Beginning as a radio sports announcer, Ronald W. Reagan (born 1911) enjoyed success as a motion picture actor and television personality before embarking on a political career. After two terms as governor of California (1967-1975), he defeated incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter for the presidency in 1980 and was easily re-elected over Walter Mondale in 1984.
Born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois, Ronald Wilson Reagan was the second son of John Edward ("Jack") and Nelle Wilson Reagan. His parents were relatively poor, as Jack Reagan moved the family to a succession of small Illinois towns trying to establish himself in business. After living briefly in Chicago, the Reagans moved to Galesburg, Monmouth, and then—when Ronald was nine—to Dixon, where he grew to adulthood.
Nicknamed "Dutch," young Reagan liked solitude, but was popular; he enjoyed nature, reading, and especially sports. The elder Reagan's heavy drinking caused problems at home, but Nelle, a staunch member of the Disciples of Christ, exerted a powerful stabilizing influence. Ronald was raised a member of his mother's church. He graduated from Dixon High School in 1928 as a star athlete and student body president and enrolled the following fall at Eureka College, a small (250-student) Illinois school related to his church.
At Eureka Reagan held a partial athletic scholarship, earning additional income by washing dishes in his fraternity house, Tau Kappa Epsilon. He first demonstrated his skills in persuasive oratory as freshman representative in a successful student strike. Never a highly motivated student, he made an undistinguished record as an economics and sociology major but was well known on campus as a football player and swimmer. He also turned to theater—with such success that at least one faculty member urged him to turn professional. Reagan graduated from Eureka in 1932, later serving two terms on the school's board of trustees and receiving from it an honorary doctorate of humane letters.
On the Air and Screen
Graduating in the middle of the Great Depression, Reagan was unsuccessful in his job hunt in Chicago, but was finally hired by Davenport, Iowa, radio station WOC as a freelance sports announcer. His skill earned him a regular staff position at WOC in January 1933, and shortly afterward he moved to WHO in Des Moines, where one of his chief duties was to reconstruct Chicago Cubs baseball game broadcasts from telegraphic reports. In this role "Dutch" Reagan perfected a spontaneous speaking style and won at least a degree of fame throughout the Midwest. He sent a significant portion of his income home to his family, his father having suffered a series of heart attacks; he also helped pay his brother Neil's college expenses.
In 1937 Reagan persuaded the radio station to send him to cover the Cubs' spring training games in California. His real motive was to try to launch an acting career in Hollywood. A screen test with Warner Brothers netted him an initial seven-year contract. Unlike many performers, he chose to retain his own name.
As an actor Reagan received decent reviews, but not especially good roles. After a series of unmemorable films in which he typically played the innocent "good guy," in 1940 he landed a role which made him famous: that of Notre Dame football star George Gipp ("the Gipper") in Knute Rockne—All American. In January 1940 Reagan married starlet Jane Wyman. With her he had a daughter, Maureen, in 1941, and adopted a son, Michael, in 1945; another infant born to them died in June 1947.
The finest role of Reagan's movie career came in King's Row (1941), in which the character he played woke up to a double amputation crying out, "Where's the rest of me?" Reagan later used this line as the title for his autobiography, published in 1965; the role won him a new seven-year, million-dollar contract.
Reagan's film career was interrupted by World War II, which he spent as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps making training films (including one preparing pilots for the important bombing raids on Tokyo). Discharged in December 1945 as a captain, he resumed his film career, but with less artistic success. His income sufficient to sustain a playboy's life-style, Reagan encountered bad luck: in 1947 he contracted a nearly fatal viral pneumonia and, following his wife's miscarriage, his marriage failed. In June 1948 Jane Wyman divorced him on grounds of "extreme mental cruelty," winning custody of both children.
Part of the cause for the divorce was apparently Reagan's near-obsession in the late 1940s with the business of the Screen Actors Guild (he served as president from 1947 to 1952 and again in 1959), and particularly with its anti-communist activities. Reagan emerged from the ballyhooed hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that produced contempt citations for (and "blacklisted") ten Hollywood figures in 1947 as a champion of civil liberties with strong anti-Communist views. He skirted the "blacklist" issue by denying that such a list existed.
