American Dreamer

His timing, as always, was perfect.

Almost exactly 20 years after he stood before the aging soldiers of D-Day on the cliffs of Normandy, saluting the warriors who had saved democracy, Ronald Reagan died, quietly, in his house on St. Cloud Drive in Bel Air last Saturday, ending his long and noble battle against Alzheimer's disease. "It was very peaceful," a family member told NEWSWEEK. "It was time."

Word of Reagan's death came as the world was once again commemorating the Allied victory over Nazi tyranny. As presidents and princes, old soldiers and sailors, widows and grandchildren gathered on those same wind-swept beaches last weekend, they, and America, were hearing Reagan's words as they mourned his death. "These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc," Reagan had said on June 6, 1984, hailing the Rangers who helped spearhead the liberation. "These are the men who took the cliffs." Grown men wept that day in 1984; Reagan's voice caught with genuine emotion. "The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right," he said, "faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead--or on the next."

He spoke with such grace, such conviction and such power that only the most cynical observers recalled that Reagan himself had spent World War II in Hollywood, making training films. That day at Normandy--and all the other days of his remarkable public life--Reagan was doing what he did best: making us believe in a vision of America as a beacon of light in a world of darkness, as the home of an essentially brave and good people. "We will always remember," he said that long-ago day. "We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may be always free." Freedom--from self-doubt, from the Soviet threat, from uneasiness about our national power and capacity to do great things--was Reagan's gift to his country.

He was 93; for his devoted wife, Nancy, now 80, her beloved husband's death ends a half-century love affair and a decade of anguishing illness and caregiving. She may find some comfort in the nation's outpouring of affection; few men in our history have been held in such warm regard. This week Reagan will receive a hero's farewell in Washington, lying in state in the rotunda of the Capitol followed by a funeral service at the National Cathedral. Then he will go home again, back across the nation, to be interred on the grounds of his presidential library in southern California's Simi Valley.

For Mrs. Reagan, it will be the final act of what she has called her husband's "long goodbye." For the rest of us, the passing of the 40th president marks the close of one of the great American sagas: the rise and reign of the mysterious and elusive Ronald Reagan.

He fought the good fight for years. Toward the end, in the late 1990s, he could only remember the beginning. As Reagan's memory faded, the years seemed to fall away: the presidency, the governorship, Hollywood, sportscasting. Among his sharpest recollections was his youth in Illinois. In chats with guests in his Los Angeles office and in bits of conversation with his family at home in Bel Air, he would talk about learning to read newspapers on the front porch with his mother, about playing with his older brother, Neil, about setting off for the picture-perfect little campus of Eureka College. And there were his early days on the Rock River, where he swam in the summers and ice-skated in the winter. A picture of the river hung in his retirement office in Century City, and visitors would ask him about it. Again and again he would tell the story. "You know, that's where I used to be a lifeguard--I saved 77 lives." There had been a log, he went on, where he carved a notch for every swimmer he rescued. "It was obviously an important part of his life, something he cherished," an aide recalled. "Being a lifeguard was ever-present in his memory." The image lingered when everything else was disappearing.

The lifeguard would grow up to seduce and shape America. When Reagan became president in January 1981, the country was suffering from what his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, described as a "crisis of confidence." After triumph in World War II and the boom of the 1950s, postwar American optimism seemed to peak just before John F. Kennedy's assassination. After Dallas came Vietnam and Watergate. On Carter's watch inflation spiked, deficits soared, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and Islamic militants took 52 U.S. diplomats hostage in Iran. Serious people began to wonder whether the presidency was too big a job for any one man.

Then along came Reagan--nearly 70, the emotionally distant son of an alcoholic Midwestern shoe salesman and a pious, theatrical mother. A former movie actor who gave his only critically acclaimed performance before Pearl Harbor, he was a sunny Californian who amiably ducked his head while talking tough on bureaucracy at home and communism abroad, pushing the nation's political conversation to the right.

