LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who made an astounding career change by leaping from acting to politics and then forging a conservative revolution that reshaped American politics, died on Saturday after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
The man admired for his sunny optimism and skills as ‘The Great Communicator” died of pneumonia at age 93 at his home in the posh Bel Air section of Los Angeles with members of his immediate family at his bedside, including his wife of 52 years, Nancy — loved ones he was no longer able to recognize or speak to because of the crippling disease.
The death ended a long, painful last chapter in a close marriage. Just last month, Nancy Reagan made a rare speech in which she described her husband’s last days suffering from Alzheimer’s.
“Ronnie’s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him,” she said, urging support for stem cell research to help cure Alzheimer’s.
The White House said the death of the 40th president was a sad day for the United States. “A great American life has come to an end,” President Bush said in Paris following talks with French President Jacques Chirac.
Bush, whose politics seemed modeled on Reagan’s as much as on his own father, President George H. W., Bush, told reporters, “He leaves behind a nation he restored, and a world he helped save.”
He added that “now a shining city awaits him,” a reference to a favorite speech line of Reagan’s about America becoming a shining city on the hill.
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who became a close friend of his, praised Reagan for what she said was his greatest achievement — ending the Cold War “without a shot being fired.”
“Ronald Reagan had a higher claim than any other leader to have won the Cold War for liberty,” Thatcher said. “To have achieved so much, against such odds, and with such humor and humanity, made Ronald Reagan a truly great American hero.”
A FLAG-DRAPED COFFIN
Reagan’s body was taken in a flag-draped coffin to a local funeral home to be embalmed later on Saturday and then on Monday, according to long set plans, he will lie in state at the Reagan library in California before being flown the next day to Washington to lie in state there.
Barring last minute changes, a funeral service will be held at the National Cathedral and his body will be flown back to California to be buried on a hillside at the Reagan library on Thursday.
It will be the first presidential state funeral in Washington since Lyndon Johnson’s in 1973 and poses massive security problems for a city that was one of the targets of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Reagan suffered from the brain-wasting Alzheimer’s disease since 1994 and the man who held five summits with Mikhail Gorbachev was reduced to playing children’s games with his wife before his condition worsened and he entered the last stages of the disease, recognizing no one.
Ronald Wilson Reagan, the son of an alcoholic shoe salesman in Illinois, began his career broadcasting baseball games in the Middle West, games whose plays he would make up off a sports ticker.
He moved to Hollywood and became a fixture of the B-movie scene. His most famous line came in the football film “Knute Rockne, All American” where as dying player George Gipp, Reagan uttered the line, “Just win one for the Gipper.”
But as his career faded in the 1950s and 60s, Reagan used his job as the anti-Communist president of the Screen Actor’s Guild as training for a career shift to politics where he ultimately starred on the world stage in better roles than he ever had in any of his 50 movies.
Inspired by Barry Goldwater’s conservatism, he switched parties and became a Republican in 1962 and ran twice successfully as California’s governor.
As president from 1981 to 1989, he presided over a conservative revival that changed America’s political and economic landscape for years. Dozens of major politicians dominating the scene today, including President Bush, owe their inspiration to what was called “The Reagan Revolution.”
ON THE RIGHT
He became the first right-wing president in 50 years; the first in 30 years to serve two terms; and the first to spend a trillion dollars on peacetime defense and witness a doubling of the national debt.
He called the Soviet Union an evil empire and helped defeat it in the Cold War by presiding over a massive U.S. defense build-up that the Russians could not afford to keep up with.
Reagan was thrust into his gravest crisis with the disclosure in November 1986 that the United States had sold arms to Iran in 1985-86 and diverted proceeds to U.S.-backed Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua.
Reagan declared himself guilty of nothing but poor judgment, and Congressional hearings in 1987 backed him on one central point: witnesses said he was never told about the Contra funds.
He left office two weeks shy of his 78th birthday, by far the oldest president the United States had ever had and more popular than any predecessor in history.
It was typical of the amazing physical resilience he had shown in office, surviving a 1981 assassination attempt that put a bullet near his heart, a 1985 colon cancer operation and 1987 prostate and skin-cancer surgery. He explained his being shot this way to his wife: ‘Honey I forgot to duck.”
When diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, Reagan disclosed it in a “My fellow Americans” letter.
“When the Lord calls me home … I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future,” he wrote on Nov. 5, 1994. “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”
The TV networks scrambled to be first with the news of his death with ABC winning but the news did not startle Americans who long expected that his end was near.
At 6 p.m. EDT a wreath of red and white flowers was placed on Reagan’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but only a couple of people were around to watch on a bright Saturday that had most people at the beach.