|Born||Feb. 6, 1911, Tampico, III.|
|Education||Eureka College, B.A., 1932|
|Military service||U.S. Army Air Force, 1942-45|
|Previous public office||Governor of California, 1967-74|
|Died||June 5, 2004, California|
Reagan's father worked in a shoe store and for the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal, and his mother was a store clerk. Reagan was a popular football player in high school and won election as student government president. At Eureka College he also played football, participated in student government, and joined the drama society.
After graduating from college in 1932 with a major in economics, he began his career as a radio sports announcer in Iowa. In 1937 he became a contract motion picture actor for Warner Brothers, starring in such movies as Knute Rockne—All American, King's Row, and Bedtime for Bonzo. He married actress Jane Wyman in 1940; they had two children (one adopted), then divorced in 1948.
During World War II, Reagan served as a captain in the army, making films for the military. He was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1947 and served through 1952, devoting much of his time to combating the influence of communists in the union. He was active in Democratic politics, supporting Harry Truman for President in 1948 and Helen Gahagan Douglas against Richard Nixon in the California senatorial contest of 1950.
In 1952 he married Nancy Davis, a contract actress at MGM, and they had two children. Between 1954 and 1962 he was the host of the television show General Electric Theater. In 1959 Reagan again led the Screen Actors Guild, this time in a strike that gave actors a share in television profits from their movies.
Reagan became more conservative in the 1950s and supported the Presidential candidacies of Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 and Nixon in 1960. He switched his voter registration to the Republican party in 1962. In October 1964 Reagan gave a televised speech for Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for President. After Goldwater's defeat, Reagan became one of the leading conservative spokesmen.
Reagan was twice elected governor of California, in 1966 and 1970, but for six of his eight years in office he had to work with a Democratic legislature. He cut the welfare rolls, instituted the Medi-Cal program to pay medical bills for the poor, increased income taxes in order to eliminate a projected budget deficit (but later gave rebates when the government ran a surplus), and managed to lower property taxes.
He took a strong stance against student demonstrators against the Vietnam War who closed down many campuses of the state university system, and he more than doubled funding for California's public colleges and universities.
Reagan was a dark-horse candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1968, but Nixon won the nomination on the first ballot. Reagan declined to run for a third gubernatorial term and challenged President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976. Reagan lost the nomination by a slim margin. His followers did influence the Republican party platform, which repudiated much of Ford's foreign policy of detente, or accommodation, with the Soviet Union.
In 1980 Reagan ran again for the Republican nomination, defeating George Bush handily. Reagan attempted to get ex-President Ford to join the ticket, but Ford insisted on a “co-Presidency” arrangement in which he would share responsibility for policy-making. Reagan then chose Bush to complete the ticket.
With interest rates close to 20 percent, inflation around 12 percent, and unemployment near 10 percent, the voters responded by giving Reagan a landslide victory over President Jimmy Carter and independent candidate John Anderson. Reagan's coattails brought in a Republican-controlled Senate, though the House remained strongly Democratic.
He had a “hands off” management style that involved setting overall priorities but then delegating to others the work of translating these into specific policies. He often seemed lackadaisical in his duties: “It's true that hard work never killed anybody, but why take the chance?” he would joke.
Reagan was known as the Great Communicator. No President in the 20th century, with the possible exception of Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, could match his ability as a speech maker. He presented his arguments to the American people in the form of stories. He used concrete examples involving real people rather than abstract principles to make his points. And often the public responded to his down-to-earth analogies. The Democrats had no one who could match him, and often the President would bypass Congress and appeal directly to the people to support his conservative policies.
On March 30, 1981, Reagan was shot outside a hotel in Washington, D.C., by John W. Hinckley, Jr., in an attempted assassination. The President lost a great deal of blood and at one point was near death, but the bullet had not hit any vital organs and he soon recovered.
His popularity soared, which helped him deal with Congress in promoting his plan, popularly known as Reaganomics. Much of what Reagan asked for was passed by Congress in June. But instead of promoting prosperity, Reaganomics took the nation into a steep recession, a time of decline in the gross national product and an increase in unemployment. As joblessness increased, Reagan's popularity plummeted, down to the levels of Nixon during the Watergate scandal.
In foreign affairs Reagan took a confrontational line with the Soviets, referring to the U.S.S.R. as the “evil empire.” He announced plans to equip NATO forces in Europe with new medium-range Pershing nuclear-tipped missiles. He asked for funds to deploy a new generation of intercontinental MX missiles. He reversed President Jimmy Carter's decision to cancel the B-1 bomber and ordered development of the radar-evading Stealth bombers and fighters. He increased the size of the navy to 600 surface ships and ordered new submarines and aircraft carriers. He announced a Strategic Defense Initiative program of antimissile weapons to defend against Soviet attack, which his critics promptly dubbed Star Wars. Over five years he increased the annual level of defense spending from $200 billion to $300 billion.
Reagan equipped the government of El Salvador in its fight against leftist guerrillas and also supported the Contra rebels in their struggle against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. He provided covert funding for anticommunist rebels in Afghanistan.
