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Western Press Review: Newspapers Remember Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan

Prague, 7 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Media commentary today is dominated by remembrance of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who died on 5 June at the age of 93 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. The divide in public opinion over the Reagan presidency continues to loom large, as some credit him with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, while others fault him for failed foreign policies like the decision to illegally fund armed Nicaraguan insurgents in the Iran-Contra scandal.


An editorial today says former U.S. President Ronald Reagan at times "projected an aura of optimism so radiant that it seemed almost a force of nature. Many people who disagreed with his ideology still liked him for his personality, and that was a source of frustration for his domestic political opponents who knew how much the ideology mattered."

In the final analysis, Reagan "will almost certainly be ranked among the most important presidents of the 20th century, forever linked with the triumph over Communism abroad and the restoration of faith in free markets at home." It was his "stubborn refusal to accept the permanence of Communism" that helped bring the Cold War to an end. But Reagan also benefited from "good timing and good luck," and was fortunate "to have as his counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, a Soviet leader ready to acknowledge his society's failings and interested in reducing international tensions."

But the paper says Reagan-era foreign policies included some notable blunders. It calls Reagan's decision to send Marines into Lebanon "disastrous," and the invasion of Grenada "pure melodrama." But the most calamitous decision Reagan made was to exchange weapons for American hostages in Iran, and to use the proceeds to illegally finance contra rebel fighters in Nicaragua.

So Reagan's "complicated legacy" endures, the paper says. Part of his success rested on the simplicity of his message to the American people, that "[there] was no problem that could not be solved if Americans would only believe in themselves. At the time, it was something the nation needed to hear."

But today, the United States is living "in an era defined by that particular kind of simplicity, which expresses itself in semi-detached leadership and a black-and-white view of the world." And the nuances of gray are "beginning to look a lot more attractive."


The "Post's" David Broder says almost everything former U.S. President Ronald Reagan accomplished "in politics and government -- and he accomplished more than any other Republican president since Teddy Roosevelt -- he did through his powers of persuasion."

Against a barrage of "expert opinion" often stating the contrary, Reagan "pursued his belief that the Soviet Union would crack under the pressure of an accelerated arms race, and he lived to see the Soviet empire crumble and a degree of freedom and democracy come to Russia itself." Broder says even Reagan's "most implausible challenge," his exhortation in Berlin to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," was ultimately realized "because Reagan so fervently believed that freedom was the most powerful force on earth."

But in his role as "The Great Persuader," Reagan "was also able to persuade himself -- and therefore, other people -- of things that were palpably not true," says Broder. During the Iran-Contra scandal, "Reagan clearly believed, against all evidence, that he had not authorized trading arms for hostages. And he never could be persuaded that the huge deficits that accumulated on his watch were the result of his own policies."

But Broder says it is precisely because Reagan "could persuade almost anyone -- starting with himself -- of anything" that the impossible was made possible. "And the world is profoundly different because of him."


A contribution by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev eulogizing his Cold War-era counterpart, Ronald Reagan, appears in both today's "New York Times" and the "International Herald Tribune." Gorbachev says Reagan was a man who, in his lifetime, "saw moments of triumph, who had his ups and downs and experienced the happiness of true love."

Reagan's first term as president (1981-85) was "dedicated to restoring America's self-confidence," Gorbachev says. Reagan's leadership style "appealed to the traditions and optimism of the people, to the American dream." But this was accompanied by rather truculent rhetoric toward the Soviet Union, which Reagan dubbed the "evil empire."

And yet by the time of his second term (1985-89), Reagan seemed to understand "that it is the peacemakers, above all, who earn a place in history." Gorbachev says this second term happened to coincide "with the emergence of a new Soviet leadership -- a coincidence that may seem accidental but that was in effect a prologue to momentous events in world history."

"The dialogue that President Reagan and I started was difficult," Gorbachev writes. "To reach agreement, [we] had to overcome mistrust and the barriers of numerous problems and prejudices." But Reagan, "while adhering to his convictions, [was] not dogmatic; he was looking for negotiations and cooperation."

Together, Gorbachev says he and Reagan "changed the nature of relations between our two countries, moving step by step to build trust and to test it by concrete deeds."

Looking back, the former Soviet leader says, "I think that the main lesson of those years is the need for dialogue, which must not be broken off whatever the challenges and complications we have to face."


An editorial in the Dublin-based daily says Reagan's "radical conservatism changed the United States and the world during his two terms in office as president from 1981-89. He set an agenda of conviction politics, direct political communication, tax cutting, trickle-down economics, hostility to big government, opposition to trade union power and the assertive use of U.S. military strength abroad which influenced many other leaders."