In his acting career, Reagan found himself limited mainly to uninspired, unsuccessful comedies (including, in 1951, the unfortunately titled Bedtime for Bonzo, for which he was ridiculed in his later political career). Personally, however, Reagan achieved happiness with his marriage in March 1952 to actress Nancy Davis, who shelved her own career ambitions to be his full-time wife. They had two children, Patricia Ann (1952) and Ronald Prescott (1958).
Disillusioned by his diminishing movie opportunities and financially pressed, Reagan tried a stint as a Las Vegas nightclub entertainer, but soon found his preferred medium in television. (He continued to make occasional films, the last in 1957.) Signed by General Electric in 1954 as host and sometime star for the company's weekly half-hour dramatic series, General Electric Theater, Reagan was a success. Capitalizing on their television host's polish, popularity, and personableness, G.E. insisted that he go on personal appearance tours; during the shows' eight-year run, he spoke to about 250,000 workers at 135 G.E. plants.
Within a few years, he perfected "the speech": a paean to private enterprise and condemnation of the "rising tide of collectivism," combined with a salespitch for G.E. products. Though some critics later contended that his rightward political drift was due to the influence of Nancy (daughter of a strongly conservative Chicago physician), Reagan travelled the political path of many successful Americans in the post-World War II years: having voted Democratic through 1950, he backed Republicans Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 and Richard Nixon in 1960. Then, in 1962, he formally registered as a Republican.
Avidly sought as a speaker by business and civic groups, Reagan became too controversial for G.E., and the show was cancelled in 1962. He continued as a television host on another series for a time, but gradually became a full-time political activist, narrating anti-Communist films, speaking at rallies, and becoming a member of the advisory board for Young Americans for Freedom. Reagan captured national attention and temporarily boosted Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign with an impressive televised speech in October of 1964.
By early 1965 a group of prominent California conservatives decided Reagan should run for governor of their state. Benefitting from massive financial support, shrewd campaigning, and a strong conservative trend in the California electorate, Reagan easily won the Republican primary. Then, pressing the "law and order" issue by linking Democratic Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown with unrest in the cities and on California's campuses, he bested Brown in the 1966 gubernatorial election, receiving nearly 58 percent of the vote.
Governor and Presidential Candidate
Facing a state cash-flow shortage and large deficit, Reagan took immediate and dramatic action as governor, approving across-the-board budget reductions and a hiring freeze for state agencies. From the outset, the new governor jousted with higher education in the state, as he successfully sought increases in student fees and on several occasions detailed state troopers to quell campus antiwar protests. Combining the image of an ideological conservative with pragmatism in action, Reagan agreed to an increase in state income tax rates in 1967.
Re-elected with nearly 53 percent of the vote in 1970, Governor Reagan pressed for a major welfare reform act the next year. That law, the centerpiece of his second term, tightened eligibility requirements for welfare aid, strengthened family planning, and required the able to seek work, while increasing aid to the "truly needy." State spending increased more than inflation over the course of his eight years as governor, but Reagan firmly established a reputation for sound fiscal management as the state became solvent once again.
During his first term Reagan made a last-moment but energetic run for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, and nearly managed to block Richard Nixon's victory by winning support in southern delegations. Though he did not contest Nixon's renomination four years later, Reagan's brief campaign of 1968 established him as a future presidential possibility, and in 1975—after rejecting at least two offers of cabinet posts from Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford—he once again declared his availability.
After a poor beginning in the 1976 primaries, Reagan gave President Ford a hard race for the nomination, campaigning as a strong conservative. He could not recover politically from his earlier ill-advised proposal for the massive transfer of federal programs to the states, however. Having been graceful in defeat at the GOP convention, Reagan became his party's frontrunner for the 1980 nomination after Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election. By means of his own syndicated newspaper column Reagan maintained high visibility during Carter's term, strongly attacking the Democrat on a wide range of issues.