In the White House, Reagan proved a maddeningly contradictory figure. An eloquent advocate of traditional values, he divorced his first wife and was often estranged from his children. A fierce advocate of balanced budgets, he never proposed one. A dedicated anti-communist, he reached out to the Soviet Union and helped end the cold war. An icon of button-down morality, he led an administration beleaguered by scandals. A man capable of nuanced thinking, he strongly believed in Armageddon.

He mangled facts; caricatured welfare recipients; opened his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., in the county where three civil-rights workers had been murdered for trying to overthrow Jim Crow; presided over a dark recession in 1982-83; seemed uncaring about the emerging HIV/AIDS crisis, and, in the Iran-contra scandal, came perilously close to--and may have committed--impeachable offenses.

Reagan, then, should have been as divisive a politician as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush--a man about whom the nation was closely and bitterly split. And while many people were consistently critical of Reagan, he still left office with a 63 percent approval rating. The roots of our own age's attack politics and ideological divisions lie in the Reagan years, yet the man himself seemed to dwell just above the arena, escaping widespread political enmity.

What was his secret? His personal gifts were enormous and helped smooth the rough edges of his rhetoric and his policies. Reagan was witty, eloquent and bold. Wheeled into the operating room after being shot in the chest on March 30, 1981, the president looked up at the doctors and murmured, "Please tell me you're all Republicans." Coming to after the surgery, he whispered to Nancy, "Honey, I forgot to duck." At the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, he stood in the heart of divided Berlin and cried, "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." And eventually it was gone.

He felt more at home in the White House than any president since FDR. His uncommon public grace and mastery of television, in which he made his living long before he entered politics, largely redefined the role of chief executive. When he left the presidency in 1989, the Soviet Union was on its way to what Reagan had called "the ash heap of history." The American economy, though riven with deficits, hummed.

The audience loved him; even his foes conceded his charm. His political strength, however, came from more than theatrics. For all his tough-guy, "go ahead, make my day" rhetoric, Reagan was far more of a pragmatist than either his fans or his critics like to acknowledge. His words were stark, his deeds less so. In part this can be traced to one of the little-noticed eras of his long life: his years as president of the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood, where, like all good union negotiators, he learned to make expansive, even excessive opening bids, knowing that in the end he would have to make a deal for less than what he had initially asked for. And so the Soviet Union was an "evil empire" in 1983. By 1986 Reagan, at Reykjavik, would consider eliminating all nuclear weapons if he could keep his beloved (yet impractical) Star Wars space shield. And by 1987 he had signed the first genuine arms-reduction treaty in cold-war history. The old SAG president had gotten the contract he wanted.

We are still living in the political world Reagan made. In his dedication to projecting power abroad and cutting taxes at home, President Bush often seems to be drawing more on the legend of the Gipper than on that of his own more mainstream, internationalist father. On the other side of the aisle, the Reagan movement--particularly his 49-state landslide over Walter Mondale in 1984--gave birth to the New Democrat centrism of Clinton; without the Reagan predicate, it is difficult to imagine that a Democratic president would have stood before Congress and declared that "the era of big government is over"--which Clinton did in 1996, the year he became the first two-term Democratic president since FDR.

The myth of the triumphant Gipper is a powerful one, but Reagan was more complex than his legend suggests. The man on horseback who rode to the rescue of a dispirited country started out as a shy child. The Manichean cold warrior was driven by a sentimental yearning for peace. The captivating charmer in public had little interest in the lives of other people, and no close friends.

