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Remembering Ronald Reagan

The Gipper's centennial.


President Reagan reads a prepared statement from the Oval Office following the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle on Jan. 28, 1986.(Executive Office of the President)

Updated at 3:47 p.m. on February 6.

A century after his birth, Ronald Reagan has achieved an iconic status in GOP circles, and the party’s current crop of possible presidential contenders spent much of the past week wrapping themselves in his conservative mantle. Many of them flocked to his presidential library in southern California or to his birthplace in Illinois this weekend, while hoping to avoid any unflattering comparisons between the 40th president and his would-be heirs.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, perhaps the most aggressive torchbearer, signed copies of a new photography book and hosted a screening of a documentary by the same name: Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous With Destiny. Former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin also paid homage to the "Great Communicator," observing: "Today, there are a lot of people looking around looking for the next Ronald Reagan, but he was one of a kind and you're not going to find his kind again."

Among Reagan's lasting achievements for which he is best known:

  • Bi-partisanship: As Washington has becomes increasingly polarized in recent years, the personal relationship between the Republican president and House Speaker Tip O’Neill is frequently invoked. The two fiercely disagreed on many issues, and O’Neill once called Reagan the most ignorant man who had ever won the White House. But the two Irishmen were able to enjoy each other's company at the end of a long day.
  • Reagan Democrats: The term referring to white, working-class voters who put aside their Democratic affiliation to back the Republican nominee in 1980 and 1984 now occupies a permanent space in the political lexicon.
  • Optimism: "The Gipper" understood the power of appealing to Americans' can-do spirit. His re-election commercial that began, "It’s morning again in America" is still considered a classic political television ad. He was also famous for referring to America as a "shining city on a hill." President Obama seized on this aspect of the legacy in paying tribute to Reagan this weekend: “At a time when our nation was going through an extremely difficult period, with economic hardship at home and very real threats beyond our borders, it was this positive outlook, this sense of pride, that the American people needed more than anything.”
  • People Power: Reagan was a master at using average people to get his policy points across. Although it seemed like a gimmick to some, his decision to invite ordinary Americans who had accomplished extraordinary things to the State of the Union address has become a tradition that every president since has followed.
  • Picking Friends -- and Enemies: Reagan was skilled at casting battles in terms of good and evil and uniting the country behind a common enemy, most famously dubbing the Soviet Union the "evil empire."
  • Stagecraft: The former Hollywood actor was a master at using props, settings and imagery to make a lasting impression. One example was his decision to move the inauguration to the more expansive, western front of the Capitol, offering sweeping views of the Mall and Washington Monument.
  • Debate One-Liners: Presidential candidates can only dream of delivering a zinger as disarming as the one Reagan slung at Jimmy Carter in 1980: "There you go again." He used it – again – in a debate against Walter Mondale in 1984.
  • Reaganing: a relatively new term, meaning everything is going right, is more cultural than political, but it’s hard to resist a chance to mention this phrase coined by the corporate executive brilliantly played by Alec Baldwin in NBC’s 30 Rock. Reagan was once dubbed the "Teflon" president because none of his problems seemed to stick to him.

As with any administration, there continues to be a vigorous debate over the accomplishments and failures of Reagan's presidency. But it's safe to say that as the 2012 presidential field starts to lay the groundwork for their campaigns, any Republican candidate would be thrilled to generate just a fraction of the enthusiasm that "The Gipper" did, and still does, amongst the party faithful.

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