The life of Ronald Wilson Reagan is a story of unlikely successes. Born into a poor family, he came of age during the hard economic times of the Great Depression of the 1930's. Yet he was able to achieve great success in two quite different fields — as an actor and in politics. Reagan's political career began when, in 1964, after his acting career had ended, he was elected governor of California. He then twice sought — and twice failed to gain — the Republican nomination for the presidency, before winning the nomination and the election in 1980. At the age of 69, he was the oldest person ever to become president of the United States.
Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, on February 6, 1911. His father, John Edward Reagan, who was of Irish-American ancestry, earned his living as a shoe salesman. His mother, Nelle Wilson Reagan, was of English and Scottish ancestry. Neither of his parents had more than an elementary school education. Ronald, nicknamed Dutch, had an older brother, Neil.
Reagan's father often moved the family around the state searching for better-paying jobs. But life in the small towns of Illinois was pleasant. "My existence turned into one of those rare Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer idylls," Reagan recalled in his autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me? "Those were the days when I learned the riches of rags."
Dixon, a small town to which the family moved when he was 9, was the place where Reagan got most of his schooling. He was not an outstanding student. But his interests in drama, sports, and politics began early. His mother gave dramatic readings before clubs and in prisons and hospitals, and he was first exposed to acting before he started school. He began to play football — one of the great loves of his life — before he was 10 years old, in neighborhood games.
"There was no field; no lines, no goal. Simply grass, the ball, and a mob of excited youngsters," he later wrote. "Those were the happiest times of my life." Reagan graduated from that kind of football to action as a guard and end on the Dixon High School team. He also participated in basketball and track, acted in school plays, and was president of the student body. During most of his high school and college summers, he worked as a lifeguard at a summer resort near Dixon.
After his high school graduation in 1928, Reagan enrolled at Eureka College, a small college in Eureka, Illinois. He majored in economics; joined the college football, track, and swimming teams; and acted in school plays. He washed dishes at his fraternity house and saved money from summer jobs to help pay his expenses. His grades were not exceptional. But he earned acceptable marks through "quick studies" before tests. He also served for one year as president of the student body.
As a freshman, Reagan took part in a student strike that resulted in the resignation of the college president, who had proposed cutting back the curriculum and the teaching staff because of a shortage of funds. Reagan made the main speech at a rally that won support for the strike from nearly all the students. He later said that he learned then what it was like to succeed with an audience. His skill with audiences was to be a major factor in his successes in later life.
Reagan earned a B.A. degree from Eureka in 1932, at a time when the Depression had left many people without jobs. He spent one last summer as a lifeguard. Then he set out to obtain a job as a radio announcer. He won a tryout for a job announcing football games at WOC in Davenport, Iowa, not far from Dixon. His tryout consisted of making up a play-by-play broadcast for an imaginary football game. He did well enough, and he was signed on. That job led to work at WOC's larger affiliate, WHO in Des Moines. By the time he was 25, he was one of the top sports broadcasters in the Middle West.
In 1937, Reagan traveled with the Chicago Cubs to their spring training camp near Los Angeles, California. While there, he managed to obtain a screen test from Warner Brothers, and he was offered an acting contract. He quickly accepted. Reagan's movie career spanned more than 20 years and over 50 movies. His most successful roles were in Knute Rockne — All American in 1940 and in King's Row in 1941. In Knute Rockne, Reagan played star halfback George Gipp, who died imploring his coach to have his teammates "win one for the Gipper."
In 1942, during World War II, Reagan entered the Army as a second lieutenant. He was disqualified for combat duty because of poor eyesight, and he spent the next four years making military training films. He then returned to acting. Until this time, Reagan had been a Democrat and had supported liberal causes. But after his Army experiences, he became more conservative. He served as president of the Screen Actor's Guild from 1947 to 1952. In the 1950's and 1960's, he appeared on television as the host of "General Electric Theater" and "Death Valley Days." Reagan had married Jane Wyman, an actress, in 1940. They had a daughter and an adopted son. The marriage ended in divorce in 1948. In 1952, Reagan married another actress, Nancy Davis. They had two children.
Reagan's entry into politics was helped by a speech he gave in 1964. It appeared on television and brought him to the attention of powerful Republicans. They urged him to run for governor of California.
