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Eulogies Praise Ideals and Legacy

The president, Margaret Thatcher and others paint 'first brushstrokes of history,' but the debate over Reagan's record will go on.

June 12, 2004|Doyle McManus and Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush's eulogy for Ronald Reagan on Friday was uplifting, but determinedly nonpolitical. His father, former President George H.W. Bush, was personal and emotional, mingling affectionate jokes with tears.

But it was former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who delivered the bluntest message about Reagan's conservative political legacy during the funeral at Washington National Cathedral.

"Others saw only limits to growth," Thatcher, long Reagan's closest ideological ally abroad, said in a videotaped tribute. "[Reagan] transformed a stagnant economy into an engine of opportunity. Others hoped, at best, for an uneasy cohabitation with the Soviet Union; he won the Cold War."

As the week of mourning for Reagan drew to a close, the debate over the 40th president's place in history briskly resumed -- with conservatives lauding his accomplishments and liberals arguing, a bit gingerly, that his record also had flaws.

But that is what happens whenever a well-loved president dies, historians said. If Republicans hold Reagan up as an icon and dedicate their national convention in New York this summer to his memory, they will be doing the same thing Democrats did after the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 and John F. Kennedy in 1963.

"What you're seeing is the first brushstrokes of history," said historian Robert Dallek, who wrote biographies of Kennedy and Reagan. "You get these opening salvos, both pro and con; then things settle down."

At the cathedral, where the elaborate protocol of a state funeral combined with traditional Episcopal rites, the tone was solemn and restrained -- the opposite of the heated partisan debates that dominated Reagan's long political career.

President Bush focused on Reagan's ideals, his grace and his religious faith, and touched only lightly on his politics -- to praise his role as leader of the modern conservative movement in American politics.

"In the space of a few years, he took ideas and principles that were mainly found in journals and books, and turned them into a broad, hopeful movement ready to govern," Bush said.

"President Reagan was optimistic about the great promise of economic reform, and he acted to restore the reward and spirit of enterprise," Bush said, apparently referring to Reagan's tax cuts. "He was optimistic that a strong America could advance the peace, and he acted to build the [military] strength that mission required."

But where Bush carefully avoided any temptation, during an election year, to link Reagan's causes with his own, Thatcher, who is no longer running for office, showed no hesitation in pressing the ideological advantage.

"[Reagan] had firm principles -- and, I believe, right ones," she said in her tribute, which she videotaped several months ago after a series of small strokes made it difficult for her to speak in public.

"He did not shrink from denouncing Moscow's 'evil empire,' " she said. "But he realized that a man of goodwill might nonetheless emerge from within its dark corridors. So the president resisted Soviet expansion and pressed down on Soviet weakness at every point, until the day came when communism began to collapse beneath the combined weight of these pressures and its own failures. And when a man of goodwill did emerge from the ruins, President Reagan stepped forward to shake his hand and offer sincere cooperation."

The "man of goodwill" she cited, former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, was also in the congregation at the funeral, but was not among those chosen to deliver a eulogy.

Gorbachev has praised Reagan's role as a peacemaker, but he has long objected to the argument -- made by Thatcher and other conservatives -- that Reagan's military buildup produced the collapse of communism.

"All that talk that somehow Reagan's arms race forced Gorbachev to look for some arms reductions, etc., that's not serious," Gorbachev told the Washington Post this week. "The Soviet Union could have withstood any arms race."

Instead, Gorbachev said, he decided to reform the communist system because it was failing economically. "The country was being stifled by the lack of freedom," he said. "We were increasingly behind the West."

Dallek said Thatcher's retelling of the Reagan era struck him as "out-and-out partisan history," but added: "That's what happens at a time like this: Politicians appropriate whatever part of the history they want to use, and invoke it.

"It's not fabrication as much as gilding the lily. It's hagiography, and it's sort of inevitable," he said. "We're nowhere near being able to see a balanced picture of Reagan, because it's only 15 years after he left office. We don't have the [internal White House] documents yet."

Another historian, Barton J. Bernstein of Stanford University, said a similar phenomenon occurred after the death of another well-loved president, Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963.

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