RONALD REAGAN ENTERED politics after a long and successful career as a film and television actor. He would be a famous man even if he had never been elected president. Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, on February 6, 1911, the younger of the two sons of John E. Reagan and Nelle Clyde (Wilson) Reagan. Reagan graduated from Dixon (Illinois) High School in 1928 and went to Eureka College, putting himself through by washing dishes at the women’s dormitory, and graduating in 1932 with a degree in sociology and economics. He went to work as a sports announcer for an Iowa radio station, and it was at this time that he honed the storytelling skills that earned him as president the nickname “the great communicator.” Instead of seeing the game, Reagan only got the play-by-play as it came over the ticker tape, and he had to take a telegraphic report and add description so that, for example, “Ruth flies to short” became “Babe Ruth steps up to the plate. The crowd roars its approval. Here’s the pitch. Strike one. The crowd is hissing and booing. Here’s the pitch. He hits. Ott is under it. Out!”
In 1937, Reagan became a contract player for Warner Brothers and shortly made his debut in Love Is on the Air. He became a notable star with his performance in Knute Rockne: All-American, which added the phrase “Win one for the Gipper” to the lexicon of Reaganisms. His most notable film was Kings Row, where he played a surgery patient who became paralyzed. This led him to utter the line “Where’s the rest of me?” which became the title of his first autobiography. In 1942, he entered the army cavalry, reportedly aided in part by cheating on the eye test. He spent the war making movies for the U.S. Army. One of the most notable, and far more than a mere training film, was Irving Berlin’s all-soldier show This Is the Army. After the war, Reagan continued to make pictures commercially, and he was also active in the Screen Actors Guild and served five terms as its president. He was the only U.S. president to have led a labor union. He worked for General Electric Company as a spokesperson and the host of the company-sponsored television series G.E. Theatre.
The General Electric association was a conservatizing force on Reagan, putting him into close association with the moneyed Republican elite, something missing in most of his Hollywood associations. (The entertainment industry remains primarily a left-leaning culture.) In 1962, Reagan switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party. His first major foray into politics was making a TV commercial for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican presidential campaign. Where’s the Rest of Me? was published the next year. Reagan also ended his acting career, wrapping up a three-year run as host of the long-running Death Valley Days; his final film, The Killers, was supposed to have been the first made-for-TV movie, but it was deemed too violent for the small screen and was released in theatres instead. It was Reagan’s only bad-guy role.
Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966, defeating Democratic incumbent Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, who had defeated Richard Nixon four years earlier. Reagan tested the waters for the presidential nomination in 1968, but he was clearly not ready for the national stage and won no primaries. He took a hard line against his state’s share of civil unrest during the civil rights, women’s, and anti-war protest movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was reelected governor in 1970.
Reagan declined to seek gubernatorial reelection in 1974. He was succeeded by Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr. He sought the presidential nomination again in 1976, challenging the incumbent Republican, President Gerald R. Ford, who had become president upon Richard Nixon’s resignation two years earlier. It was a hardfought contest, although Ford maintained momentum throughout the nomination campaign. Reagan was forced to announce his running mate in advance of the convention. This is generally regarded as a sign of weakness. The running mate, U.S. Senator Richard S. Schweiker of Pennsylvania, then part of the liberal wing of the Republican Party, probably did not make a large difference in the nomination battle. Ford was nominated on the first ballot but went on to lose a narrow election to Democrat Jimmy Carter in which Ford’s pardon of Nixon and handling of the economy were much at issue.
Reagan never stopped running after 1976, spending time helping Republicans all over the country raise money for their races. When the 1980 nomination race came, Reagan was ready to cash in his many markers, and he had broad national support for the nomination, while his little-known and underfunded challengers (including George H.W. Bush) had much narrower bases of support. Reagan easily won the nomination. He chose Bush as his running mate. It was a bad year to be Jimmy Carter running for reelection. The economy was in even worse shape than when Carter had beat Ford, and 53 Americans were being held hostage in Iran and Carter had been unable to free them—having suffered the embarrassment of a failed covert hostage rescue mission.
If Carter had any chance of winning, he forfeited it by debating Reagan on television the week before the election. Carter was no match for Reagan’s oratory, well polished by decades as a performer. Reagan won handily, although it was no landslide. Carter was further hindered by the presence on the ballot of a former Republican, John Anderson, who ran as an independent and won a critical slice of the usually Democratic vote in major urban areas. While Carter worked furiously to have the hostages released before Reagan took office, their release was delayed until only minutes after Reagan was sworn in. At 69, Reagan became the oldest president at inauguration and a few months later became the oldest president in history.