The real Reagan was a romantic at heart. He saw the world as a cosmic struggle between good and evil, but he did not think it would all end in doom and destruction. Quite the opposite: he fervently held that everything would turn out for the best, and that he was destined to make it so. The boy who had been a lifeguard in the 1920s became the man who believed he would save the world from both totalitarianism and nuclear war. He thought he could, by personal persuasion, convince Moscow that it was on the wrong side of history. He would talk of taking a Soviet prime minister on a helicopter tour over the republic, pointing out the backyard swimming pools and second cars and boats in ordinary Americans' driveways. "If I can just get through to him about the difference between our two systems," Reagan would say wistfully, "I really think we could see big changes in the Soviet Union." There it all was, in that single bit of fantasy: a starring role, and a dream of saving the world.

He learned how to act, and dream, early on. In the winter of 1922, when Dutch was 11 years old, he found his father, Jack, passed out on the front porch. "He was drunk, dead to the world," Reagan recalled in his revealing 1965 memoir, "Where's the Rest of Me?" The boy's first instinct was to rearrange reality, to "pretend he wasn't there." Something else, though, began to stir in Reagan's heart on that cold evening. He realized it was time to take charge; later he understood this was his "first moment of accepting responsibility." So instead of stepping over Jack and slipping into bed, leaving the problem to his mother or his brother, Reagan saved his dad. "I bent over him, smelling the sharp odor of whiskey from the speakeasy," he recalled. "I got a fistful of his overcoat. Opening the door, I managed to drag him inside and get him to bed." And everything worked out, at least in Reagan's mind. "In a few days, he was the bluff, hearty man I knew and loved and will always remember."

In a few days. That must have been some bender, and though Reagan handled the crisis with the grace of a grown-up, he was still a little boy, one who could not help but be scared by the sight of his prostrate father. The drinking was a secret to be kept, a kind of trapdoor in the family's life: Reagan could never be sure when Jack would be engaging and hearty or when he would be flat on his back with snow in his hair.

Confronted by a chaotic childhood, Reagan sought refuge in a world of legendary exploits. This is not uncommon in the boyhoods of Great Men. Winston Churchill, long and painfully ignored by his parents, constructed an elaborate imaginary life as he grew up. The future British prime minister collected thousands of toy soldiers and devoured stories of great English military heroes; the young Reagan voraciously read Edgar Rice Burroughs's tales of adventure in outer space. Seeking order, he also joined his mother's church, the Disciples of Christ.

Young Reagan spent a lot of time with a childless elderly woman next door he called "Aunt Emma" who provided a 10-cent allowance, snacks and solace. "The best part was that I was allowed to dream," he remembered. "Many the day I spent deep in a huge rocker in the mystic atmosphere of Aunt Emma's living room with its horsehair-stuffed gargoyles of furniture, its shawls and antimacassars, globes of glass over birds and flowers, books and strange odors." Like the adventure stories and the certitudes of church, Aunt Emma gave him sanctuary from the storm.

There were physical as well as psychological reasons for his dreaminess. Until high school he lived with a terrible, undiagnosed case of nearsightedness--so bad, in fact, that he had taught himself to act his way through most scenes. "I sat in the front row at school and still could not read the blackboard," Reagan said. "I bluffed my lessons and got fairly good marks, considering." Always competitive, he chose football over baseball and remembered the pleasure he found in exerting force. On the gridiron there "was no invisible little ball--just another guy to grab or knock down, and it didn't matter if his face was blurred." Then one day in the car, bothered that Neil could read the road signs and he could not, Reagan tried his mother's glasses. "Putting them on, I suddenly saw a glorious, sharply outlined world jump into focus and shouted with delight," he said. "I was astounded to find out trees had sharply defined separate leaves; houses had a definite texture and hills really made a clear silhouette against the sky." But he had dwelled for a long time in his own universe, where his thoughts and feelings were the only crisply defined realities; everything outside himself--parents, teachers, friends--had been shrouded and gauzy. "Although he loves people," Nancy Davis Reagan would say decades later, "he often seems remote, and he doesn't let anybody get too close. There's a wall around him. He lets me come closer than anyone else, but there are times when even I feel that barrier."

