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President Ronald Reagan. For many Americans, the sound -- to say nothing of the thought -- of that phrase evokes sharply contrasting images. Never mind that he was governor of the Nation's most populous state for eight years and has been prominent of the American political scene for twice that long. Like the theatrical masks over a proscenium arch, the myths and superficial image endure.

One mask, to use Mr. Reagan's own tongue-in-cheek quip, is a "a combination of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Mad Bomber" -- the B-movie actor who would turn back the clock to the days when America's might was unquestioned (certainly never challenged), when neighbors helped each other through tough times, and when personal contact with the federal government meant a trip to the post office and little more.

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It never was that way. Nor was Ronald Reagan's vision of America ever that nostalgic or simple-minded.

Then there is the other mask, the one crafted by the candidate himself and his supporters. This image is of a man who figuratively grabbed California's bloated bureaucracy by the shirt front and -- with no thought for the political consequences -- ripped the fat out of state government, tossed the chiselers and loafers off welfare, adn made the unruly Berkeley students get haircuts.

It never was that way either.

Between now and Oct. 7, the Monitor will publish a series of articles researched and written by staff correspondent Bbrad Knickerbocker, who seeks to get behind the myths and popular misperceptions about Reagan. (Series on Democrat Jimmy Carter and independent John Anderson will appear between Oct. 8 and Oct. 23.)

This project involved a careful study of the Reagan past based on extensive research of biographies and political studies, government records, and news accounts. It included scores of lengthy and candid interviews with many of those who have been closest to Reagan or have wrestled him politically. Among these were family members and close friends, high-level aides and advisers, and others who have observed him at close range through the important transition points in his life. Mr. Knickerbocker's efforts required extensive travel throughout California as well as on the campaign trail to other parts of the country.

The series will take up such questions as:

* What were the formative influences in Reagan's early life, as well as during his days in Hollywood and as a spokesman for big business?

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* Does the public get a clear view of him from his rhetoric

* How did his political philosophy evolved rightward, and why?

* What do his closest friends, adversaries, and family members says about his personality and character?

* What role does religion play in his personal life and politics?

* What kind of husband and father is he?

* What is the depth and breadth of his intellectual capacity?

* What is the truth about his record as governor of California, and what kind of administrator is he?

The asnwers to these are a way of circling and probing at the key question: What kind of president would Ronald Reagan be?

This series begins today on Page 12 with a look at Reagan's roots.

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