Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library / October 14, 2014)

Ronald Reagan, the Hollywood actor who became one of the most popular presidents of the 20th century and transformed the political landscape of an era with his vision of conservative government, died Saturday at his home in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was 93.

His wife, Nancy, his greatest fan and fierce protector, was at his side. For 10 years, he suffered from Alzheimer's, an incapacitating brain disease. In 1994, he bade a poignant farewell to "my fellow Americans." In a hand-written letter, made public by his office, he said he was setting out on "the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life."

In a statement relayed by chief of staff Joanne Drake, who represents the family, Nancy Reagan said: "My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has passed away.... We appreciate everyone's prayers." Drake said Reagan's death came at 1 p.m. and was caused by pneumonia, complicated by Alzheimer's.

The disease robbed Reagan of his ability to remember much of his own remarkable history: that he had served eight years as governor of California and eight more as president of the United States, and that he had led America's politics rightward toward the middle. Only one Democrat has succeeded him: Bill Clinton, a "new Democrat," who did as much or more to achieve such conservative goals as balancing the federal budget and changing welfare than anything Reagan himself accomplished.

Reagan inspired a missionary corps of conservatives who hold countless elected offices and government jobs to this day. Others have been elected since he left the White House. Indeed, biographer Lou Cannon likened the Reagan revolution to a time bomb, citing political analyst Michael Barone's tally showing that more Reagan Republicans won congressional seats in 1994 than they did when he was president. Even in his final years, he was a role model. President George W. Bush, who tugged the country even farther right, has called Reagan "a hero in the American story."

As recently as last month, Nancy Reagan had said her husband's disease was worsening. "Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him," she said. When he died, she and Reagan's son and daughter Ronald Prescott Reagan and Patti Davis were at the family home, chief of staff Drake said. She said son Michael Reagan arrived a short time later. He had spent all day Friday with his father.

Reagan's death brought accolades and condolences from around the world. President George W. Bush was told while visiting Paris to mark the anniversary of D-day. "It's a sad hour in the life of America," Bush said, adding that Reagan "leaves behind a nation he restored and a world he helped save." Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Reagan's contemporary and political ally, declared that "millions of men and women ... live in freedom today because of the policies he pursued."

Former presidents offered statements of praise. Gerald R. Ford called Reagan "an excellent leader of our nation during challenging times." Bill Clinton said, "He personified the indomitable optimism of the American people ... [and kept] America at the forefront of the fight for freedom." George H.W. Bush said, "We had been political opponents and became close friends. He could take a stand ... and do it without creating bitterness."

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called Reagan "a great American patriot" and said, "He was a hero to me."

World and national leaders were expected to gather at the National Cathedral in Washington for Reagan's funeral, after his body lies in state for two days at the Reagan presidential library and museum near Simi Valley, and then for two days in Washington at the Capitol Rotunda. Then the body was to be returned to the presidential library for private burial. Details of the arrangements were not final.

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Optimism Was Catching

As the nation's 40th president, Reagan left lasting contributions to the world, his nation and the people he served. Graced with a gift for storytelling, a ready wit and a visceral understanding of the aspirations of his countrymen, Reagan had the rare distinction of leaving office more popular than when he arrived.

Part of his gift was his ability to make Americans, shaken by the Vietnam War and the scandal of Watergate, feel good about themselves. His optimism was real and unyielding. Once, after surgery for colon cancer, he told reporters: "I didn't have cancer. I had something inside of me that had cancer in it, and it was removed." It helped that he was an actor. "There have been times in this office," he once told interviewer David Brinkley, "when I've wondered how you could do the job if you hadn't been an actor."

People called him the Gipper, because he played Notre Dame football star George Gipp in the 1940 movie "Knute Rockne -- All American." On his deathbed, Gipp urges Coach Rockne to implore the Fighting Irish to "win one for the Gipper." As president, Reagan urged his fellow Americans to do the same, time and again: to write Congress for tax relief, to vote Republican -- so they, too, could win one for the Gipper.

People also called him the Great Communicator, because he understood the presidency was a pulpit, and he used it to preach. Mostly his sermons were about a simple kind of conservatism: cut taxes so investments of the wealthy would trickle down to the poor; build America's military might so world Communism would topple and fall. "Mr. Gorbachev," he shouted, at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin during a visit in June 1987, "tear down this wall!"

Ten years later, after the Berlin Wall had tumbled and the Soviet empire collapsed, Reagan was strolling in Armand Hammer Park near his home. The Toledo Blade reported that a Ukranian from Ohio and his 12-year-old grandson asked if Reagan would sit on a park bench with the boy for a picture. He obliged. The grandfather later told the New York Times that they had thanked him for opposing communism.

Yes, Reagan replied, that had been his job.

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Pluses and Minuses