Yet Reagan was not an angry man. Rather than rail against life's unfairness, he would recast unpleasant truths in a more flattering light. His mother had taught him how. A devout woman, Nelle must have been severely disappointed in her alcoholic husband, but she tried her best to put a cheerful face on the darkest of things, beginning with Jack's addiction. "Like my mother, I came to dread those days when he'd take the first drink," Reagan recalled. "Although he wasn't the kind of alcoholic who was abusive to his wife or children, he could be pretty surly, and my brother and I heard a lot of cursing when Mother went after him for his drinking." In front of the boys, though, Nelle insisted that they forgive their father. "Nelle always looked for and found the goodness in people," Reagan said. Put another way, she made the best of the worst, essentially acting her way through difficult situations. Some would call that denial; others, stoicism. Whatever it was, her son inherited it.

Though Reagan came from nowhere, with no significant connections in the greater world, there was a kind of momentum in his life. "Our family didn't exactly come from the wrong side of the tracks," he recalled, "but we were certainly always within sound of the train whistles." To get ahead he mastered his immediate universe, using the mechanics of popularity available to public-high-school and small-college kids in 20th-century America. He played football, cut a dashing figure at the lifeguard stand during the summers, pledged a good fraternity at Eureka College, found a good job at a radio station in the worst period of the Depression and stumbled into a screen test for Warner Brothers while he was covering the Cubs' spring training in southern California.

Through it all, he hit his marks. The role of the theater in his life was a gift from his mother, an organizer of readings and performances in Illinois. She urged him to declaim a speech one night before the local crowd, but the shy Dutch was reluctant. Another streak in his character--his competitiveness--pushed him forward. "My brother had already given several and been a hit," Reagan said. So he would do it too. "Summoning up my courage, I walked up to the stage that night, cleared my throat, and made my theatrical debut," he recalled. "I don't remember what I said, but I'll never forget the response: people laughed and applauded."

Suddenly a new world opened before him. Onstage, Jack's drinking didn't matter, and his shyness, born of nearsightedness and his family's frequent moves, melted away in the warmth of the audience's approval. "That was a new experience for me and I liked it," Reagan said. "For a kid suffering childhood pangs of insecurity, the applause was music." He would spend the rest of his long life seeking to hear just those notes, first in Hollywood and then from Orange County to Red Square.

In Hollywood he became a midlevel star after an apprenticeship in the "B's," where he found fame playing heroic Secret Service Agent Brass Bancroft in a series of movies. (The agent who shoved President Reagan into his car and saved his life during the assassination attempt in 1981, Jerry Parr, had been a member of the Junior Brass Bancroft Society.) "So much of our profession is taken up with pretending, with the interpretation of never-never roles, that an actor must spend at least half his waking hours in fantasy, in rehearsal or shooting," Reagan once said. He found comfort in that.

Reagan was not a bad screen actor, just an ordinary one, and he was prideful about his movie career. Years later he would admit to his biographer Lou Cannon that criticism of his film performances (which ran to jokes about "Bedtime for Bonzo," a 1951 comedy) "touched an exposed nerve."

In the late 1930s and the 1940s, the movie world gave Reagan a home in a company town, a very good living and, in 1940, a wife, Jane Wyman. Reagan's heart had already been broken once. His high-school love, Margaret Cleaver, had thrown him over for a Foreign Service officer, mailing back Reagan's fraternity pin and engagement ring. "Like my mother," he recalled, "she was short, pretty, auburn haired, and intelligent." Though crushed, Reagan characteristically did not dwell on the loss. "Something inside me suggested that things would work out all right," he said. Still, there was a vacuum. "Margaret's decision shattered me, not so much, I think, because she no longer loved me, but because I no longer had anyone to love."

