By Chuck Raasch
Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON - Ronald Reagan made conservatism cool.
The movie-star-turned-president became to the American right what Franklin Delano Roosevelt is to liberals: the father of a movement, the patron saint of its dearest beliefs. Even when he stumbled, Reagan's unabashed, old-fashioned love of country sustained him and, to a large degree, the country he governed.
Reagan resuscitated the idea of American exceptionalism when self-doubt had become part of the national agenda. Reagan looked at Vietnam and Watergate and the malaise of his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, in a rear-view mirror and invited the rest of the country to do the same. This new-fashioned patriotism was simplistic and naive to many, but Reagan's beliefs were endearing to most Americans. And these beliefs sustained him as he presided over the end game with the Soviet Union and the beginning of a new American prosperity and confidence.
From humble Midwestern bootstraps at the beginning of the 1900s to the leader of the free world at the Cold War's climax, Reagan was the American story of the 20th century.
"More than anything else, Ronald Reagan had a deep love affair with America," said Marshall Wittmann, a prominent Republican strategist who switched from the Democratic Party because of Reagan. "Perhaps his greatest contribution to the country was to revive its spirits after Vietnam and Watergate."
And so Reagan is committed to a nation's memory as the conservatives' untouchable, the one to whom all others are compared.
His words were known as "Reaganisms." His style was simply, "Reaganesque." Conservative Democrats became "Reagan Democrats."
Some in the Georgetown salons or the permanent bureaucracy or the Capitol Hill power corridors never got him. To them, he was a one-dimensional figure, a mile wide in image but an inch deep in substance.
His propensity to look at things not as they are but as they should be led Reagan to rationalize that tax cuts, without spending cuts, could lead to prosperity without pain. His "shining city on the hill" is still a distant image to many poor Americans.
But to many who were bored of or turned off by the failures of big government in the '60s and '70s, Reagan's ability to stick to a few undeniable American traits - patriotism, optimism, perseverance, love of freedom - made him popular, even when his policies were not always so.
When Reagan declared the Soviet Union the "evil empire," it cheered conservatives, who had long viewed the world in that context but had seen the label obscured in the politics of the Cold War. As it turned out, Reagan's pronouncement not only defined the terms of the Cold War, it gave new purpose to the prisoners in the Soviet gulags and others suffering behind the Iron Curtain. It turned a 40-year political and economic struggle into an easier-to-understand morality play.
And in the end, it did turn out like the movies for this actor: There were good guys and there were bad guys, and the good guys won.
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