Where he stands in history

Michael Barone

6/14/2004 12:00:00 AM - Michael Barone

 The atmosphere was cheerful, almost festive, among those arriving early for Ronald Reagan's memorial service at the National Cathedral, just as it was on the lines of those waiting to view his flag-draped casket at the Reagan Library and the Capitol. Then, 40 minutes before the ceremony, when the achingly beautiful music began, people sat quietly and somberly, some with tears in their eyes. With his interment on the opposite coast, on a gentle hill overlooking the Pacific, the question now is: How will history judge his stewardship?

 Perhaps more than any moment in last week's long goodbye, the service at the National Cathedral helped answer that. Speakers read from the Sermon on the Mount ("a city that is set on a hill") and from John Winthrop's 1630 sermon about "a city upon a hill" -- the basis for Reagan's belief that America is "a shining city on a hill," a special and specially good nation. Lady Thatcher, in her videotaped eulogy, and Brian Mulroney and George H. W. Bush described his strong convictions and perseverance, his belief in freedom and opposition to tyranny.

 It was left to George W. Bush to put in perspective Reagan's long life -- his lifespan covered 43 percent of the time from the inauguration of George Washington's to today. He described the boy in a small town reading books and saving people as a lifeguard, the young man working as a radio announcer in Iowa and a movie actor in Hollywood, the mature actor speaking out on public affairs. Bush quoted William F. Buckley in the 1960s, as Reagan was on the verge of a political career: "Reagan is indisputably a part of America."

 A very large part of America: As John Kerry noted last week in a graceful statement, Reagan's life covered "most of the American century." Growing up in the 1920s in Dixon, Ill., 124 miles west of Chicago, Reagan listened to Chicago radio stations, the pioneers in the medium, broadcasting the first situation comedies, sports broadcasts and national political party convention reports. Ambitious to succeed, the young Reagan went off to college, then made a career in radio, then passed a screen test and became a movie star.

 The 1920s and 1930s radio and 1930s and 1940s movies were universal media, aimed at all Americans, presenting a vision of a friendly and open nation. Those movies were the strongest popular culture since Dickens, and for many, still define the American character. Ronald Reagan was suffused with their spirit and brought it -- or, rather, brought it back -- to American politics.

 Brought it back, because it was the same spirit brought to politics by Franklin Roosevelt, for whom Reagan voted four times. Roosevelt and Reagan both came to office when people had given up on the American economy, and both brought it back toward prosperity and abundance -- Roosevelt by expanding government, Reagan by cutting taxes and curbing inflation, freeing the American economy to produce the largely unpredicted surge of prosperity of the last 20 years.

 Roosevelt and Reagan as presidents both faced a world where totalitarian regimes were on the march and where the United States seemed helpless to stop them. Roosevelt led the American people to victory and the destruction of Nazism and took steps to keep the peace in the postwar world he did not live to see. Reagan pushed the Soviet Union to the brink of collapse and had the satisfaction, before his mind dimmed, of watching as the Berlin Wall fell and Moscow's empire crumbled. He is buried now near a slab from that wall, overlooking the mountains and the Pacific to the west.

 Reagan always admired Roosevelt, even as he came to oppose many of his policies, and there were similarities in their character. Both were optimistic and friendly and seemed open, yet both had hard cores inaccessible even to their closest aides: cold steel beneath the smiles. Both had courage, "grace under pressure," as Lady Thatcher said. Roosevelt, at his speeches, stood in steel braces and with great effort, in enormous pain, walked forward to the microphone and addressed the nation. Reagan, after he was shot, stood and walked from the ambulance into the hospital, taking care to button his jacket, then collapsed when he was out of camera range. The two men stand now, in history, the two most consequential presidents of the 20th century.