Reagan skips a party but his campaign legacy carries on

TIM CORNWELL

Los Angeles

When the legendary Chasen's restaurant, a symbol of the old Hollywood mystique, reopens briefly tomorrow for Ronald Reagan's 85th birthday celebration, his favourite Chasen's fare - salmon, chicken pot pie and a coconut-chocolate ice cream concoction - will be on the menu. Assorted Hollywood old-timers and Washington politicians will be there. But not the former president: a year ago he announced he had Alzheimer's disease and has made no public appearance since.

Nancy Reagan will represent her husband at the party, a $1,000-a-plate (pounds 660) fund-raiser for the Reagan Presidential Foundation, in the restaurant where he proposed to her when they were both young actors. Although he goes to his Los Angeles office regularly, plays golf and chops wood on his ranch, Mr Reagan sees few people outside a close family circle.

It is in his office that he relates best to the outside world and seems most positive, associates say. At other times he suffers memory lapses, failing to recognise close friends and familiar places.

Though the family have wrapped a cocoon of privacy around him, there are occasional sad glimpses. In April Mrs Reagan told a friend that one day her husband saw the White House on television and could not remember living there.

In November she announced establishment of the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute, to study Alzheimer's. Mr Reagan's mother is believed to have had the disease. After Ronald was born in Tampico, Illinois, on 6 February 1911, his salesman father, John (Jack) Reagan, said: "He looks like a fat little Dutchman. But who knows? He might grow up to be president some day."

Ironically, the Reagan political legacy has never seemed stronger. Dogged as he has been by questions about his age and energy, the Republican presidential front-runner, Bob Dole, has struggled to deliver what Mr Reagan could boast of in spades: vision.

"I can be Ronald Reagan if you want me to," Mr Dole told Republican activists recently. Other candidates work to wrap themselves in the Reagan magic. The Washington Post gauges them periodically on a "Reagan Meter", considering hairstyles, wives and acting ability. Lou Cannon, a Reagan biographer, remembers remarks about Mr Dole being applied 16 years ago in New Hampshire to Mr Reagan. "They were saying, he's too old, finished." But Mr Reagan, says a political analyst, Sherry Jeffe, "could shape his image and communicate his image, which belied that first perception''. Mr Dole, she added, "doesn't have that kind of command of the media''.

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