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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 June, 2004, 07:58 GMT 08:58 UK
How will history remember Reagan?

By Daniel Lak
BBC News, Washington DC

Former US president Ronald Reagan
Opinion is divided on Reagan's political legacy
Almost every mourner I met or heard from over the week of mourning for Ronald Reagan - every ordinary American, if you will - said the same thing.

They wanted to be part of history.

That was why they came to the centre of Washington DC in sweltering heat to stand in long queues for a 20-second viewing of the ex-president's casket.

It was why they lined Constitution Avenue at the heart of the capital to glimpse the funeral procession go by, and why they spent so much time watching television montages of Reagan's life.

It was all about being part of history.

"Ronald Reagan was a historical figure," said Lisa from Baltimore, lining up to get into the Rotunda of the Capitol building, where the casket lay in state. "This is history in the making."

Her view of what constitutes "history" is somewhat different from those who more traditionally determine such things.

What consensus there was concerns Reagan's ability to convince ordinary Americans he was one of them
To Lisa, and to almost everyone else I spoke to on the topic over the past week, history means something significant that happens during one's lifetime. Not a seminal event from a text book.

In that sense then, Ronald Reagan's place in history is assured. His public thinks so. Therefore it is true.

With the rose-coloured glasses that we all wear to look back upon our lives and times, the 1980s were an era of optimism and American foreign policy successes.

Reagan was in power in then. Ergo, he is an historical figure.

But there is still that more traditional version of history, the compendium of the opinions and analysis of historians and commentators.

And they are not even close to agreeing on history's view of the 40th President of the United States of America.


Much of it comes down to which side of the political spectrum one calls home. Leftists contest almost every notion put forward by Reagan's supporters on the right.

Ended the Cold War? No, he was lucky to have the reluctant Communist, Mikhail Gorbachev, as his opposite number in the Soviet Union.

Laid the foundations for an economic boom? That was a natural consequence of the business cycle, say sceptics, and its effects fell largely upon those already well off.

Former US president Ronald Reagan

Made America feel good about itself after the malaise of the Carter years? Only in retrospect, and only among those who already supported the Reagan administration, again according to those on the opposite side of the argument.

There was little in the newspaper columns during the week of mourning that suggests an end to this divide.

What consensus there was concerns Reagan's ability to communicate, to convince ordinary Americans that he is one of them, just a hometown boy made good.

In the end, that may turn out to be Ronald Reagan's place in history.

Whether they put his craggy visage on Mount Rushmore, or on the $10 bill, he will be remembered as a likeable human being who brought a light touch and humour to the affairs of state.

I asked 21-year-old Lisa what she thought made Mr Reagan's place in history. "He seemed like a nice guy," she said.

That counts for a lot in America.

The BBC's David Willis
"Ronald Reagan's body was laid to rest on a hillside overlooking the ocean"

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