Concerts, Prayers and Candy to Mark Reagan Centennial
By NEIL KING JR.
The centennial celebration of Ronald Reagan's birth this weekend looks set to have it all: a Super Bowl video, commemorative jelly beans, a gala concert by the Jonas Brothers, a prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral, and high-profile tributes from politicians.
More than a year in the works, the events will span the country, from Mr. Reagan's Illinois home town to his former ranch in California, culminating in a wreath-laying by Nancy Reagan on Sunday at her husband's tomb in Simi Valley, Calif.
The tributes—including one Friday from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—suggest Mr. Reagan is to some extent becoming a national icon whose memory now transcends partisan divisions. But the centennial's timing also has given an array of potential Republican candidates for the 2012 White House—including Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum—the perfect stage to praise the 40th president and seek to claim his mantle.
Recently out with a Reagan photo book, Mr. Gingrich, the former House speaker, plans to speak at weekend events, starting with a session Friday in Mr. Reagan's hometown of Dixon, Ill.
"He is the most iconic Republican except possibly for Lincoln. There is no one else comparable," Mr. Gingrich said in an interview, adding that Mr. Reagan's legacy might now offer his own party some advice: "to be more solution-oriented, more optimistic and to pay more attention to foreign policy."
Ms. Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice-presidential candidate, was scheduled to speak Friday night at a dinner at the former Reagan family ranch, now owned by a conservative group called Young America's Foundation.
A concert Saturday in Simi Valley will feature the Beach Boys and the Jonas Brothers, the oldest of whom, Kevin, was two when Mr. Reagan left office.
The official celebration at the Ronald Reagan Library will involve more-traditional tributes, including a 21-gun salute on Sunday morning followed by a speech by former Secretary of State James Baker. Later Sunday, millions watching the Super Bowl will see a three-minute filmed biography of the former actor and California governor.
Businesses and authors have jumped aboard the centennial bandwagon. Jelly Belly Candy Co. was distributing tiny candy packets around Washington Friday, complete with a fold-out quote testifying to the Reagan love for jelly beans.
General Electric Co. Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt, recently picked by President Barack Obama to head a White House competitiveness council, will speak this weekend at two events in California celebrating Mr. Reagan, who served for years as a GE spokesman.
Mr. Reagan's sons, Michael and Ron have published very different books on their father, the first a political treatise and the second a memoir that delves into the aloofness and inscrutability of the private Reagan.
"You may think you know Ronald Reagan, or at least the 90% or so that was so long and frequently on public display," writes the 52-year-old Ron. "However, even to those of us who were closest to him, that hidden 10% remains a considerable mystery."
Mr. Obama has also jumped in, heaping praise on the 40th president as a communicator who gave the country a jolt of optimism during gloomy times. "There is no denying his leadership in the world, or his gift for communicating his vision for America," the president wrote of Mr. Reagan recently.
Mr. Obama read a biography of Mr. Reagan during his Christmas vacation. Like the 40th president, the 44th faces the challenge of bouncing back from a bruising midterm election during difficult economic times.
His popularity has only increased since he left the White House in 1989, with members of both parties crediting him today for lifting the nation's morale after a tough decade. Moreover, Mr. Reagan's staunch anti-communism and his escalated defense spending in the late 1980s are widely credited with helping bring down the Soviet Union.
Still, many of his accomplishments remain the subject of debate. His administration slashed overall tax rates and tamped down inflation in its first term—steps that helped win him re-election on the back of a rebounding economy. But he also approved a number of tax increases during his second term, as Democrats often point out. While he is revered within the Republican Party as a fierce advocate for small government—"Government is the problem," he famously said at his 1981 inaugural—the federal debt more than doubled during his eight years in office.
Not all of the likely 2012 Republican candidates appear to be chasing the Reagan limelight, however. Neither Mitt Romney nor Tim Pawlenty plans to attend any events this weekend, according to their spokesmen.
Nevertheless, Mr. Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, has summoned the spirit of Mr. Reagan lately to rebut suggestions that he may simply be too nice to win the nomination.
Mr. Reagan was "a great example," Mr. Pawlenty told Fox News, of how it is possible to be "nice without being weak."