WASHINGTON — For all America knew about Ronald Reagan, he could be elusive. Even his own daughter Patti found him hard to know. In a way, the divergent assessments of the late 40th president in this week of remembrance only reinforce that essential enigma of a man who is increasingly revered by the American people, even as the legacy of his controversial policies is hotly debated.
Two points stand out: that during his presidency he was a highly polarizing figure with only average public-approval ratings; and that now, 15 years after his farewell to the White House, he sits near the top of Americans' rankings of the all-time greatest presidents.
All US presidents undergo regular reassessment; some morph into legend. And it may even seem that once safely out of power, all presidents get a better shake from the man on the street. With time, the disgraced Richard Nixon was remembered well by some for his foreign policy. Jimmy Carter, whose reelection bid failed under economic malaise and the Iran hostage crisis, is now known for his public-spiritedness.
For Reagan, the reassessment seeps into his actual time in office. According to the Gallup Organization, Reagan averaged a 53 percent job-approval rating during his presidency - lower than the presidencies of the first President Bush, Bill Clinton, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight Eisenhower. But by 2002, when Americans were asked to assess retrospectively Reagan's performance as president - not his personal likability, where he always scored well - 73 percent approved.
It may be, suggests Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport, that "the more Americans thought about it, the more they realized he may have accomplished than they thought at the time."
Early in his presidency, Reagan labored under a major economic recession that hurt his job approvals; later on, the Iran-contra scandal hurt his ratings. "So maybe Americans thinking back now in the long term say: 'Well, those two things I'm forgetting about,' " says Mr. Newport. " 'It was the most important foreign policy things I'm considering' " - namely, the credit many give him for helping end the cold war.
Reagan's diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease in 1994 sparked concern and sympathy for him, and may also have shaded people's assessments, Newport suggests.
Yet another factor in public opinion is the concerted effort, led by conservative activist Grover Norquist, to name public landmarks after Reagan in all 3,000 US counties. "That probably helps," says George Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A & M University. "There's nobody arguing the other side."
As the nation prepares to lay its 40th president to rest, there is a respectful tone to the conversation - and calls by some, including Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, to wait a while before noting Reagan's flaws.
Locals and tourists eating dinner at a San Diego shopping mall food court remembered Reagan fondly, for the most part. When asked about him, they recalled his personality, optimism, and warmth more than his policies, although a few gave him credit for helping to end the cold war.
"I really liked Ronald Reagan and how he stood on his principles. He was a great communicator, able to make the country more forward-looking and optimistic," says Charles Brodbeck, a retired physics professor. "He had a great personality and sense of humor and a certain warmth."
Mr. Brodbeck's son, Mark, a bearded San Diego State University geology student in his 20s, remembers Reagan only vaguely, but in a positive light. "I don't remember anybody saying anything negative about him," he says. "He seemed to be funny, and I remember my parents laughing."
Rich Yakota, a car salesman visiting San Diego from Santa Cruz, Calif., remembers a different Reagan. Mr. Yakota, who's in his 30s, was in college during part of Reagan's term. "I remember being surprised that he made it, considering his background," he says. "It was a time when I was developing my ideals about what makes a great leader.... It didn't seem like he was really running the country."
Yakota's father, Dick, is a mechanical engineer, also from Santa Cruz, and says Reagan was probably the best president of his adult life. "History is going to determine that he was one of our greatest presidents. What I've heard [in the press] is well deserved."
In Chicago, Daniel McClain, a carpenter enjoying an ice cream cone outside Monica's Lakeside View on a hot evening, was in high school during the Reagan years and "kind of oblivious to politics." He doesn't remember a whole lot of Reagan's actual presidency - "mainly my dad's views - he was a big supporter." As he looks back now, his views are favorable. "He had a good grasp on agriculture and taking care of farmers - something we feel strongly about here in the Midwest. And I think he was a good representative of the American dream." What stands out now is Reagan's "whole persona," he says. "I think he was a good president, but you almost felt like he was pulling one over on you - he was such a slick talker, and everyone liked him."
Kristina Kovacevic, a young woman riding her bike away from Lincoln Park's driving range, spent the Reagan years in grade school. "I was really, really young," she says. "But he was really liked by my parents. My dad loved him." Now, she says, she's not crazy about his legacy of a huge deficit, "but people know first and foremost how he communicates. That's the only thing I came away with - that people really liked him, and he was a person's president."
• Randy Dotinga in San Diego and Amanda Paulson in Chicago contributed to this report.