WASHINGTON — Though Ronald Reagan served as president for eight years, 1981 to 1989, his impact on the nation's politics extends to this day.
To many Americans, he gave political conservatism an attractive face, converting an entire wing of the Democratic Party to Republicanism, which in turn has left the country with a sharply and evenly split electorate. In economics, he left an ideology that preached lower taxes, smaller government, and less regulation, but a reality that also meant skyrocketing deficits.
For some Americans, the Reagan years were a time of tremendous prosperity, of government "getting out of the way" and allowing market forces to flourish. For the less fortunate, the Reagan era was a time of hard knocks.
Most historians see Reagan's global legacy as a hastening of the end of the cold war: an expensive arms race with the Soviet Union that ran America's adversary into the ground, leading to the breakup of the Soviet behemoth and the entire communist bloc, leaving the United States the sole global superpower.
"The irony is he spoke of government as a problem, not a solution, but what he did was restore a kind of faith in government," says historian Robert Dallek.
Reagan's ascent to the corridors of national power, after his years as a Hollywood actor and governor of California, got its start in the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, a conservative Republican who lost badly in the election of 1964. That failed campaign, to which Reagan lent his rhetorical skill and genial personality, allowed him key moments in the national spotlight with a conservatism that the nation wasn't ready for at the time. By 1980, however, America was, after Vietnam, Watergate, the failed Ford presidency, and the Carter years of "malaise" and Iranian hostage crisis.
It was probably Reagan's entire persona that sold conservatism, a term that didn't need to be embellished with "compassionate" until the second George Bush sought the presidency. To this day, says Professor Dallek, Reagan "has a continuing hold on the public's imagination.... Reagan was able to rekindle hope in the country and reestablish a positive spirit."
By the time Reagan left office, he was the first American president in nearly 30 years to have completed two terms. And with Democrat Bill Clinton, the next two-term president, there were echoes of Reagan's style and even doctrine. If Reagan was the Great Communicator, then Clinton was his heir. When Clinton uttered the line, "The era of big government is over," he was borrowing directly from Reagan.
In more direct ways, the current President Bush is seen as the heir to the Reagan mantle. Though the first President Bush served as Reagan's vice president for eight years, he did not have the firm ideological views or flair for campaigning of either his son or the late president.
"To the extent that George W. Bush has a highly articulated political philosophy, it's more like Reagan's than it is like his dad's," says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University.
There are important differences. Reagan's religious beliefs were kept to himself; he put forth no "faith-based initiatives." But on taxes, both men are cut from the same cloth. Both cut taxes sharply upon taking office and drove up the budget deficit. Reagan, however, was willing to address the issue eventually by raising taxes, while Bush has not been.
In general, "Reagan himself was a more supple, more flexible figure than he seemed to be from his rhetoric," says Professor Greenstein. "With Reagan, what you saw was someone who could go from saying the Soviet Union was an evil empire to someone who could work very skillfully with [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev."
The scandals of the Reagan years - foremost, the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scheme and the savings and loan scandals - seem not to have tarnished the 40th president's legacy. In fact, as the years have passed since he left office, some Democrats have come to reassess Reagan and soften their view of him, appreciating him as one of the seminal American figures of the 20th century. During his presidency, Reagan was a highly polarizing figure. In fact, says Alonzo Hamby, a historian at Ohio University in Athens, "I'm not sure if Bush is any more polarizing now in 2004 than Reagan was in 1984."
But as the nation embarks on a week of reflection on this historic figure, the emphasis will be on his ability to inspire people and effect change, for good or ill. Reagan's legacy is all around, for some people in direct ways.
When Reagan was first elected President he helped influence an entire generation of new Republicans. Young college students, like Marcus DeFlorimonte from a traditionally Democratic New York family, were inspired both by his ideology and his vision.
"We were in a terrible state in this country when he was elected, and he reminded us of what made America great," says Mr. DeFlorimonte, now a staunch Republican who became actively involved in Boston politics, in part because of Reagan's influence. "He reminded us that government can do something, but it can't do everything. And that made sense to me."
• Alexandra Marks contributed to this report.