SIMI VALLEY, Calif. – Ronald Reagan’s name is enshrined on an airport, an aircraft carrier, belt buckles and highways. His likeness – with that sunny smile – appears on drink coasters, statues, talking dolls and a Rose Parade float.
Conservatives make the pilgrimage to his presidential library in Simi Valley, a showcase of all things Reagan. Presidential candidates debate there, hoping to be dubbed heir to the Reagan legacy. Even President Barack Obama invokes his name.
As the 100th anniversary of his birth arrives today, and a generation after he left the White House, the nation’s 40th president is held in higher esteem now than when he was in office. Today, a three-minute video tribute to Reagan will air during the Super Bowl, a film that commemorates his birth and could further burnish his legacy.
Still, the popular image of “The Gipper” – resolute, square-shouldered, unfailingly optimistic – overlooks a more complicated presidency – and person.
Do Americans, less than a decade after his death, have a clear idea of who he was?
“No,” says historian Kevin Starr.
Even with his reputation as the Great Communicator, “there remains something opaque, something … even mysterious in Ronald Reagan,” Starr says.
Long a Republican hero, Reagan was praised for his role in ending the Cold War, kick-starting an ailing economy and coaxing Americans out of a collective funk. At turns revered on the right and reviled on the left in his 1980s heyday, Americans now rank him among their most admired presidents.
But the Reagan myth can obscure Reagan the man.
The president’s 52-year-old son Ron says he sometimes doesn’t recognize the pop-culture version of his father, the man held up as a patriarch of Republican politics. And he thinks attempts to idolize his father, known for his modesty, miss the point.
“When we are electing presidents we are electing human beings and all human beings have flaws,” Reagan tells the Associated Press.
In his recently published book, “My Father at 100,” Reagan describes his father as “warm yet remote” and “easy to love yet hard to know.”
Perhaps not surprising for a former actor, Reagan is often remembered for his best lines: “Trust, but verify,” his warning about Soviet relations; “Our enemy is no longer Red Coats, but red ink” and other jeremiads about big government and spending; and references to the “shining city upon a hill,” which recalls a 17th-century sermon.
But Reagan is sometimes misunderstood, adopted for causes or ideas that don’t dovetail neatly with his record in office.
Reagan is seen as an apostle of lower taxes, but he supported what was then the largest tax increase in California history when he served as governor, from 1967 to 1975.
Cutting deals with Democratic leaders in Congress, he slashed and raised taxes during his White House days.
The debt held by the public climbed on his watch – from $712 billion in 1980 to $2 trillion in 1988, and he never presented a balanced budget to Congress during his eight years in office.
The president remembered for a massive military buildup also proposed abolishing nuclear weapons.
He’s often embraced by conservatives who want to see Social Security privatized, yet Reagan blessed a 1982 Social Security commission’s blueprint for solvency that generated almost three decades of surpluses.
Conservative bristle at proposals to provide amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants, but a 1986 law signed by Reagan established a one-year amnesty program for illegal immigrants who’d been in the United States at least four years. An estimated 2.7 million people took advantage.
In some cases, “he didn’t do exactly what people are crediting him with, particularly on the right,” Reagan biographer Lou Cannon says.
Since he left office, conservatives have worked to build his stature, making him for Republicans what President John F. Kennedy is for generations of Democrats. Last year, a congressman proposed replacing Ulysses S. Grant’s portrait with Reagan’s on the $50 bill.
For Americans, Reagan as president keeps looking better. As his reputation grew in recent years, it has overshadowed troubled periods of his presidency, including the Iran-Contra arms scandal and the fight over the “Star Wars” missile defense initiative.
“He’s passed on into mythology now,” says former Reagan speechwriter and adviser Peter Hannaford, who worked on Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 campaigns. With the passage of time “the positives get stronger and stronger, and the details of what worked well and what didn’t work so well fall away, particularly the things that didn’t.”
About two years after he left the White House, he logged a 54 percent approval rating, according to the Gallup poll, with 44 percent disapproving. By November 2010, he notched a 74 percent approval rating in a Gallup survey, second only to Kennedy’s 85 percent.
Cannon credits Reagan for leaving the world a safer place, and says his deficits pale in comparison to those of his successors.
He says Reagan’s rising stature is due partly to the presidents he is measured against. He succeeded Jimmy Carter, a one-term president, and was followed by another one-termer, George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton’s tenure was marred by a sex scandal, and George W. Bush left the nation two wars and a devastated economy.
“Reagan didn’t have a hard act to follow and he was followed by acts that weren’t wonderful either,” Cannon says. “I think he deserves to be recognized, if he’s not always recognized for the right reason.”