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Sunday, June 6, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ronald Reagan dies at 93

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LOS ANGELES — Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th president of the United States, who transformed the Republican Party and substantially defined the terms of contemporary political debate during two momentous terms in office, died yesterday afternoon. He was 93.

Ten years after he announced his Alzheimer's disease in an open letter to the American people, Mr. Reagan's long twilight reached its end at his home in Bel Air, Calif., in the company of his wife and their children.

"My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has passed away," former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a written statement. "We appreciate everyone's prayers."

President Bush got the news in Paris after leaving a dinner with French President Jacques Chirac. In Washington, D.C., and California, plans were quickly made for the capital's first presidential funeral in more than 30 years.

Initial plans call for Mr. Reagan's remains to lie for a day at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., then travel by Air Force One to Washington, D.C., where he will lie in state in the Capitol rotunda.

At midweek, probably Wednesday, there will be a funeral procession with horse-drawn caisson from the Capitol to a spot near the White House. From there, a hearse will carry the casket to Washington National Cathedral for a funeral conducted by the newly named ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth, an Episcopal priest and a former Republican senator from Missouri.

The body will then be flown back to California to be buried at the Reagan library.

"This is a sad hour in the life of America," Bush said after speaking with Nancy Reagan. "A great American life has come to an end. Ronald Reagan won America's respect with his greatness, and won its love with his goodness. He had the confidence that comes with conviction, the strength that comes with character, the grace that comes with humility, and the humor that comes with wisdom."

Blinking back tears, Bush added: "He always told us that for America, the best was yet to come. We comfort ourselves in the knowledge that this is true for him, too. His work is done. And now a shining city awaits him."

It was an almost unbelievable life, a melodrama, a rags-to-riches tale, a multipart saga written by someone with boundless imagination and an infinite sense of the possible. Born in tiny Tampico, Ill., Mr. Reagan was a radio sportscaster, a Hollywood B-movie star, host of a TV variety show, a soap salesman, a motivational speaker, governor of California, and — starting at age 53 — arguably the most important American political figure since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"Over time, he converted much of the country to his own views and values. His more important legacy is how much he changed our minds," suggested David Gergen, formerly Mr. Reagan's communications director.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said, "Ronald Reagan's love of country was infectious," and he praised the late president for his goodwill in the heat of partisan battle. "Even when he was breaking Democrats' hearts, he did so with a smile and in the spirit of honest and open debate. Despite the disagreements, he lived by that noble ideal that at 5 p.m. we weren't Democrats or Republicans, we were Americans and friends."

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called him "a truly great American hero" who changed the world.

"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," Thatcher said.

Among the ranks of Republican conservatives who live and breathe Mr. Reagan's catechism of low taxes, small government, unregulated liberty and a strong military, he is rated one of the most important presidents in U.S. history.

"Ronald Reagan was a president of great historic impact who led the United States with strength and conviction, and the positive impact of his policies is still felt today here and around the world," said GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie. "Because Ronald Reagan lived, people across the globe live in greater freedom and prosperity."

Gliding gracefully across the national stage with his boy-next-door good looks and his lopsided grin, Mr. Reagan managed to escape blame for political disasters for which any other president would have been excoriated.

If the federal deficit almost tripled in his presidency, if 241 Marines that he sent to Beirut, Lebanon, were killed in a terrorist bombing, he was always able to rekindle public support. He became known as the Teflon president.

Mr. Reagan usually spoke from notes on cue cards, even when addressing small groups. And his masterful public leadership was not matched by managerial prowess.

Both as governor and as president, he was highly dependent upon his staff, to whom he delegated an unusual degree of responsibility. He set the broad thematic agenda and made the big decisions, but he knew little detail of the government he headed, and often didn't bother to find out much about it.

Unquestioned, though, was Mr. Reagan's ability to connect with the American public through formal speeches, offhand remarks, even mere gestures. He was the most effective presidential communicator since Roosevelt and probably one of three greatest to hold the office — Lincoln, master of the written speech; Roosevelt, master of the radio address; and Mr. Reagan, master of television.

He loved to smile and tell jokes. His dad nicknamed him "Dutch." The Secret Service called him "Rawhide." His easy, avuncular manner and his warm husky voice helped persuade people to trust and believe in him.

Wounded in an assassination attempt shortly after taking office in 1981, he quipped, "I forgot to duck."

Dogged by worries about his age during his re-election campaign, he promised during a presidential debate: "I am not going to exploit for political gain my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Comforting a nation stunned by the 1986 explosion of space shuttle Challenger, he said: "Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue."

Crystallizing the final stage of the Cold War confrontation between Western liberties and Soviet repression, he visited the Berlin Wall in 1987 and challenged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down.

In a perfect summary of his core faith, Mr. Reagan declared: "After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor."

He left the public eye in 1994, soon after attending the California funeral of Richard Nixon, the previous president to pass away.

Mr. 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 Ronald Prescott Reagan, from his second, who has owned a house in Seattle since 1994.

Compiled from reports by The Washington Post, The New York Times, Knight Ridder Newspapers and The Associated Press.

Information in this article, originally published June 6, was corrected June 18. One of President Ronald Reagan's sons is named Ronald Prescott Reagan. A previous version of this story erroneously referred to him as Ron Reagan Jr.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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