But the paper says while one can acknowledge Reagan's "political and historical achievements," it is something different to endorse all his policies. "Alongside his firm opposition to Soviet power there was a dangerous ratcheting up of military tension in Europe, subversion of change in Central America, growing support for expansionist Israeli policies in the Middle East and backing for Iraq in its war against Iran," the paper says. Domestically, Reagan "opposed the big spending state, but left a legacy of huge budget deficits from bloated military spending." And those "at the bottom of the social pile suffered from cuts in taxation and redistribution of resources to the rich."


An editorial today says for all the talk of Ronald Reagan's optimism, humor, and good nature, these qualities were not sufficient for his success in leadership. Ultimately, says the paper, Reagan was "the most consequential President since [Depression-era President Franklin D. Roosevelt] because of his ideas." His presidency was fundamentally "about returning a country that was heading toward decline back to its founding principles of individual liberty and responsibility." Many called this the Reagan "revolution," but the "Journal" says his administration is better described as a "restoration" of traditional American values.

Reagan -- along with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom some have called his political "soul-mate" -- "rallied the West to renew its moral and military challenge to Communism and to win the Cold War. It is common now to speak of 'the fall' of the Berlin Wall. But it did not fall on its own. It was pulled down -- literally by the Germans on both sides, metaphorically by Mr. Reagan, who had chipped away at its moral and political foundation."

The 1989 collapse of the Iron Curtain "was preceded by a host of actions designed to show American resolve: arms [for the anti-Soviet] Afghan resistance, support for Latin American regimes faced with Communist insurgencies, the shooting down of two Libyan jets, the invasion of Grenada, the pursuit of missile defenses, the willingness to walk away at [a 1986 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in] Reykjavik [and] above all his willingness to call the Soviet Union what it was -- an 'evil empire.'"

And the paper says it was Reagan, not his advisers, nor the Central Intelligence Agency, who correctly predicted the ultimate collapse of the Soviet regime.


The "Monitor" carries a contribution today by Dinesh D'Souza, a former senior policy analyst in the Reagan administration and author of one of several biographies written about the former president. D'Souza says those who, like himself, once viewed Reagan as detached from the daily realities of the presidency were wrong in their assessment.

At the time of Reagan's presidency, "there was virtual unanimity across the political spectrum that the Soviet empire was permanent. Reagan's top Soviet advisers were part of that consensus. Reagan was almost unique in the Western world in seeing the fragility at the heart of the Soviet system.

"Not only was Reagan prophetic in forecasting the Soviet demise, he was prescient in the strategy he employed to hasten it," D'Souza says. With hindsight, he says, "we can now see that it was Reagan, and only Reagan, who was right all along. He shepherded the 'evil empire' to its grave with almost uncanny prescience and statesmanship."

Many historians "cannot bring themselves to credit his accomplishments." Even many of his supporters "underestimated his effectiveness." D'Souza says, "Only in retrospect do we see how much he accomplished. And in time, most people will also see this. History, I am convinced, will view Reagan as one of our greatest presidents. He won the cold war and launched the world into a new era."


Antoine de Gaudemar says rarely has there been an American president so gleefully ridiculed on this side of the Atlantic as Ronald Reagan. But this simple man who started from nothing and achieved some fame in Hollywood, who was often ill at ease in an official capacity, but jovial and skillful in front of the camera and an optimistic defender of American values was an American myth come alive. This made Reagan one of the most popular presidents and a leader with whom the people could identify.

But Reagan's legacy is manifestly political, de Gaudemar says. If he was not actually responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall, Reagan certainly had a role in shaking it, as much through dangerously accelerating the arms race as by supporting Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost. The pure and enduring Republican values Reagan espoused have served as the foundation for the neo-conservatives of today, so much so that U.S. President George W. Bush takes more from Reagan's presidency than from that of his own father. U.S. President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" recalls Reagan's description of the Soviet Union as the "evil empire." And the ultra-liberal economic policy of the current administration has its roots in the Reagan era.

But in another sense, the "Reaganist" America has been lost. In light of the mistakes being made by the current administration -- that of re-instilling doubt in America and launching unprecedented hostilities abroad -- President Bush has truly departed from Reagan's legacy, perhaps even effecting a reversal of the Reagan years.

De Gaudemar says, in light of the nostalgia that seems to have gripped America upon hearing of Reagan's death, it seems that the Americans, too, preferred the original to the copy.