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Tuesday, 9 November, 1999, 23:10 GMT
Reagan rides again
Ron and Nancy
Ronald and Nancy bade farewell to the White House in 1989
By Nigel Wrench for BBC Radio 4's PM programme

The most influential figure in the American presidential elections is not even in the race.

Ten years after he moved out of the White House, Ronald Reagan is the figure that candidates for the Republican nomination most want to evoke.

When you log on to the website of Republican presidential hopeful Steve Forbes you can hear his commentaries. One is a defence of Ronald Reagan, in the face of a controversial new biography, and another uses a cowboy metaphor to attack higher taxes.

Both are illustrations that the political spirit of Mr Reagan is very much present in this campaign.

Reagan post cancer surgery
The great survivor: Reagan recovered from cancer surgery in 1985 and an assassination attempt in 1981
Ronald Reagan himself no longer makes public appearances. He is suffering from the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease. But his ideas are everywhere.

"Everyone wants to be Ronald Reagan's legacy," says Mary Jo Jacobi, who worked as special assistant for five years in the Reagan White House, "not just Republicans, but Democrats too".

On the one hand he's mentioned by name - on the other, his ideas are subtly called upon.

Optimistic outlook

In one famous campaign speech, Mr Reagan said, "If pessimism were an Olympic event, they [the Democrats] would win a gold medal for sure."

George W Bush
Like his father, George W Bush is hoping to benefit from the Reagan legacy
George W Bush, the Republican front-runner and son of Mr Reagan's vice-president, has one television spot which ends: "I'm going to run a campaign which is optimistic and very positive."

Ms Jacobi says, "Americans are by nature an optimistic people, and Ronald Reagan was able to draw on that innate optimism." Certainly George W Bush will be hoping so.

Another of his campaign advertisements stresses his record as a tax-cutter when Governor of Texas. Again it is an echo of what Americans like to remember about the last Republican president.

Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at the Moscow Summit
An accident of history? Reagan held office while communism collapsed around Mikhail Gorbachev
"He stood above all for lower taxation. And this has been, as it were, injected into the Republican bloodstream," says Geoffery Smith, author of Reagan and Thatcher and now an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"They all look to Reagan as the icon, the idol of the Republican party. He was a man who looked and sounded like a president and who conducted himself in a way that made all Americans feel comfortable. It is contrasting Reagan implicitly with Clinton."

Thatcherite renaissance

In Britain, Margaret Thatcher's ideas are experiencing a similar renaissance with William Hague and the Conservative Party. The singular difference is that Lady Thatcher remains politically active, whereas Mr Reagan is in seclusion at his home in Los Angeles.

This allows the Reagan mythology to advance unhindered by his presence.

Reagan and Thatcher
Mutual admiration society: Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in 1991
Gore Vidal, the author and essayist, seizes on the invocation of a golden time. "What you invoke in fact is the great phoney, the Wizard of Oz," he said.

They like to look back on it as a golden time, quite forgetting that he left the country five trillion dollars in debt and himself was supposedly headed towards impeachment over the Iran-Contra affair, said Mr Vidal.

"Now here you have a really good actor and they say 'Hey, that was a great president'. What they should have said was, 'He deserves the Academy Award'."

But for most Americans, Mr Reagan was the plain-speaking president who left office with the highest approval rating of any incumbent of the White House.

It might be that that was an accident of history, the result of his term of office coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but for Republicans running for America's highest office the popular perception of his character and his record offers a road map to the White House.

See also:

02 Mar 99 | Americas
25 Sep 99 | Americas
05 Jul 99 | Europe
02 Nov 99 | Americas
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