Wyman filled that void. It was not an ordinary boy-meets-girl story: the marriage was in part a product of the publicity culture of Hollywood. They met filming "Brother Rat," and the gossip columnist Louella Parsons nurtured the relationship. They had a daughter, Maureen, in 1941, and adopted a son, Michael, after Reagan's service in the moviemaking arm of the military in Culver City. Later they lost a child, named Christine, at the same time that Reagan was battling a potentially deadly case of viral pneumonia. A hospitalized Reagan thought he was going to die. "I don't know what time of night it was when I told the nurse I was too tired to breathe any more," he recalled, but she coached him through a spiking fever.

The usual version of the story of the divorce has Wyman's career taking off while Reagan's sputtered and he grew more interested in politics and his job as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Neither Reagan nor Wyman ever publicly broke a dignified, decades-long silence about the end of their marriage. Reagan claimed to be oblivious to whatever difficulties there were. He returned to California from testifying before Congressman Richard Nixon's House Un-American Activities Committee to find Wyman seeking divorce. As with Margaret Cleaver, he was wounded but moved on. He always did.

What drove him, what gave him the serenity and sense of security to force himself forward through life's storms with a smile and a wave? Partly it was what he had absorbed in Aunt Emma's parlor and on the porch with Nelle and on the river: that he was destined to become one of the heroes he loved to read about, a hero for whom everything would work out. He went from strength to strength. Reagan had an unreliable father but succeeded in high school and college. He entered the wider world in the depths of the Depression but found jobs with comparative ease. He lost two loves but in 1952 married Nancy Davis, a woman who became his anchor. His movie career sputtered, but he made a living in television. When the TV contract went away, politics beckoned. Who, experiencing such a life, wouldn't be confident of the basic goodness of the universe?

He met Nancy on a blind date; he loved her laugh. To him she represented order, love, stability--and forward movement. "If Ronnie had married Nancy the first time," James Stewart once remarked, "he would have won an Academy Award." But by the time of their wedding (their daughter, Patti, was born seven months later; Ron would follow in 1958), Reagan's movie career was stalled. He then spent eight years as a genial visitor in Americans' living rooms every Sunday night as the host of "General Electric Theater." Progress put him out of a job: "Bonanza," a color Western, swamped his black-and-white show in 1962. For the first time since he had stepped in front of his mother's theatrical group as a child, Reagan was looking for a role.

He found one in politics. By his own account he had "idolized" FDR during the '30s, and he had campaigned for Harry Truman. But anti-communism, high taxes and, while he was working for GE, worries about government regulation pushed him to the right. In October 1964 Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign was going nowhere, and the national Republican Party asked Reagan to give a half-hour national address (to devotees it is known simply as The Speech). Viewed today, 40 years later, he seems so young, so crisp, so sure of himself and his beliefs. He would not change much in the ensuing 25 years of his public life. Lyndon Johnson crushed Goldwater, but in 1966 a group of California moneymen bankrolled a Reagan campaign for governor against the formidable Democratic incumbent, Edmund (Pat) Brown.

Brown was the first politician to make a mistake many others would repeat: he under-estimated Reagan. The Gipper--he could not resist adopting his screen persona from "Knute Rockne, All American"--was an emblem and an architect of a new force in American politics: the rise of the suburban conservatives. Elected governor in 1966, he was the fresh face of conservatism; a 1967 NEWSWEEK cover asked, REAGAN: A RISING STAR IN THE WEST?

The answer was an emphatic yes. The next year he nearly stopped Nixon's nomination in Miami after less than two years as governor. He would spend the next few years honing his message and building toward another run for the White House. Like many political coalitions, Reagan's was eclectic. He brought together country-club Republicans interested in lower taxes, evangelical Christians and traditional Democrats disaffected by the chaos of the 1960s, and especially in the South he would inherit the fruits of Nixon's "Southern strategy" of coded racial appeals.

When Reagan went to Sacramento, he was asked what he planned to do. "I don't know," he quipped. "I've never played a governor." But he did know. He was crisp in execution and deft at communication. Willie Brown, the liberal Democratic legislator known as the Ayatollah for his heavy-handed ways in Sacramento, recalled that Reagan was the only governor he ever worked with who got things done on time. Gerald Ford, whom Reagan would challenge for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, remembered that Reagan was the man in the room after a meeting who could find the perfect phrase for a press release.

