✪ Ronald Wilson Reagan was an American politician and actor who served as the 40th president of the United States from 1981 to 1989 as well as the 33rd Governor of California. A member of the Republican Party, his presidency constituted the Reagan Era and he is considered one of the most prominent conservative figures in United States History.
During his first presidential term, Reagan implemented “Reaganomics,” which involved economic deregulation and cuts in both taxes and government spending during a period of stagflation. He escalated an arms race and transitioned Cold War policy away from détente with the Soviet Union. He also ordered the invasion of Grenada in 1983. Additionally, he survived an assassination attempt, fought public sector labor unions, expanded the war on drugs and was slow to respond to the AIDS epidemic in the United States, which began early in his presidency. In the 1984 presidential election, Reagan defeated former vice president Walter Mondale in another landslide victory. Foreign affairs dominated Reagan’s second term, including the 1986 bombing of Libya, the Iran–Iraq War, the secret and illegal sale of arms to Iran to fund the Contras and a more conciliatory approach in talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that culminated in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Reagan left the presidency in 1989 with the American economy having seen a significant reduction of inflation, high employment and the United States entering its then-longest peacetime expansion.
Reagan was known for storytelling and humor which involved puns and self-deprecation. Reagan also often emphasized family values, despite being the first president to have been divorced. He demonstrated an ability to comfort Americans during the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Reagan’s ability to talk about substantive issues in understandable terms and to focus on mainstream American concerns earned him the laudatory moniker the “Great Communicator.” He also earned the nickname “Teflon President” in that public perceptions of him were not substantially tarnished by a number of controversies which arose during his administration.
Reagan’s policies also helped contribute to the end of the Cold War and the end of Soviet communism. Alzheimer’s disease hindered Reagan’s post-presidency period as his physical and mental capacities rapidly deteriorated, ultimately leading to his death in 2004. Historians and scholars have consistently ranked Reagan in the upper tier of American presidents; and his post-presidential approval ratings by the general public are among the highest.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in a commercial building building in Tampico, Illinois, as the younger son of Nelle Clyde Wilson and Jack Reagan. Nelle was committed to the Disciples of Christ, which believed in the Social Gospel. She led prayer meetings and ran mid-week prayers at her church when the pastor was out of town. Reagan credited her spiritual influence and he became a Christian. According to Stephen Vaughn, Reagan’s values came from his pastor, and the First Christian Church’s religious, economic and social positions “coincided with the words, if not the beliefs of the latter-day Reagan.”
Reagan attended Dixon High School, where he developed interests in drama and football. His first job involved working as a lifeguard at the Rock River in Lowell Park. In 1928, Reagan began attending Eureka College at Nelle’s approval on religious grounds. He was a mediocre student that participated in sports, drama and campus politics. He became student body president and joined a student strike that resulted in the college president’s resignation. Reagan played the guard position on the 1930 and 1931 Eureka Red Devils football teams. He recalled a time when two black football teammates were refused service at a segregated hotel; he invited them to his parents’ home nearby in Dixon where his parents welcomed them.
After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and sociology from Eureka College in 1932 Reagan took a job in Davenport, Iowa, as a sports broadcaster for four football games in the Big Ten Conference. He then worked for WHO Radio in Des Moines as a broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs.
In 1936, while traveling with the Cubs to their spring training in California, Reagan took a screen test that led to a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. Reagan arrived in Hollywood in 1937, making his screen debut in Love Is on the Air (1937). Using a simple and direct approach to acting and following his directors’ instructions, Reagan made thirty films for Warner Brothers, mostly B films, before beginning military service in April 1942. He finally broke out of these types of films by portraying George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American (1940), which would be rejuvenated when reporters called Reagan “the Gipper” while he campaigned for president of the United States.
World War II interrupted the movie stardom that Reagan would never be able to achieve again as Warner Bros became uncertain about his ability to generate ticket sales. Reagan, who had a limited acting range, was also dissatisfied with the roles he received. As a result, Lew Wasserman renegotiated his contract with his studio, allowing him to also make films with Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, and RKO Pictures as a freelancer. With this, Reagan appeared in multiple western films, something that had been denied him working at Warner Bros. In 1952, he completely ended his relationship with Warner Brothers but went on to appear in a total of 53 feature films, his last being The Killers (1964).
In April 1937, Reagan enlisted in the United States Army Reserve. He was assigned as a private in Des Moines’ 322nd Cavalry Regiment and reassigned to second lieutenant in the Officers Reserve Corps. He later became a part of the 323rd Cavalry Regiment in California. As relations between the United States and Japan worsened, Reagan was ordered up for active duty while he was filming Kings Row.
Reagan reported for duty with severe near-sightedness. His first assignment was at Fort Mason as a liaison officer, a role that allowed him to transfer to the United States Army Air Forces (AAF) Throughout his military service, Reagan produced over 400 training films.
