Ronald Reagan (1911–2004)

Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, would have been 100 years old in 2011. He was the United States’ oldest elected president, sworn into office at the age of 69 in 1981, and serving two four-year terms. A former movie star and sportscaster, Reagan was an influential and popular politician, notable for his skill at communicating. He is remembered for his successful Cold War campaign against the Soviet Union and communism, and for reviving the reputation of the Republican Party after Watergate and Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency.

By the time Reagan left office in 1989, he could take credit for some game-changing accomplishments: the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union was being dismantled, communism was in retreat, and, through a series of tax cuts Reagan pushed through a Democratic Congress, the American economy was reviving. Reagan is still revered as an icon of the Republican Party. His watchwords, “It’s morning in America,” spoke volumes about his popular appeal even as liberals grumbled about his supply-side economics and union-busting tactics.

No one thought a Hollywood actor had much chance to become president except maybe in the movies, and the first Draft Reagan for President efforts were met with scorn by party operatives and media pundits. But Reagan had already shown he could win elections by becoming governor of California in 1967 with a winning margin of a million votes and serving for eight years. His speech, “A Time for Choosing,” to endorse conservative Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign had brought him considerable national attention, and he went up against Gerald Ford in 1975 to seek the Republican nomination for president. Though Ford won the nomination, he lost the election to Democrat Jimmy Carter, who would lose his bid for a second term to Reagan. With George H. W. Bush, former UN ambassador and congressman, as his vice president, Reagan won the 1980 presidential election by 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. In his inaugural address on January 21, 1981, Reagan set forth the key concept of what would be called the Reagan Revolution: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” He would spend his eight years as president paring down the role of government in the nation’s affairs. Meanwhile, while he continued to give his inaugural address, the 52 hostages who had been held by Iran for 444 days and whom President Jimmy Carter had tried in vain to release were set free. It gave a triumphant boost to Reagan’s first day in office.

Ronald Reagan was president of the United States for two terms from 1981 to 1989, reviving the American economy and the reputation of the Republican party after Nixon.

Ronald Reagan was president of the United States for two terms from 1981 to 1989, reviving the American economy and the reputation of the Republican party after Nixon. (Library of Congress)

But just a little more than two months into his presidency, Reagan was shot by a would-be assassin as he was leaving Washington’s Hilton Hotel. Twenty-five-year-old college dropout John Hinckley Jr., using a 22-caliber revolver, fired six shots, one of which ricocheted off the presidential limousine and hit Reagan in the chest, puncturing his lung. He survived, though he came close to death as Secret Service agents rushed him to George Washington University Hospital, where a team of surgeons removed the bullet from his lung. However, White House Press Secretary James Brady was shot in the head and would be permanently disabled. District of Columbia police officer Timothy Delahanty and Secret Service Agent Thomas McCarthy were both wounded trying to protect Reagan. Hinckley said during his trial that he had planned the assassination to impress movie star Jodie Foster whom he was obsessed with after seeing her in the movie, Taxi Driver, in which an assassination attempt is made on a presidential candidate. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to confinement in a psychiatric institution, where he remains.

Reagan was the first president to survive being shot in an assassination attempt and was back working several hours a day from the White House residence two weeks later. He gave an address to a joint session of Congress 30 days after the shooting, and public sympathy raised his approval ratings to 73 percent (his average was 53 percent over his 8-year term, slightly below the average for U.S. presidents). He would face major hurdles carrying out his campaign promises to cut government, curb inflation, and improve the economy. One of Reagan’s first showdowns was with air traffic controllers who went on strike that summer, defying law that prohibited strikes by government workers. He gave them 48 hours to get back to work. When they ignored the order, Reagan fired them, all 11,354 of them, sending a strong message about how he would deal with such defiance.

When a suicide bomber in Beirut, Lebanon, killed 241 American soldiers who were part of a peacekeeping team in 1983, Reagan, after an aborted counterattack on Hezbollah, took the remaining forces out of harm’s way. Two days later, he launched an attack in Grenada, where a Marxist-Leninist government and the Soviet military buildup in Cuba were a threat. The main war Reagan was fighting, however, was the Cold War, one without actual physical combat but with major political confrontations. Teaming up with Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he denounced the Soviet Union, calling it an “evil empire,” and predicted that communism and Marxist-Lenin doctrine would end up “on the ash-heap of history.” He did some saber rattling with a big military buildup including the MX Missile and authorized covert operations in Latin America and Africa to undermine Soviet-backed governments there. Reagan launched a Strategic Defense Initiative to protect the United States from nuclear missile attack. Critics called it “Star Wars,” but the Soviets felt threatened by it and the project may have hastened the end of the Cold War. When Mikhail Gorbachev came into power in 1985, his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) led to a new relationship with the United States. Reagan and Gorbachev met in four summit meetings and, visiting the Berlin Wall in 1987, Reagan famously asked “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

A recession in his second term raised the unemployment rate to 11 percent; inflation rose, the trade deficit ballooned, and bankruptcies and farm foreclosures increased. Nonetheless, by the end of his second term, Reagan had brought inflation down from an average of 12.5 percent at the end of the Carter administration to 4.4 percent. He lowered unemployment from 7.1 percent down to 5.5 percent and revised and lowered tax rates. His supply-side economics, called “Reaganomics,” were intended to beef up production and jobs and allow a “trickle-down” effect to benefit workers by reducing the tax burden and regulations on job-creating corporations and owners. In this regard, Reagan managed to get the Democrat-controlled Congress to cut the marginal tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. He froze the minimum wage at $3.35 an hour, and while he beefed up the military, he made cuts in many government programs, including food stamps and Medicaid. Critics would argue that Reagan’s policies benefited the wealthy rather than the poor, and many felt that he ignored struggling low-wage and minority citizens. But Reagan had been reelected in a landslide for his second term in 1984. His political advertisements proclaimed, “It’s morning again in America.” He had already appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor. His War on Drugs, with First Lady Nancy Reagan’s slogan, “Just Say No,” and his Immigration Reform and Control Bill, which made it against the law to hire illegal immigrants, were achievements during his second term.