Reagan was not all style; he represented a real shift in American politics, but both in California and later in Washington his revolutions were never quite as dramatic as his followers hoped or his foes feared. Neither state nor federal governments actually shrank on Reagan's watch, and he never genuinely pushed for the more controversial dreams of his hard-right cultural base. He talked about school prayer and curbing abortion rights, but he never did much more than that.

By 1976 he was tired of waiting his turn and was worried that President Ford was being too open to the Soviets. In a closely fought primary season, Ford won, but he needed Reagan to appeal to conservatives, particularly conservative Christians, who were intrigued by the born-again Jimmy Carter. Reagan, however, was reluctant to campaign for the president. Even years later Ford loyalists could recount the precise counties where a Reagan swing in the fall of 1976 would have helped, particularly in conservative pockets of key border states.

For Reagan the story seemed over. He was getting old--he would be 69 in 1980--and the oldest president in history, Dwight Eisenhower, had retired at that age. But Reagan was just getting started.

The victory over Carter in '80 was far from foreordained. Reagan lost the Iowa caucuses to George Bush but recovered; until Oct. 28, a week before the general election, Reagan and Carter were running close together in the polls. Then came Cleveland. In their single debate, Reagan delivered devastating blows. The first was shaking his head and saying, more in sorrow than in anger, "There you go again" when Carter accused him of wanting to cut Medicare (Reagan did, but the theatrical gesture was what voters remembered, not the details). Then, in his closing statement, Reagan posed two simple questions: "Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?" For many Americans, troubled by inflation, interest rates and the Iranian hostage crisis, the answer was no, and the ground shifted to Reagan in that final week. He won in a landslide.

Reagan was right at home in the White House. "My husband loved being president," Nancy said. "He enjoyed it, all of it--the decision making, the responsibilities, the negotiating, as well as the ceremonies, the public appearances and the meetings."

He invented stories and then believed them. He thought trees produced pollution, confusing carbon dioxide with carbon monoxide. Welfare was bad because of a mysterious Chicago "welfare queen" who drove a Cadillac while on relief. And on and on. His fictions were real to him, which was both touching and somewhat terrifying. According to Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, Colin Powell, then the national-security adviser, used to cringe when Reagan would trot out his "little green men" theory, the idea being that extraterrestrial life might one day attack us and force the nations of the globe to get along. A fine sentiment, if more than a little disconcerting coming from a president with control of the nuclear codes.

There were many derelictions and failures on the home front. Reagan could not control spending enough to balance the budget after he cut taxes, leaving a deficit of $152.5 billion when he left office; on his watch the national debt nearly tripled. When the reckoning came--at an Andrews Air Force Base summit in the hot summer of 1990 between President Bush and Democratic congressional leaders--Reagan was long gone, in retirement. It was Bush, then, who had to raise taxes, breaking a 1988 pledge and alienating the right. What was good for the country--many economists credit the 1990 budget deal with setting the stage for the boom of the Clinton years--was bad for Bush, but Reagan had created the problem.

Though Reagan was a soft touch for individual stories of pain or misfortune, the poor fared badly in the 1980s, and too many Americans of color felt left out. Seemingly oblivious, the president prided himself on his belief that he was without prejudice, often telling an anecdote about how his father would refuse to stay in a hotel that refused to accept Jews or blacks. But that story did not translate into compassion for those left out of the American Dream Reagan so cherished. In truth, he was probably as conflicted as many white Americans on questions of race and generosity. Because he did not hate, he could not see how his ambivalence (about preferences, about spending on the poor, about police misconduct or homelessness) could appear to others as indifference--or, worse, outright hostility. There is no question, however, that it did appear precisely that way to millions of Americans, and Reagan of all people should have known that appearances can be much the same as reality. He should have done better by those on the fringes of his fabled "shining city on a hill." For them, stirring words were not enough.