In the 1966 election, Reagan faced Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, who had been a popular Democratic governor for eight years. Reagan was critical of state government spending and welfare payments that he believed were too high. He won the election by nearly 1,000,000 votes. Four years later, Reagan easily won re-election. He served as governor until 1975.
Reagan first sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 but lost to Richard M. Nixon. In 1976, Reagan narrowly lost the nomination to President Gerald R. Ford.
Reagan immediately began his campaign for the 1980 nomination. In the primary contests, he called on his skills as a speaker to win support. His views seemed to reflect growing conservatism in the country, and he won the nomination easily. His nearest opponent, George Bush, was chosen as his vice presidential running mate.
In the election campaign, Reagan favored reducing total government spending while increasing the amount spent on defense. He also supported large tax cuts and state or local control of programs such as welfare. And he felt that the United States should take firmer stands against Communism.
In the election, Reagan overwhelmingly defeated the Democratic candidate, President Jimmy Carter, running for re-election. Reagan won 489 electoral votes to Carter's 49.
Reagan's presidency began dramatically in 1981. Minutes after he was sworn in, Iran released 52 Americans who had been held hostage for more than 14 months. The release had been negotiated by the Carter administration. Then, in March, Reagan was shot in Washington, D.C., by John W. Hinckley, Jr. Reagan quickly recovered.
Congress passed Reagan's requests for cuts in taxes and in some government programs. He also won increased funds for defense. By 1982, however, the country was in an economic recession. The economy improved in 1983. But the increased defense spending and tax cut had led to a record budget deficit. Democrats attacked Reagan for cutting social welfare programs and called for reduced defense spending and a tax increase in order to lower the deficit.
Reagan's appointment in 1981 of Sandra Day O'Connor as the first woman justice of the U.S. Supreme Court was a popular one. But the administration's support for prayer in the public schools and its opposition to abortion aroused much controversy.
In 1983, Reagan sent U.S. Marines to Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping force. The Marines were recalled in 1984, after some 240 had been killed in a terrorist attack. Reagan also sent U.S. troops to Grenada in 1983, to prevent what the administration saw as a Cuban attempt to take over the Caribbean island nation. The president denounced the left-wing Sandinista government of Nicaragua as a threat to peace in Central America, and he repeatedly sought military aid for the anti-Sandinista guerrillas, known as contras.
At the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Reagan and Vice President Bush were renominated without opposition. Their Democratic opponents were former vice president Walter F. Mondale and Congresswoman Geraldine A. Ferraro. Reagan won a sweeping victory, receiving 525 electoral votes to 13 for Mondale.
Reagan underwent successful surgery for cancer in 1985. His call for extensive changes in the federal income tax laws helped bring about passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Congress also passed a major immigration bill that year. Reagan made two Supreme Court appointments in 1986 — Associate Justice William Rehnquist as U.S. Chief Justice and Antonin Scalia as an associate justice. Nominees Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg failed to win a Supreme Court seat in 1987. A third nominee, Anthony Kennedy, won approval.
A stock market crash in 1987 raised questions about the nation's economic health. A new bill to balance the federal budget became law in 1987, but the huge deficit continued to trouble the government.
In 1988, Congress approved a new cabinet post, the Department of Veterans Affairs. A free-trade pact with Canada was also approved by the Senate that year.
Reagan ordered the bombing of military targets in Libya in 1986 in retaliation for its role in international terrorism. His policy of reflagging (flying the U.S. flag on) Kuwaiti oil tankers and providing them with a U.S. naval escort in the Persian Gulf led to clashes with Iran in 1987. The president's greatest diplomatic achievement was the 1987 treaty with the Soviet Union banning intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), approved by the Senate in 1988.
The Iran-Contra Affair proved embarrassing to the administration. Congressional hearings in 1987 revealed that presidential aides had acted illegally by selling weapons to Iran and diverting the money to Nicaraguan rebels.
Reagan left the White House in January 1989 and was succeeded as president by his former vice president, George Bush. In 1994 it was revealed that Reagan was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He died on June 5, 2004, at the age of 93.
James O. Bell
Los Angeles Times