Early White House Years
After announcing his candidacy once again in late 1979, Reagan defused the issue of his age (68) and campaigned aggressively and successfully in the primaries. Nominated easily, he selected his chief rival for the nomination, George Bush, as his running mate. Reagan's campaign against the incumbent Carter went well, despite some early gaffes, and his masterful performance in a televised debate with the president in late October sealed his victory. Taking 51 percent of the popular vote against Carter and Independent candidate John B. Anderson, Ronald Reagan became the nation's 40th president by an electoral vote of 489 to 49 for Carter. His election was viewed by many as a "new beginning," as the Republicans also won control of the Senate for the first time in 26 years.
As chief executive Reagan established an effective image of strong-mindedness tempered by occasional self-deprecation. Despite jibes by political opponents that he was lazy and lacked knowledge on many issues, he maintained generally high ratings in the public opinion polls. An assassination attempt by John Hinckley in March 1981 wounded him slightly, but served also to boost further his popular support.
Reagan appointed the first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, in July 1981. This particular move irritated his most conservative supporters, but he retained most of his following on the right through dogged adherence to the goals of reduced taxes and increased defense spending coupled with domestic program cuts ("Reaganomics"). Holding true to the precepts of the "supply-side economics" he had embraced since 1978, Reagan persuaded Congress to pass in 1981 a large, three-year reduction in income tax rates, even though federal deficits were well over $100 billion per year.
The skill displayed by Reagan with the media (which won him the nickname "the Great Communicator") enabled him to deflect most criticisms, including those aimed at his role in perpetuating huge federal deficits, his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and to abortion, and his seeming indifference to the issue of minority civil rights. His media talents also allowed him to become, more than any of his recent predecessors, the spokesman and symbol of the political movement that elected him.
Reagan's actions as president were not always as aggressive as his rhetoric. He did not launch an all-out assault on federal programs, for example, despite threats to do so. And—though he darkly characterized the Soviet Union as "evil"—he ended the Carter-imposed embargo on grain shipments to that country. He committed a large contingent of U.S. Marines to help police the civil war in Lebanon, but removed them, rather than escalating the effort, after a commando attack resulted in 240 American deaths. He launched a successful paratroop strike against Communist insurgents on the island of Grenada in late 1983—a feat generally applauded by the American public.
Despite suffering numerous setbacks in Congress (notably on his "social agenda" issues such as banning abortion and permitting school prayer), Reagan appeared difficult to beat for reelection in 1984. And so it proved, as Democratic challenger Walter Mondale was unable to capitalize on the ever-increasing deficit or criticisms of Reagan's policies in Central America and South Africa (where he refused to apply sanctions to oppose apartheid). In the 1984 election, Reagan defeated Mondale easily, with 58 percent of the popular vote and 525 of the 538 electoral votes.
Holding On—The Second Term
After his reelection, Reagan continued to talk a hard line against the Soviet Union, while simultaneously pursuing a new arms limitation agreement with that nation. Two summit meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—in Geneva (1985) and Reykjavik, Iceland (1986)— accomplished little and Reagan pressed ahead with an aggressive (and costly) program of national defense, including the MX missile and the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars").
Economic problems proved intractable during Reagan's second term, as the deficit continued at record-high levels and the nation's negative trade balance grew steadily worse. Hoping to bring the deficit under control, Reagan endorsed a 1985 congressional measure mandating a series of large annual budget cuts (the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act), but the law had little real impact before its enforcement mechanism was voided by the Supreme Court the following year.
In late 1986, following substantial Democratic gains in the off-year elections, Reagan ran into serious problems due to the "Iran-contra" deal. At issue were the administration's secret sale of arms to Iran, apparently to gain the release of American hostages (and in contravention of Reagan's announced policy never to "yield to terrorist blackmail"), and subsequent diversion of the proceeds to the Nicaraguan "contras" (in seeming violation of a congressional ban on such aid). Joint congressional hearings on the Iran-contra episode captured headlines through the spring and summer of 1987, revealing significant misstatements by Reagan and, more damagingly, excessive arrogation of power by the president's national security adviser and others. Though the resulting decline in Reagan's public support was relatively slight, revelations from the hearings severely damaged his image, calling into question the degree to which he was in control of policy.
