Affable right-winger became the most popular president in history

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The Independent US

It was a decade ago that an ageing Ronald Reagan revealed to the American people he had served as president for two terms that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. At that time, he said in his so-called "Letter to America", he felt fine but he knew a time would come when he did not.

It was a decade ago that an ageing Ronald Reagan revealed to the American people he had served as president for two terms that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. At that time, he said in his so-called "Letter to America", he felt fine but he knew a time would come when he did not.

"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," he 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 new dawn ahead."

Alhough America had long known of Reagan's decline, when the end came yesterday afternoon at his home in the Bel Air district of Los Angeles - not out of the blue by any means - it still appeared to shock many. As the White House started making preparations for a state funeral for the former president, Reagan's friends and supporters - along with his critics - sought to determine just how he will be judged by history.

For most Republicans and conservatives, Reagan's legacy is already fixed. To them, Ronald Reagan - considered the first truly right-wing US president for 50 years - is the man who returned confidence, pride and energy to the White House after the lacklustre years of Jimmy Carter and who ended the Cold War by standing up to (and by greatly outspending) the Soviet Union.

Over two terms, from 1981 to 1989, Reagan, a cheerful optimist with a generally sunny demeanour, reshaped the Republican Party in his conservative image as he focused his attention on the demise of the Soviets, cutting taxes and greatly increasing spending on national security programmes such as the "Star Wars" missile defence plan. He was also happy to exude a simple and unabashed patriotism.

"Government is not the solution, it's the problem," he said when he assumed office, though analysts pointed out that reducing the size of government proved to be harder to carry out in reality than it was to promise.

Reagan came to office late. He was 69 when he beat the incumbent Jimmy Carter by an unexpectedly large margin in November 1980, becoming the oldest president ever to take office.

And it was not as though he had not enjoyed a full and varied career before assuming the most powerful secular office in the world. At various times he had worked as a radio sports announcer, a Hollywood actor - his first screen credit was the starring role in the 1937 movie Love is on the Air - a television performer, a spokesman for the General Electric Company as well as serving two terms as governor of California.

While he was the oldest president to move into the White House, his presidency could also have been one of the shortest. On 30 March 1981, just his 70th day in office, Reagan was leaving the Hilton Hotel in central Washington after addressing labour leaders when a young drifter, John Hinckley, with an obsession with the actress Jodie Foster, fired six shots at him. A bullet lodged an inch from his heart. Shortly before the surgery to remove the bullet from his chest he remarked to his doctors: "I hope you're all Republicans". To his wife, Nancy, he joked: "Honey, I forgot to duck."

Although this would not be his only scrape with mortality - in 1985 he had an operation for colon cancer and in 1987 he had surgery for prostate and skin cancers - Reagan bounced back, focusing his efforts and attention on taking on the challenge of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries which he termed the "evil empire". It was a popular stance. When he ran for re-election in 1984 he won by an even greater margin, carrying 49 of the 50 states and defeating Democrat Walter Mondale, who had served as Carter's vice-president.

While he built his reputation with fiery anti-Communist rhetoric and Kremlin-bashing, Reagan developed an affection for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the course of five summit meetings. His meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow in 1988 was conducted on a chummy "Ron" and "Mikhail" basis.

A year later, when he passed the presidency onto his protégé and deputy George Bush, the current President's father, Reagan did so with a sweeping farewell boast typical of his glowing self-confidence. "We meant to change a nation and instead we changed a world," he said.

While many historians believe that Moscow's attempt to keep pace with Reagan's trillion-dollar arms build-up, including the never-completed "Star Wars", was a big factor in the Communist superpower's ultimate collapse, it may be that he was more influential in changing the nature of the Republican Party than in "changing the world" as he claimed. For many years, the Republican Party was divided into liberal and conservative wings, with the liberals often dominant. After Reagan, if a Republican candidate had moderate instincts, as the first President Bush was believed to harbour, he had to be careful with the language he used. The term "liberal Republican" fell from the political lexicon.

But Reagan had plenty of critics as well, not only for his somewhat shabby Hollywood performances - including his 1940 appearance as George "The Gipper" Gipp in the film Knute Rockne - All American, from which he acquired the nickname the Gipper which stuck with him for the rest of his life. Indeed Reagan's second term was dogged by revelations that he authorised secret arms sales to Iran while seeking Iranian aid to gain release of American hostages held in Lebanon. Some of the money was used to aid the contra rebels fighting the leftist government of Nicaragua. Despite the ensuing scandal and investigation Reagan claimed he was never informed of the plan to arm the contras.

He left office in 1989 with the highest popularity rating of any retiring president in the history of modern-day public opinion polls even though evidence introduced in the trial of Reagan's former national security aide, Oliver North, showed that the president was more deeply involved than previously disclosed in efforts to encourage other countries to aid the Nicaraguan rebels.

Analysts say that reflected to some extent his abilities as a communicator and his way of connecting with ordinary Americans, even as his policies infuriated the left and as his simple verities made him the butt of jokes.

"Morning again in America" became his re-election campaign mantra in 1984, but typified his appeal to patriotism through both terms.

Reagan was born on 6 February 1911, in a four-room apartment over the general store in Tampico, Illinois, the younger of the two sons of Nelle and John Reagan. His father was an alcoholic shoe salesman who had trouble supporting his family.

The elder Reagan said the baby looked like a little Dutchman, and in his younger years the nickname "Dutch" took hold. When Reagan was nine the family settled for good in Dixon, Illinois. At Dixon High School, Reagan participated in football, basketball and track, acted in school plays and won his first election, as president of the student body.

He majored in economics and sociology at Eureka College near Peoria, where he again was active in sports and theatre and was elected student body president. After graduation in 1932, he got a job as a sports announcer for WOC radio in Davenport, Iowa, and went on to a $75-a-week position at WHO in Des Moines, covering title fights and Big Ten football live and simulating broadcasts of Chicago Cubs baseball from a play-by-play telegraph wire.

Just last month Reagan's wife had warned that her husband's health was getting worse and that he had reached the point where he no longer recognised her. Speaking at a fund-raising event for research on human embryos, she said: "Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him." Reagan finally passed away yesterday afternoon shortly after 1pm local time in California. Many commentators pointed out that his death - on the 60th anniversary of D-Day - came exactly 20 years after Reagan delivered one of his most famous speeches.

Speaking on 6 June 1984, on Omaha Beach in France, while marking the sacrifice of those who had died there 40 years earlier, he said: "Today, in their memory, and for all who fought here, we celebrate the triumph of democracy. We reaffirm the unity of democratic people who fought a war and then joined with the vanquished in a firm resolve to keep the peace."