|Lavish Centennial Plans Testify to the Strength of Reagan’s Influence|
By JENNIFER MEDINA
New York Times
February 2, 2011
SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Ronald Reagan would have turned 100 this Sunday, and nearly seven years after his death, one might think he were still alive and leading the Republican Party.
Along with the requisite speeches and academic panels, the festivities include: a Rose Parade float, a six-foot-high cake, commemorative stamps and jelly beans, a Beach Boys concert, a tribute from the Jonas Brothers and a video homage at the Super Bowl, which is also on Sunday. The memorials, including a 21-gun salute and a graveside wreath-laying by Nancy Reagan, are expected to draw hundreds of former aides and supporters.
Reagan is not the first former president to enjoy the honor of a centennial celebration, but it is hard to remember any that were quite so lavish, speaking to his enduring role in American politics. (This weekend’s festivities at the Reagan Library here, the highlight of a year’s worth of events around the country, will cost roughly $5 million; by contrast, the cost of Lyndon Johnson’s centennial in 2008 was a mere $500,000.)
And a number of the prospective 2012 presidential candidates will be on hand to offer their praise during the revelry, among them Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, who has just written a book about Reagan and, in an interview, called him the “most successful president at actually achieving his specific and articulated goals.”
The accolades illustrate the unusual durability — at least among Republicans — of the Reagan legacy, which has endured even as so many institutions have been under attack. Reagan’s near-idol status in the G.O.P. is so ingrained that when potential party chairmen were asked last month to name their political hero, the moderator hastened to add “aside from President Reagan.”
If the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation has any say, that qualifier will be repeated for decades.
“Our job is to promote the legacy of his words and work, which were simply incredible,” said John Heubusch, the executive director of the foundation and a former Congressional aide, who said that Reagan inspired him to enter politics. “I’d go toe-to-toe to debate with anyone who said he was not a transformational president. He certainly was.”
Staff members at the foundation are careful to point out that the money for the events and for the museum’s $15 million renovation came entirely from private fund-raising. “President Reagan would not have wanted Congress to spend any money on this,” said Stewart McLaurin, the director of the centennial events, who also went to work for Reagan in 1984.
What about the presidential Jelly Belly jelly beans? Reagan was a famous fan, so it is certainly possible that he would look kindly on spending $24.95 for the special edition Reagan Centennial box. Along with 50 flavors of jelly beans, the box comes with a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a brief history of Reagan’s life and several of his quotes.
The Reaganisms include the lofty: “I can assure you that personal faith and conviction are strengthened, not weakened, in adversity.” And then there’s his philosophy on jelly beans: “You can tell a lot about a fella’s character by whether he picks out all of one color or just grabs a handful.”
Perhaps it is hardly surprising for Reagan, who was known as the Great Communicator, to be quoted so extensively.
“He’s referred to all the time because he’s extraordinarily quotable and inspiring, as much as Lincoln and more than anyone else in the 20th century,” Mr. Gingrich said.
Mr. Gingrich is hardly the only presidential hopeful who will lavish such adoration for Reagan in the coming days. Ms. Palin is scheduled to speak at a banquet for the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative group that uses the former Reagan family ranch near here as its headquarters. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is also expected to attend the official events, as will former Vice President Dick Cheney.
The love for Reagan is not universal, of course, and liberals do not hold him in such high esteem.
“Reagan holds unique status today because the Republicans don’t have anyone else,” said Paul Begala, a former Clinton aide and a political strategist. “They can’t lionize Eisenhower because, by today’s standards, he was a liberal. They can’t lionize Nixon because he was a criminal. Who have they got left?”
“He was an extraordinary president,” Mr. Begala added, “but the right needed a hero, so they turned him into a hero.”
Still, President Obama’s aides were happy to let it be known that his vacation reading list included a biography of the 40th president by Lou Cannon.
Mr. Cannon said that the popular view of Reagan had only improved with time, although his approval ratings were higher than many other presidents when he left office.
“There’s always a certain nostalgia,” Mr. Cannon said. “But the reality is he really did help end the cold war. The world now ain’t a walk in Central Park, but it’s certainly a much safer place than when Reagan took office. And he convinced Americans to believe in themselves.”
That is the sort of lesson the foundation hopes to pass on, mindful that most of today’s students were not yet born when Reagan left office. This year, they distributed a Reagan-centered curriculum to more than 1,400 high schools throughout the country. The schools will also receive a special Reagan centennial coin, which organizers here hope will be used for the coin toss at Friday night football games. Once the game is done, Mr. McLaurin said, those same schools are expected to use the coin to present a student with a Reagan leadership award.
The flurry of activity is a bit bewildering to those who helped plan Johnson’s centennial three years ago.
“Our goal wasn’t really an extravaganza, it was something more modest,” said Larry Temple, the chairman of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation. “We were just trying to put a spotlight on things that might be overlooked. We were trying to do what any history should do, which is show the relevancy to today.”
The Johnson people did have aspirations for a postage stamp, but they quickly realized that getting even a former president’s image on the right corner of an envelope could take years. Reagan Foundation officials, on the other hand, were able to fast-track the process, in part because the Postal Service created the first Reagan stamp in 2004, shortly after his death. The newest version will be issued this month as a “forever” stamp, making it valid even when the price of postage increases. This time, it might please Reagan to know, his image will not be subject to inflation.