In what was perhaps the most brilliant critique of Reagan in real time, the then New York Governor Mario Cuomo turned this favorite Reagan image of the shining city against the president. "The hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory," Cuomo said in his keynote address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention. "A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there's another city; there's another part to the shining city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages and most young people can't afford one, where students can't afford the education they need and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate." A devastating indictment, and one that had much truth in it. For many, the Gipper's America was a movie in which they had no part.

Reagan came to power as a consummate cold warrior. Skeptical of the Nixon-Ford era of "detente" with the Soviets and eager to build mighty armies, including a defensive missile shield in outer space, he wanted to send Moscow an unmistakable message that accommodation was not possible. The hawks were happy, the doves apoplectic.

Both camps should have watched Reagan with a colder eye, for he was playing a complicated game. In 1983--the same year he called the Soviet Union an "evil empire"--the president asked Secretary of State George Shultz to bring Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin by for a secret chat, opening a quiet channel that helped lead to the thaw of the second term. There is an ongoing debate over what brought the Soviet Union to its knees. Reagan's admirers believe it was his unflinching rhetoric and unrelenting military buildup; his critics argue that the Soviets were intrinsically weak and would have imploded even if Carter had been re-elected in 1980, consigning Reagan to an early retirement in California.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. There were many forces at work in what President Kennedy called the "long twilight struggle" between communism and democratic capitalism, but Reagan's dual strategy of articulating a stark vision--including insisting on developing the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars--and of conducting steady diplomacy almost certainly accelerated the fall of Soviet totalitarianism. His personal connection to Mikhail Gorbachev was important to Reagan and helped make the disarmament talks of the mid-1980s possible and productive. At first skeptical of the old actor, the Soviet reformer came to appreciate him.

Still, Reagan's older cold-war instincts helped bring on the defining scandal of his presidency, the Iran-contra affair. In violation of the law, the Reagan administration secretly used money raised from the sale of weapons to Iran to fund the Nicaraguan contras who were leading an anti-Marxist-Leninist insurgency.

What did Reagan know? Perhaps little; specifics were never his strong suit. "From our first meeting," Gorbachev recalled, "I had noticed President Reagan's dislike for detail." But Reagan created the climate in which his White House broke the law, prompting a constitutional crisis over executive power. Reagan will answer to history for Iran-contra. His motives may have been admirable, but his means were not.

It was a bleak time. When he called former Tennessee senator Howard Baker to offer him the job of White House chief of staff in the wake of the scandal, Baker's then wife, Joy, answered the telephone. "Howard's not here, Mr. President," she said. "He's taken the grandchildren to the zoo." Without missing a beat, Reagan replied: "Wait till he sees the zoo I've got in mind for him."

Baker was replacing Donald Regan, and Regan--who was essentially fired by Nancy Reagan--got his revenge. In a book published when the Reagans were still in the White House, Regan wrote that the First Lady regularly consulted a San Francisco astrologer, Joan Quigley, to guide the president's schedule. (Quigley had been recommended to Nancy by Merv Griffin.) The defense that Nancy had turned to the stars for protection only after the 1981 assassination attempt did not help much. It was not the kind of story an elderly president who had spent his life in Hollywood and was now immersed in scandal and facing questions about his fitness for office needed just then (or ever). There was so much speculation about Reagan's health and state of mind after Iran-contra broke at Thanksgiving 1986, Washington journalists Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus later reported, that an incoming Baker aide, James Cannon, was privately asked to research the 25th Amendment's provisions for dealing with an incapacitated president.