He ordered the invasion of Grenada in October 1983, ostensibly to protect American medical students during disorders between two factions of the Marxist government; this action led to the replacement of the leftist government with leaders backed by the United States. Reagan also used U.S. Marines as part of an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon but withdrew the forces several months after guerrillas blew up the marine barracks, killing 241 marines in October 1983.
The economy started to revive in 1983 and with it Reagan's standing in the polls. Reagan was almost unanimously renominated in 1984 for the Presidency. He handily defeated the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Walter Mondale.
In Reagan's second term the economy continued to expand, resulting in millions of new jobs, record corporate profits, and lower inflation. Reagan believed that lower tax rates on producers would stimulate the economy and producer greater tax revenues, which could shrink the deficit. But the result of tax cuts turned out to be massive budget deficits: in the Reagan years the total national debt rose from $1 trillion (accumulated through 190 years of U.S. history) to $3 trillion. Moreover, the nation had entered the Reagan years with a surplus in its accounts with foreign nations but began to run large trade deficits and became a debtor nation for the first time since before World War I.
The stock market rose dramatically, then dropped sharply on October 19, 1987; Dow Jones lost a third of its value in a few days. Deregulation of financial institutions led to a savings and loan scandal, in which bank officials used poor judgment in making loans and some then engaged in criminal behavior to cover up their losses. The eventual bailout by the national government to keep the financial system stable would cost taxpayers at least $150 billion.
The Tax Reform Act of 1986 reduced personal income tax rates, contributing to a great accumulation of wealth for those in the top 10 percent of the population. But the bottom fifth of the population was paying a higher percentage of their income in taxes at the end of the decade than at the beginning because of increases in Social Security taxes.
In foreign affairs the defense buildup brought the Soviets to the negotiating table in a position of weakness. In 1987 the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which provided for gradual dismantling of all Soviet and U.S. medium- and short-range missiles in Europe.
Another Reagan success occurred in the Middle East: the President deterred Libya from organizing international terrorist forces when he ordered a bombing raid on Libya in 1986 in retaliation for a bombing on a disco in West Germany frequented by U.S. troops. That bombing killed 37 people, including the daughter of Libyan leader Mu'ammar Qaddafi. In 1987 Reagan used the navy to convoy Kuwaiti ships in the Persian Gulf and prevent the Iranian navy from imposing a blockade on oil tankers.
Reagan committed a major foreign policy blunder, however, that nearly destroyed his Presidency. He agreed to sell arms to Iran in a secret attempt to bolster moderates in that nation's government who were willing to free Western hostages. Some of the profits from the sales were then transferred to the Contra rebels to help fund their battle against the Nicaraguan government. The funding violated the Boland Amendment, a law passed by Congress that had cut off U.S. government funds to the Contras.
The arms sales and fund transfers were disclosed in the fall of 1986, just after the Democrats regained control of the Senate in the congressional elections. The Democrats then organized a full-scale investigation of the Iran-Contra affair. For months Reagan seemed preoccupied with the crisis and his government was paralyzed. His national security adviser, members of the NSC staff, several top White House aides, and his chief of staff resigned. There was no evidence linking Reagan directly to the transfer of funds to the Contras, but the Tower Commission, appointed by the President to study the incident, determined that national security affairs in the White House had been mismanaged. The President implemented most of the reforms in procedures suggested by the commission.
Reagan left office in 1989. In retirement Reagan worked at his ranch near Santa Barbara, California, gave occasional speeches, and wrote his memoirs.
In 1994, the former president disclosed that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease earlier in the year; he died ten years later at the age of 93.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was the first actor to be elected President. He was also the oldest man ever elected and the first to have been divorced. Reagan brought conservatives to power in the Republican party and in the nation. His economic program of tax and spending cuts led to a boom between 1982 and 1987 that stimulated economic growth, but it also led to high federal budget deficits and the conversion of the United States from the largest creditor to the largest debtor in the world. His popularity declined during the Iran-Contra crisis but returned to high levels as he left office. The most popular President since Dwight Eisenhower.
Known as the Great Communicator, Reagan modestly explained, "I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things."
It is an open question whether Reagan's accomplishments occurred because of his philosophy or despite it—or both. Reagan was an effective communicator of conservative ideas, but he was also an enormously practical politician who was committed to success. The welfare bill that was the signal achievement of Reagan's second term as governor of California, the reform that salvaged Social Security for a generation during his first term as President, and the tax overhaul of his second presidential term were bipartisan compromises, defying "liberal" or "conservative" labels.
Reagan's ability to escape accountability for the mistakes and misdeeds of those around him led to his being called the Teflon president -- nothing would stick to him. Time and again polls indicated that while Americans did not always share Reagan's views on any number of issues, and often questioned his aptitude for the job, they nonetheless supported his single-minded determination to achieve the goals he held most dear.
A conservative icon, he ranks highly in public opinion polls of U.S. Presidents and is credited for generating an ideological renaissance on the American political right. He casts a long shadow.