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Reagan, 85 And Absent, At Heart Of Convention

Tue., Aug. 13, 1996

Ronald Reagan is at home up in Bel Air, his memory diminished by Alzheimer’s disease. But while the former president is missing his first Republican convention in three decades, he is omnipresent here nonetheless.

In speech after speech, Reagan’s name is evoked, and his vision of sunny conservatism seems as dominant as the iconic images of the Gipper created for the tribute to him Monday night inside the convention hall.

Living former presidents are the ghosts of politics past at most conventions. If not snubbed or erased from the official record, like Lyndon Johnson in 1972 and Richard Nixon in 1976, they are often reduced to faces in the crowd, trotted out like oldtimers at a midsummer baseball game for a tip of the cap. Reagan has avoided that fate, emerging as a figure of increasing relevance within his party at the same time the GOP honors him with nostalgic words and pictures.

In a party struggling with the concept of a big tent, Reagan, even at age 85, is the center pole. He is the one figure who can appeal equally to the factions of Patrick J. Buchanan and Christine Todd Whitman, and he is also the common bond between the GOP’s new odd couple, Robert Joseph Dole and Jack French Kemp.

“One man, Ronald Reagan, really did start it all,” Dole said at his arrival rally in San Diego, where he was introduced by talk show host Michael Reagan, the former president’s son. “And we are thinking of him today. God bless Ronald Reagan.”

It was Reagan who 15 years ago began to implement the supply-side theories championed by Kemp. Once Dole disparaged the idea that large tax cuts would spur economic growth, but now embraces it as the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

Reagan’s role in the record levels the federal deficit reached during his administration is not a problem for anyone at this convention. The problem, Dole argued, was that “when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the Democrats in Congress wouldn’t cut spending.”

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