As always, though, Reagan defied expectations and rolled on. The breakthroughs with Gorbachev and a strong economy nudged his approval numbers back up as 1988 approached. Never close to George Bush--Ford had been Reagan's first choice for a running mate in 1980--the president seemed unenthusiastic about his loyal veep's campaign for the top job in the Republican primaries. Four years later, in 1992, as Bush was under attack from conservatives for raising taxes and appearing to tack too far to the center, a rumor began to circulate in true-believer circles. According to the memoirs of speechwriter John Podhoretz, Reagan is supposed to have mused aloud: "I guess I really effed it up in 1980"--by choosing Bush.

Not entirely convincingly, Reagan long claimed to want to go home to the ranch and to private life. In the end, though, the pleasures of retirement would be tragically brief. At the 1992 Republican National Convention he seemed tired, shushing the crowd with uncharacteristic weariness. The performance was a world away from his buoyant 1980 acceptance speech, where he had wittily controlled the cheers by quipping: "We're using up prime time." Now, a dozen years later, he struck many for the first time as a truly old man. He grew more forgetful. During an awkward after-dinner scene with Queen Elizabeth II aboard the royal yacht Britannia in 1991, captured by a BBC documentary crew, Reagan was entirely focused on getting a cup of decaffeinated coffee. There was shuffling, uncertainty, missed cues. "Well, we do try," the queen said. Nancy looked nervous, on edge, trying to get through. A 1994 appearance in Washington sealed it: a campaign speech was stilted. Something was wrong.

It was Alzheimer's. On Nov. 5, 1994, Reagan took up a black pen and said goodbye to the nation. As usual, it was a fluid, virtuoso performance, the Gipper at the pinnacle of his powers, leaving a permanent testament of his essential grace. "When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future," Reagan wrote. "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you my friends. May God always bless you."

He retreated to the house on St. Cloud Drive in Bel Air. For a time he went to the office, took strolls on the Santa Monica pier, hit golf balls. Later those things became impossible. At home he still responded to red, whether his daughter Maureen's bright fingernails or a cheery birthday sweater. Reagan's strength--his primal will to live--was amazing. He survived year after year after year, recovered from a broken hip, endured and endured. His body fought for life long after his mind had honorably surrendered to disease.

All his life he was a dreamer, and his imagination had sustained him through the decades in ways big and small. In a remarkable letter written from the Sherry-Netherland Hotel at the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on a July day in the 1950s, Reagan displayed his gift for softening the rough edges of life with visions of better things. He was lonely, in the city for an acting job, and had to eat alone. Afterward, back at the hotel, he wrote Nancy about the evening he wished he'd had--with her.

"Eight million people in this pigeon crap encrusted metropolis and suddenly I realized I was alone with my thoughts and they smelled sulphurous," he wrote her. "Time was not a healer. When dinner time finally arrived I walked down to '21' where I ate in lonely splendor. It was at this point with self-pity coming up fast on the rail that you joined me. Yes, you and I had Roast Beef... Wanting only half a bottle of wine we were somewhat restricted in choice but we politely resisted the 'huxtering' of the wine steward... and settled for a '47 'Pichon Longueville.' It was tasty, wasn't it?"

The meal done, Reagan's imagination kept the movie going. "We walked back in the twilight and I guess I hadn't ought to put us on paper from there on," he continued. "Let's just say I didn't know my lines this morning. Tonight I think we'll eat at the hotel and you've got to promise to let me study--at least for a little while. I suppose some people would find it unusual that you and I can so easily span three thousand miles but in truth it comes very naturally. Man can't live without a heart and you are my heart, by far the nicest thing about me and so very necessary. There would be no life without you nor would I want any."

As she has been for more than 50 years, Nancy will be by his side this week. After the ceremonies in Washington, Reagan will be laid to rest in California on a hill near a relic of the Berlin wall, the closing chapter in a long story that began in a tiny house in Illinois in the winter of 1911. His grave looks out toward the Pacific, where the sun sets on America every evening. It is still light there, on the edge of the continent, when darkness has fallen across the rest of the nation. How like Reagan: soaking up the last possible ray of sun, savoring the day to the very end.