When Robert Montgomery resigned as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) on March 10, 1947, Reagan was elected to that position, in a special election. Reagan’s first tenure saw oversight of various labor-management disputes, the Hollywood blacklist and the Taft–Hartley Act implementation
When first asked if he was aware of communist efforts within the Screen Writers Guild, he called the efforts “hearsay.” Reagan would remain SAG president until he resigned on November 10, 1952. Walter Pidgeon succeeded him, but Reagan remained on the board.
Reagan married Brother Rat (1938) co-star Jane Wyman in January 1940. Together, they had two biological daughters: Maureen in 1941 and Christine, who was born prematurely and died the next day in 1947. They adopted one son, Michael, in 1945. Wyman filed for divorce from Reagan in June 1948. She was uninterested in politics and occasionally recriminated, reconciled and separated with him.
Later that year, Reagan met Nancy Davis after she contacted him in his capacity as the SAG president about her name appearing on a communist blacklist in Hollywood; she had been mistaken for another Nancy Davis. They married in March 1952 and had two children, Patti in 1952 and Ron in 1958. In 1965, Reagan became the host of MCA Productions’ Death Valley Days.
Reagan began his political career as a Democrat and viewing Franklin D. Roosevelt as “a true hero.” He joined the American Veterans Committee and the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP). He also worked with the AFL–CIO to fight right-to-work laws.
It was eventually Reagan’s belief that communism was a powerful backstage influence in Hollywood that led him to rally his friends against industry supporters of Communism. Reagan began his shift to the Right when he supported the presidential campaigns of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and Richard Nixon in 1960. Reagan was contracted by General Electric (GE)to give speeches to their employees. His speeches were very supportive of free markets.
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In 1964, Reagan gave a speech for presidential contender Barry Goldwater that was eventually referred to as “A Time for Choosing.” Reagan argued that the Founding Fathers “knew that governments don’t control things. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose” and that “We’ve been told increasingly that we must choose between left or right.” Even though the speech was not enough to turn around the faltering Goldwater campaign, it increased Reagan’s profile among conservatives.
In January 1966, Reagan announced his candidacy for the California governorship, repeating his conservative stances on individual freedom and big government. Reagan’s general election opponent, incumbent governor Pat Brown, attempted to label Reagan as an extremist and tout his own accomplishments. Reagan portrayed himself as a political outsider and charged Brown as responsible for the Watts riots and lenient on crime. In numerous speeches, Reagan “hit the Brown administration about high taxes, uncontrolled spending, the radicals at the University of California, Berkeley, and the need for accountability in government” Ultimately, Reagan won the governorship with 57 percent of the vote compared to Brown’s 42 percent.
During his victorious reelection campaign in 1970, Reagan, remaining critical of government, promised to prioritize welfare reform. He was concerned that government entitlement programs were disincentivizing work and that the growing welfare rolls would lead to both an unbalanced budget and another big tax hike in 1972.
Insufficiently conservative to Reagan and many other Republicans, president Gerald Ford suffered from multiple political and economic woes.
Reagan emerged as a vocal critic of President Carter in 1977. The Panama Canal Treaty’s signing, the 1979 oil crisis and a dramatic rise in the inflation, interest and unemployment rates helped set up his 1980 presidential campaign which he announced on November 13, 1979 with apublic indictment of the federal government.
His announcement stressed his fundamental principles of tax cuts to stimulate the economy and having both a small government and a strong national defense, since he believed the United States was behind the Soviet Union militarily.
On November 4, 1980, Reagan won in a decisive victory in the Electoral College over Carter, carrying 44 states and receiving 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49 in six states and the District of Columbia. He won the popular vote by a narrower margin, receiving nearly 51 percent to Carter’s 41 percent and Anderson’s 7 percent.
As the 40th president of the United States, Reagan was sworn into office for his first term on January 20, 1981. In his inaugural address, he addressed the country’s economic malaise, arguing, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” In a final insult to President Carter, Iran had waited until Reagan had been sworn in before sending the hostages home.
Reagan lifted federal oil and gasoline price controls on January 28, 1981; and in August, he signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 to dramatically lower federal income tax rates and require exemptions and brackets to be indexed for inflation starting in 1985. Amid growing concerns about the mounting federal debt, Reagan signed the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. It was one of the eleven times Reagan raised taxes.
The Tax Reform Act of 1986 reduced the number of tax brackets and top tax rate, and almost doubled personal exemptions. Reagan took office in the midst of stagflation. The economy briefly experienced growth before plunging into a recession in July 1981.
Reagan sought to loosen federal regulation of economic activities, and he appointed key officials who shared this agenda. William Leuchtenburg writes that by 1986, the Reagan Administration had eliminated almost half of the federal regulations that had existed in 1981.