Despite these problems, in mid-1987 the resilient president seized the initiative from his detractors by means of three bold actions. The most controversial was his dispatch of American forces to the Persian Gulf in order to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers from attacks by the warring Iraqis and Iranians. Political opponents charged that the action called for invoking the 1973 War Powers Resolution, but neither Reagan nor Congress acted to do so. The president also kept his domestic critics busy by nominating a strongly conservative federal judge, Robert Bork, for a seat on the Supreme Court, and then—just as the divisive hearings on his confirmation were beginning—announcing a tentative agreement with the Soviets on limitation of intermediate range missiles. The Bork nomination backfired—the Senate rejecting the nomination by a vote of 58 to 42. But success in both of his other ventures held the potential of neutralizing any harm to Reagan's reputation produced by the hearings held earlier in the year.
As Reagan's second term drew to a close, with the Democrats once again in control of the Senate and looking optimistically to the 1988 presidential election, it was clear that he had not effected the "revolution" predicted in 1980. A number of domestic programs had been cut back, but aside from the 1981 tax cuts (and perhaps the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act), no truly significant legislation had been produced. The president even found himself in the ironic position of appearing to oppose reduction of the deficit, as he tried to fend off efforts by Congress either to cut defense spending or increase taxes. But an important part of Reagan's political legacy was the increased conservatism of the Supreme Court; although the Bork nomination failed, his "replacement" (actually the opening provided by the resignation of Justice Lewis Powell), Anthony Kennedy, represented Reagan's fourth conservative appointment to that body, following the appointments of Justices O'Connor and Antonin Scalia, and the elevation of William Rehnquist to be Chief Justice.
After his return to private citizenship in 1989, Reagan continued to be a popular and active public figure. Shortly after his retirement, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was opened in Simi Valley, California. By the mid-1990s Reagan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, an ultimately fatal degeneration of the central nervous system. He and Nancy publicized his condition in an attempt to create greater public awareness and to gain support for research into treatment. As his condition deteriorated, Reagan gradually withdrew from public appearances.
Through a mix of conservative dogma, pragmatic action, and mastery of the media, Ronald Reagan retained throughout his presidency a hold on public affection unequalled since Dwight Eisenhower's years in the White House. Paradoxically, he accomplished this feat even though polls showed that a majority of the voters consistently disagreed with his policies. Many people would agree that Ronald Reagan, whatever the verdict of history on his presidency, truly possessed that hard-to-define quality, political charisma.
Further Reading on Ronald W. Reagan
Reagan's early life and film career are well covered in Anne Edwards, Early Reagan: The Rise to Power (1987), and in two comprehensive biographies: Lou Cannon, Reagan (1982) and Frank Van der Linden, The Real Reagan: What He Believes, What He Has Accomplished, What We Can Expect From Him (1981). Reagan's 1965 autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me?, written with Richard G. Hubler, does not deal with his political career but illuminates the character of the man. His 1990 autobiography, covers his personal and political life through the end of his second term in office. A second personal perspective is offered by Nancy Reagan's (1989). Solid treatments of the 1980 election include Elizabeth Drew, Portrait of an Election: The 1980 Presidential Campaign (1981), and John F. Stacks, Watershed: The Campaign for the Presidency, 1980 (1981). Rowland Evans, Jr., and Robert D. Novak, The Reagan Revolution (1981), treats Reagan's political rise through his election to the presidency.
Strong assessments of Reagan's presidency may be found in John Palmer, editor, Perspectives on the Reagan Years (1986), and—though it covers only the first two years—Laurence I. Barrett, Gambling With History: Ronald Reagan in the White House (1983). Two critical appraisals, written from very different perspectives, are Garry Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents Abroad (1986) and Michael P. Rogin, "Ronald Reagan," the Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (1987).