policies infuriated the left and as his simple verities made him the butt of jokes. "Morning again in America" became his re-election campaign mantra in 1984, but typified his appeal to patriotrism through both terms.
Reagan lived longer than any U.S. president, spending his last decade in the shrouded seclusion wrought by his disease, tended by his wife, Nancy, whom he called Mommy, and the select few closest to him. Now, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are the surviving ex-presidents.
From his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Ford said, "Ronald Reagan was an excellent leader of our nation during challenging times at home and abroad. We extend our deepest condolences and prayers to Nancy and his family."
Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry said that Reagan's "love of country was infectious. Even when he was breaking Democrats hearts, he did so with a smile and in the spirit of honest and open debate."
Although she was fiercely protective of Reagan's privacy, Nancy Reagan let people know the former president's mental condition had deteriorated terribly. Last month, she said: "Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him."
At 69, Reagan was the oldest man ever elected president when he was chosen in 1980, by an unexpectedly large margin over the incumbent Carter.
Near-tragedy struck on his 70th day as president. On March 30, 1981, Reagan was leaving a Washington hotel after addressing labor leaders when a young drifter, John Hinckley, fired six shots at him. A bullet lodged an inch from Reagan's heart, but he recovered.
Four years later he was re-elected by an even greater margin, carrying 49 of the 50 states in defeating Democrat Walter F. Mondale, Carter's vice president.
Reagan's oldest daughter, Maureen, from his first marriage, died in August 2001 at age 60 from cancer. Three other children survive: Michael, from his first marriage, and Patti Davis and Ron from his second.