Friends and admirers of Ronald Reagan will pop the cork today for elaborate festivities around the country to commemorate what would have been the former president's 100th birthday.
Reagan, who died in 2004 at age 93, will be celebrated from Simi Valley, Calif., where hundreds are expected at a celebrity-packed tribute concert featuring the Beach Boys; to Dixon, Ill., where neighbors will gather near Reagan's boyhood home for a celebratory gala.
At the Super Bowl in Dallas on Sunday -- Reagan's actual birthday -- a two-minute film tribute will air on giant jumbotrons before tens of thousands of fans.
Earlier in the day, Nancy Reagan is expected to lay a wreath at her late husband's gravesite, as F-18s launched from the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan fly overhead and the military performs a 21-gun salute.
The tributes, ranging from the formal to the quirky, have been coordinated by the Ronald Reagan Foundation and the Reagan Centennial Commission, a panel formed for the anniversary by Congress in 2009 with President Obama's approval.
Perhaps the most coloful display for Reagan's birthday will be a giant six-foot-by-six-foot birthday cake that will be served to visitors at the newly renovated Reagan museum in California. It's topped with 20,000 jelly beans -- the president's favorite candy -- and emblazoned with the presidential seal and photos from his life.
Reagan fans who can't make it to the museum can order commemorative 50-flavor Jelly Belly jelly bean packages, complete with the former president's likeness and bonus posters featuring "words to lead by." Volunteers fanned out across the nation's capital this week, giving commuters jelly bean mementos of their own, complete with a special Reagan fold-out card inside.
Organizers are eager to point out that unlike previous centennials, Reagan's will not use any taxpayer funds. It is instead being funded by private donors like General Electric, which contributed $15 million. "We thought it would be contrary to President Reagan's philosophy that government shouldn't be funding his birthday party," said spokesman Rob Bauer. "This is a first."
Ronald Reagan Has a Big Hundredth Birthday
Centennial and bicentennial celebrations for U.S. presidents have become a time-honored tradition since the nation's founding, with Congress convening formal commissions to coordinate events. Most recently, the country celebrated Lyndon B. Johnson's centennial in 2008 and Dwight D. Eisenhower's centennial in 1990.
But some observers say the attention and enthusiasm surrounding Reagan's centennial is unprecedented -- and a testament to the 40th president's political and cultural status.
Americans of all political stripes hold Reagan in high esteem, according to a recent Gallup poll, ranking him second out of the nine most recent former presidents from the last 50 years. Only Kennedy bested Reagan in the poll of Americans' retrospective views of how well presidents handled the job.
Even President Obama, who read a biography of Reagan during his Christmas vacation, has heaped praise on his conservative predecessor, writing in a recent op-ed, "No matter what political disagreements you may have had with President Reagan -- and I certainly had my share -- there is no denying his leadership in the world, or his gift for communicating his vision for America."
Reagan, who served for two terms, is frequently credited with helping to bring the Cold War to an end, putting the U.S. economy on sound fiscal footing, and instilling a sense of optimism and pragmatism in Americans. The theme of his centennial celebration is "inspired freedom, changed the world."
Organizers have planned events throughout 2011, including the unveiling of new Reagan statues in London and at his namesake airport in Washington, D.C., a centennial U.S. postage stamp featuring his likeness, and more than 14,000 commemorative coins which will be used for the opening toss at high school and collegiate football games in September.