Who Was Ronald Reagan?
Ronald Reagan initially chose a career in entertainment, appearing in more than 50 films. While in Hollywood, he worked as president of the Screen Actor's Guild and met his future wife, Nancy (Davis) Reagan. He later served two terms as governor of California. Originally a liberal Democrat, Reagan ran for the U.S. presidency as a Republican and won two terms, beginning in 1980, ultimately becoming a conservative icon over the ensuing decades. Having suffered from Alzheimer's disease in his later years, Reagan died on June 5, 2004.
Childhood and Education
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois, to John Edward "Jack" Reagan and Nellie Wilson Reagan. His father nicknamed him "Dutch," saying he resembled "a fat little Dutchman." During Reagan's early childhood, his family lived in a series of towns, finally settling in Dixon, Illinois, in 1920, where Jack opened a shoe store. In 1928, Reagan graduated from Dixon High School, where he was an athlete and student body president and performed in school plays. During summer vacations, he worked as a lifeguard in Dixon.
Enrolling at Eureka College in Illinois on an athletic scholarship, Reagan majored in economics and sociology. There, he played football, ran track, captained the swim team, served as student council president and acted in school productions. After graduating in 1932, he found work as a radio sports announcer in Iowa.
Hollywood Career and Marriages
In 1937, Reagan signed a seven-year contract with the movie studio Warner Bros. Over the next three decades, he appeared in more than 50 films. Among his best-known roles was that of Notre Dame football star George Gipp in the 1940 biopic Knute Rockne, All American. Another notable role was in the 1942 film Kings Row, in which Reagan portrays an accident victim who wakes up to discover his legs have been amputated.
In 1940, Reagan married actress Jane Wyman, with whom he had daughter Maureen and adopted a son, Michael. The couple divorced in 1948. During World War II, Reagan was disqualified from combat duty due to poor eyesight and spent his time in the Army making training films. He left the military ranked as a captain.
From 1947 to 1952, Reagan served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. During this time, he met actress Nancy Davis, who had sought his help after she was mistakenly listed as a possible communist sympathizer on the Hollywood blacklist. Both were immediately attracted to each other, but Reagan was skeptical of marrying again due to his painful divorce from Wyman. Over time he recognized Nancy as his kindred spirit, and they wed in 1952. The pair had two children, Patricia Ann and Ronald.
As Reagan's film career began to plateau, he landed a job as host of the weekly television drama series The General Electric Theater in 1954. Part of his responsibility as the host was to tour the United States as a public relations representative for GE. It was during this time that his political views shifted from liberal to conservative; he led pro-business discussions, speaking out against excessive government regulation and wasteful spending—central themes of his future political career.
Governorship and Presidential Bid
Reagan stepped into the national political spotlight in 1964, when he gave a well-received televised speech for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, a prominent conservative. Two years later, in his first race for public office, Reagan defeated Democratic incumbent Edmund "Pat" Brown Sr. by almost one million votes, winning the California governorship. He was re-elected to a second term in 1970.
After making unsuccessful bids for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and 1976, Reagan finally received his party's nod in 1980. In that year's general election, he defeated Democrat incumbent President Jimmy Carter, winning the electoral college (489 to 49) and capturing almost 51 percent of the popular vote. At age 69, Reagan was the oldest person elected to the U.S. presidency at the time.
1981 Inauguration and Assassination Attempt
In his inaugural speech on January 20, 1981, Reagan rhetorically announced that "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem." He called for an era of national renewal and hoped that America would again be "a beacon of hope for those who do not have freedom." He and Nancy Reagan also ushered in a new era of glamour to the White House, with designer fashions and a controversial redecoration of the executive mansion.
On March 30, 1981, as President Reagan was exiting the Washington Hilton Hotel with several of his advisers, shots rang out and quick-thinking Secret Service agents thrust the president into his limousine. Once in the car, aides discovered that he had been hit. His would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr., also shot three other people, none of them fatally. At the hospital, doctors determined that the gunman's bullet had pierced one of the president's lungs and narrowly missed his heart. Reagan, known for his good-natured humor, later told his wife, "Honey, I forgot to duck." Within several weeks of the shooting, Reagan was back at work.
On the domestic front, President Reagan advanced a number of conservative policies. Tax cuts were implemented to stimulate the United States' economy. He also advocated for increases in military spending, reductions in certain social programs and measures to deregulate business. By 1983, the nation's economy had begun to recover and, according to many economists, entered a seven-year period of prosperity. Critics, however, charged that his policies had actually increased the deficit and hurt the middle class and poor.
In 1981, Reagan once again made history by appointing Judge Sandra Day O'Connor as the first woman to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The most pressing foreign policy issue of Reagan's first term was the Cold War. Dubbing the Soviet Union "the evil empire," Reagan embarked on a massive buildup of U.S. weapons and troops. He implemented the Reagan Doctrine, which provided aid to anti-communist movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In 1983, he announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a plan aiming to develop space-based weapons to protect America from attacks by Soviet nuclear missiles.
In the Middle East, Reagan sent 800 U.S. Marines to Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping force, in June 1982. Nearly one year later, in October 1983, suicide bombers attacked the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans. That same month, Reagan ordered U.S. forces to invade the Caribbean island of Granada after Marxist rebels overthrew the government. In addition to the problems in Lebanon and Grenada, the Reagan administration had to deal with an ongoing contentious relationship with Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.
1984 Reelection and Gorbachev
In November 1984, Reagan was reelected in a landslide, defeating Democratic challenger Walter Mondale. Reagan carried 49 of the 50 U.S. states in the election and received 525 of 538 electoral votes—the largest number ever won by an American presidential candidate. Yet his second term was tarnished by the Iran-Contra affair, a convoluted "arms-for-hostages" deal with Iran to funnel money toward anti-communist insurgencies in Central America. Though he initially denied knowing about it, Reagan later announced that it was a mistake partially at the behest of the first lady.
During his second term, Reagan also forged a diplomatic relationship with the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev, chairman of the Soviet Union. In 1987, the Americans and Soviets signed a historic agreement to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. That same year, Reagan spoke at Germany's Berlin Wall, a symbol of communism, and famously challenged Gorbachev to tear it down. More than two years later, Gorbachev allowed the people of Berlin to dismantle the wall, ending Soviet domination of East Germany. After leaving the White House, Reagan returned to Germany in September 1990—just weeks before the country was officially reunified—and, with a hammer, took several symbolic swings at a remaining chunk of the wall.
Later Years and Death
After leaving the White House in January 1989, Reagan and Nancy returned to their home in Los Angeles, California. In 1991, the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs opened in Simi Valley, California.
In November 1994, Reagan revealed in a handwritten letter to the American people that he had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Nearly a decade later, on June 5, 2004, he died at his Los Angeles home at age 93, making him the nation's longest-lived president at that time. A state funeral was held in Washington, D.C., and Reagan was later buried on the grounds of his presidential library in California. His wife Nancy died of heart failure in 2016 at the age of 94 and was also interred at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs.
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