When an April 1986 bomb explosion in a Berlin discotheque, which killed 63 American military, was traced to Libyan terrorists, Reagan launched an air attack against the country. He had already denounced Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi as “the mad dog of the Middle East” and public enemy number one. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of England, one of Reagan’s staunchest allies, allowed U.S. Air Force planes to use British air bases for the strikes. A scandal arose later that year when it was disclosed that covert operations in the administration had been underway to sell weapons to Iran, despite an embargo on such activity, in an attempt to free six American hostages in Iran. Funds from the sale went to support anticommunist Contras forces in Nicaragua. Reagan denied any knowledge of what came to be known as the Iran—Contra affair, but the United States was found guilty of war crimes by the International Court of Justice and 11 Reagan staff members were convicted, most pardoned by the next president, George H. W. Bush.

Reagan left office at the end of his second term with a 68 percent approval rating, levels matched only by Bill Clinton and Franklin Roosevelt, a turnaround from his 45 percent low mark during the Iran–Contra scandal. The 1988 CBS poll found that Americans felt they were better off during Reagan’s presidency and gave him credit for stabilizing the economy and creating more jobs. Reagan has continued to rank high in public opinion polls. His age and fatherly attitude appealed to people, as did his sense of humor (as he was about to be operated on following the assassination attempt, Reagan quipped to the surgeons, “I hope you’re all Republicans”).

Reagan and his wife Nancy retired to a home they purchased in Bel Air in Los Angeles and spent time on their ranch in Santa Barbara. His presidential library was established at Simi Valley north of Los Angeles, with five former presidents and six first ladies attending the dedication ceremony. Reagan continued to give speeches, including one at the 1992 Republican convention, but in 1994 he wrote a letter that was made public to announce that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a mentally deteriorating disease. He lived for 10 more years, in seclusion with his wife at the Bel Air house, and died in June, 2004, at the age of 93. After a state funeral in Washington, D.C., Reagan was buried at the site of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, on February 6, 1911. The family, including his parents, John and Nellie Wilson Reagan, and older brother Neil, lived upstairs from their general store until they moved to Dixon, Illinois, where John became a partner in a shoe store. The store went under during the Depression, however. Through President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program, Reagan’s father was able to find a new job. He became a staunch supporter of Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, as did his son, who remained a Democrat until he switched in 1952 to vote for the Republican president Dwight Eisenhower. Ronald Reagan was an athlete in high school and a lifeguard during the summers. His father had nicknamed him “Dutch” because of a haircut his mother gave him when he was little and the name stuck for the rest of his life. Reagan won an athletic scholarship to attend Eureka College where he played football and was a star swimmer. He graduated with a BA in economics and sociology and went to work as a sports announcer, first in Davenport, Iowa, then in Des Moines where he did popular play-by-play broadcasts.

Reagan moved to California in 1937 for another broadcast job but took a screen test and won a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers, which changed the course of his life. He had appeared in 19 films by 1939 and got good reviews for his role as George “The Gipper” Gipp in the film Knute Rockne (and ever after carried “the Gipper” nickname). His film career was cut short when he was called into active duty with the U.S. Army in 1941. He worked with the First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, California, making training films for pilots (his nearsightedness kept him from overseas duty) and he was discharged in 1945 as a captain.

Reagan resumed his film career, making movies like The Voice of the Turtle and Bedtime for Bonzo. He was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1947, serving seven 1-year terms, including the Hollywood blacklist years and McCarthy hearings, which searched out communist affiliations in the film industry. Reagan was strongly anticommunist and testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Meanwhile, he was making fewer films and moved to television as host of the popular General Electric Theater in 1952. It was his speech supporting Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican Convention that brought him national attention, and soon after, a group of businessmen persuaded him to run for office as governor of California. He won the election, beating Governor Pat Brown, and was governor for two terms, from 1967 to 1975.

Reagan had married actress Jane Wyman with whom he had costarred in film in 1940. They had a daughter, Maureen, and adopted a son, Michael, but were divorced in 1949. He married Nancy Davis in 1952 and they had two children, Patti and Ron.

Ronald Reagan received many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded in 1993. The Washington National Airport was renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and in 2001, the U.S. Ronald Reagan, the first aircraft carrier to be named after a living president, was christened by Nancy Reagan. Every February 6, Reagan’s birthday, is celebrated as Ronald Reagan Day in California by decree of the governor.

—Mary Cross


Gingrich, Newt and Callista Gingrich with David N. Bossie. Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny. Los Angeles, CA: Dunham Books, 2011.

Reagan, Ronald. Autobiography. Reprint. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

Ronald Reagan: 100 Years: Official Centennial Edition from the Ronald Reagan Foundation. New York: Harper Design, 2011.