On March 30, 1981, Reagan was shot by John Hinckley Jr. outside the Washington Hilton. Also struck were: James Brady, Thomas Delahanty and Tim McCarthy. Although “right on the margin of death” upon arrival at George Washington University Hospital, Reagan underwent surgery and recovered quickly from a broken rib, a punctured lung, and internal bleeding. Professor J. David Woodard says that the assassination attempt “created a bond between him and the American people that was never really broken.” Later, Reagan came to believe that God had spared his life “for a chosen mission.”
Reagan appointed three Associate Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States: Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981, Antonin Scalia in 1986 and Anthony Kennedy in 1988. He also elevated William Rehnquist from Associate Justice to Chief Justice in 1986.
Reagan ordered a massive defense buildup. He revived the B-1 Lancer program which had been rejected by the Carter Administration and deployed the MX missile In response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, He oversaw NATO’s deployment of the Pershing missile in Western Europe.
In March 1983, Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to protect the United States from space intercontinental ballistic missiles. He believed that this defense shield could protect the country from nuclear destruction in a hypothetical nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
In a 1982 address to the British Parliament, Reagan said, “the march of freedom and democracy … will leave Marxism–Leninism on the ash heap of history.” Dismissed at the time by the American press as “wishful thinking,” Margaret Thatcher hailed the address a “triumph.”
Reagan announced his reelection campaign on January 29, 1984, declaring, “America is back and standing tall.” In November, Reagan won a landslide reelection victory with 59 percent of the popular vote and 525 electoral votes from 49 states.
Contentious relations between Libya and the United States under President Reagan were revived in the West Berlin discotheque bombing that killed an American soldier and injured dozens of others on April 5, 1986. Stating that there was irrefutable evidence that Libya had a direct role in the bombing, Reagan authorized the use of force against the country. On April 14, the United States launched a series of airstrikes on ground targets in Libya.
The attack was, according to Reagan, designed to halt Muammar Gaddafi’s “ability to export terrorism,” offering him “incentives and reasons to alter his criminal behavior.”
Reagan’s foreign policy towards the Soviets wavered between brinkmanship and cooperation. Reagan appreciated Gorbachev’s revolutionary change in the direction of the Soviet policy and shifted to diplomacy, intending to encourage him to pursue substantial arms agreements.
In June 1987, Reagan addressed Gorbachev during a speech at the Berlin Wall, demanding that he “tear down this wall.” The remark was ignored at the time, but after the wall fell in November 1989, it was retroactively recast as a soaring achievement. In December, Reagan and Gorbachev met again at the Washington Summit to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, committing to the total abolition of their respective short-range and medium-range missile stockpiles.The treaty established an inspections regime designed to ensure that both parties honored the agreement. In May 1988, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly voted in favor of ratifying the treaty, providing a major boost to Reagan’s popularity in the aftermath of the controversial Iran–Contra Affair. A new era of trade and openness between the two powers commenced, as the United States and Soviet Union cooperated on international issues such as the Iran–Iraq War.
After leaving the presidency on January 20, 1989, Ronald and Nancy Reagan lived at 668 St. Cloud Road in Bel Air, in addition to Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara. He received multiple awards and honors s well as generous payments for public speaking engagements. In 1991, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library opened. Reagan also addressed the 1992 Republican National Convention “to inspire allegiance to the party regulars.” His last major public appearance was at the funeral of Richard Nixon on April 27, 1994.
In August 1994, Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which he announced through a handwritten letter in November. Over time, the disease destroyed Reagan’s mental capacity. By 1997, he was reported to recognize few people other than his wife, though he continued to walk through parks and on beaches, play golf, and visit his office in nearby Century City. Eventually, his family decided that he would live in quiet semi-isolation with his wife. By the end of 2003, Reagan had lost his ability to speak and was mostly confined to his bed, no longer able to recognize any family members.
Reagan died of pneumonia, complicated by Alzheimer’s at his home in Los Angeles, on June 5, 2004. President George W. Bush called Reagan’s death “a sad hour in the life of America.” His public funeral was held in the Washington National Cathedral, with eulogies given by Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Other world leaders attended including Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Wałęsa. Reagan was interred at his presidential library.
In 2008, British historian M. J. Heale summarized that scholars had reached a broad consensus in which “Reagan rehabilitated conservatism, turned the country to the right, practiced a ‘pragmatic conservatism’ that balanced ideology with the constraints of government, revived faith in the presidency and American self-respect, and contributed to critically ending the Cold War, which ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.” Many conservative and liberal scholars have agreed that Reagan has been the most influential president since Roosevelt, leaving his imprint on American politics, diplomacy, culture, history and economics through his effective communication of his conservative agenda. ✪