Reagan and his ideological allies, who wanted less government intrusion into people’s lives, at least in the economic sphere, took Washington, D.C., by storm. Although the House of Representatives was still under Democratic control, Reagan was able to prevail and secure passage of broad tax and spending cuts. But the honeymoon was brief. Reagan and three others were wounded by gunfire while Reagan and his entourage were leaving a hotel on March 30, 1981. An armorpiercing bullet lodged within inches of Reagan’s heart, but emergency surgery was successful, and Reagan was released less than two weeks later. He was the only president to survive being shot while in office. The assailant, John W. Hinckley, Jr., who apparently acted to impress a film actress, was unexpectedly found not guilty by reason of insanity the next year and committed to a mental institution. Also that year, Reagan appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court and squared off against the air traffic controllers’ union during an unauthorized strike.
The economy soured in Reagan’s second year as president, and Republicans suffered losses in the midterm elections. By 1983, the economy had recovered, and Reagan was able to capitalize on such issues as the Soviet Union’s downing of a Korean airliner and an invasion of Grenada to repel a communist regime. In the 1984 election, the Democrats were divided, and even when the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, picked the first woman to run for vice president, Geraldine A. Ferraro, it provided only a short-term boost. Mondale’s campaign was soon mired in issues related to Ferraro’s personal finances. Reagan, meanwhile, had an excellent campaign, and faltered only briefly after his first debate with Mondale, where he provided a few rambling and incoherent answers. This raised the “age” issue, where the specter of a 73-year-old chief executive suddenly seemed troubling. Reagan defused the issue in the second debate with a well-timed one-liner. He remarked that he would not try to score political points on the age issue by raising his opponent’s “youth and inexperience.” (The point was better as a one-liner than the subject of serious discussion: Mondale had served 20 years as an elected official to Reagan’s 12, and at 57 was older than the average new president.) Reagan won the biggest landslide in the electoral college in history, carrying every state except Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.
Reagan was frequently hindered as a lame duck in his second term. He made little progress on his agenda in 1985–86, and Democrats regained control of the Senate in the 1986 election. The year was also one of great tragedy, with the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, several terrorist attacks in the Middle East, and the crash of a U.S. troop transport plane in Newfoundland and Labrador. That year had opened badly for Reagan personally with a diagnosis of colon cancer, prompting invocation of the 25th Amendment for the first time.
Reagan fared better in the area of arms control, when he and new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev practically decided to do away with nuclear weapons. In late 1986, a major scandal erupted when it was disclosed that the administration had made secret arms sales to Iran, whose proceeds were directed to rebel fighters in Nicaragua. For once, it seemed, the “Teflon” president finally had something that would stick to him, although the inquiry failed to implicate Reagan personally. In 1987, Reagan saw two Supreme Court nominations go down to defeat as the Senate rejected Robert Bork as too conservative, and the nomination of Douglas Ginsberg was withdrawn after the nominee revealed he had been a habitual marijuana user.
Reagan took a hard conservative line with the Soviet Union, first famously calling it the “Evil Empire,” and vastly increasing the U.S. defense budget. Then, when the Soviet economy couldn’t keep up with a renewed arms race, Reagan encouraged Gorbachev in his liberalization policies, which eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He was often accorded the credit for “winning the Cold War,” but other commentators point to a host of factors that also were responsible for communism’s defeat after 70 years.
Reagan’s presidency was best encapsulated by the buoyant feeling he provided for many after too many years of gloom and bad news. Reagan exuded a carefree approach to office, not caring if anyone faulted him for working eight-hour days and taking month-long vacations at his ranch near Santa Barbara, California. (His predecessor was known for working 16 hours a day, six days a week.) Despite his many political failures and the second term being full of setbacks, Reagan left office personally more popular than any president since modern polling began. Reagan was always more popular with the general public than with elites. To some extent, Reagan’s career as an entertainer and as a passive person whose role had usually been reading someone else’s words colored the public perception of him, at least as told through the voice of the news media. Many of the popular biographies published during and soon after his presidency highlighted this aspect of the man in their titles, among them, The Reagan Presidency: An Actor’s Finest Performance; The Acting President; President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime; Make Believe; and Sleep-walking Through History.
Reagan married Sarah Jane Fulks, an actor whose stage name was Jane Wyman, in Glendale, California, on January 24, 1940. Reagan is the only president to have been divorced. He married Nancy Davis, who was born Anne Frances Robbins, on March 4, 1952, in Los Angeles, California. Reagan retired to the wealthy and exclusive Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. He did some speaking when he first left office. A tour of Japan was particularly profitable. Reagan pocketed $2 million in speaking fees, compared with $1.6 million salary for eight years as president. His last public appearance was at the funeral of Richard Nixon in April 1994.
In November 1994, it was revealed that Reagan was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and went into seclusion as his health deteriorated for the next 10 years. Reagan technically died from pneumonia at his Los Angeles home on June 5, 2004. He had lived longer than any other president. June 10, 2004, was a national day of mourning, on which all federal offices (including post offices) and many banks were closed. This was an unprecedented honor for a former president, although some presidents who died in office were so honored. Reagan was buried at his presidential library in Simi Valley, California.
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