Fortieth President of the United States
Ronald Reagan, served January 20, 1981 January 20, 1989
Reagan (February 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004) was the 40th President of the United States (1981-89). Prior to that, he was the 33rd Governor of California (1967-75), and a radio, film and television actor.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in an apartment on the second floor of a commercial building in Tampico, Illinois on February 6, 1911, to Jack Reagan and Nelle Wilson Reagan. Reagan’s father was a salesman and a storyteller, the grandson of Irish Catholic immigrants from County Tipperary while his mother had Scots and English ancestors. Reagan had one sibling, his older brother, Neil (1908-1996), who became an advertising executive.
As a boy, Reagan’s father nicknamed his son “Dutch”, due to his “fat little Dutchman”-like appearance, and his “Dutchboy” haircut; the nickname stuck with him throughout his youth. Reagan’s family briefly lived in several towns and cities in Illinois, including Monmouth, Galesburg and Chicago, until 1919, when they returned to Tampico and lived above the H.C. Pitney Variety Store. After his election as president, residing in the upstairs White House private quarters, Reagan would quip that he was “living above the store again.”
He attended Dixon High School, where he developed interests in acting, sports, and storytelling. His first job was as a lifeguard at the Rock River in Lowell Park, near Dixon, in 1927. Reagan performed 77 rescues as a lifeguard, noting that he notched a mark on a wooden log for every life he saved. Reagan attended Eureka College, where he became a member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, a cheerleader, and majored in economics and sociology. He developed a reputation as a jack of all trades, excelling in campus politics, sports and theater. He was a member of the football team, captain of the swim team and was elected student body president. As student president, Reagan led a student revolt against the college president after he tried to cut back the faculty.
After graduating from Eureka in 1932, Reagan drove himself to Iowa, where he auditioned for a job at many small-town radio stations. The University of Iowa hired him to broadcast home football games for the Hawkeyes. He was paid $10 per game. Soon after, a staff announcer’s job opened at radio station WOC in Davenport, and Reagan was hired, now earning $100 per month. Aided by his persuasive voice, he moved to WHO radio in Des Moines as an announcer for Chicago Cubs baseball games. His specialty was creating play-by-play accounts of games that the station received by wire.
While traveling with the Cubs in California, Reagan took a screen test in 1937 that led to a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers studios. He spent the first few years of his Hollywood career in the “B film” unit, where, Reagan joked, the producers “didn’t want them good, they wanted them Thursday.” While sometimes overshadowed by other actors, Reagan’s screen performances did receive many good reviews.
His first screen credit was the starring role in the 1937 movie Love Is on the Air, and by the end of 1939 he had already appeared in 19 films, including Dark Victory. Before the film Santa Fe Trail in 1940, he played the role of George “The Gipper” Gipp in the film Knute Rockne, All American; from it, he acquired the lifelong nickname “the Gipper”. In 1941 exhibitors voted him the fifth most popular star from the younger generation in Hollywood.
After completing fourteen home-study Army Extension Courses, Reagan enlisted in the Army Enlisted Reserve on April 29, 1937, as a private assigned to Troop B, 322nd Cavalry at Des Moines, Iowa. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Officers Reserve Corps of the cavalry on May 25, 1937.
Reagan was ordered to active duty for the first time on April 18, 1942. Due to his nearsightedness, he was classified for limited service only, which excluded him from serving overseas. His first assignment was at the San Francisco Port of Embarkation at Fort Mason, California, as a liaison officer of the Port and Transportation Office. Upon the approval of the Army Air Force (AAF), he applied for a transfer from the cavalry to the AAF on May 15, 1942, and was assigned to AAF Public Relations and subsequently to the First Motion Picture Unit (officially, the “18th Army Air Force Base Unit”) in Culver City, California. On January 14, 1943, he was promoted to first lieutenant and was sent to the Provisional Task Force Show Unit of This Is The Army at Burbank, California. He returned to the First Motion Picture Unit after completing this duty and was promoted to captain on July 22, 1943.
Reagan was first elected to the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild in 1941, serving as an alternate. Following World War II, he resumed service and became 3rd vice-president in 1946. The adoption of conflict-of-interest bylaws in 1947 led the SAG president and six board members to resign; Reagan was nominated in a special election for the position of president and subsequently elected. He was subsequently chosen by the membership to serve seven additional one-year terms, from 1947 to 1952 and in 1959. Reagan led SAG through eventful years that were marked by labor-management disputes, the Taft-Hartley Act, House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings and the Hollywood blacklist era.
Amid the Red Scare in the late 1940s, Reagan provided the FBI with names of actors whom he believed to be communist sympathizers within the motion picture industry. Reagan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee on the subject as well. A fervent anti-communist, he reaffirmed his commitment to democratic principles, stating, “I never as a citizen want to see our country become urged, by either fear or resentment of this group, that we ever compromise with any of our democratic principles through that fear or resentment.”
Reagan began his political career as a liberal Democrat, admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and an active supporter of New Deal policies. In the early 1950s, as his relationship with Republican actress Nancy Davis grew, he shifted to the right and, while remaining a Democrat, endorsed the presidential candidacies of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 as well as Richard Nixon in 1960. The last time Reagan actively supported a Democratic candidate was in 1950 when he helped Helen Gahagan Douglas in her unsuccessful Senate campaign against Richard Nixon.
After being hired in 1954 to host the General Electric Theater, a TV drama series, Reagan soon began to embrace the conservative views of the sponsoring company’s officials. His many GE speeches-which he wrote himself-were non-partisan but carried a conservative, pro-business message; he was influenced by Lemuel Boulware, a senior GE executive. Boulware, known for his tough stance against unions and his innovative strategies to win over workers, championed the core tenets of modern American conservatism: free markets, anticommunism, lower taxes, and limited government. Eventually, the ratings for Reagan’s show fell off and GE dropped Reagan in 1962. In August of that year Reagan formally switched to the Republican Party, stating, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”
California Republicans were impressed with Reagan’s political views and charisma after his “Time for Choosing” speech, and nominated him for Governor of California in 1966. In Reagan’s campaign, he emphasized two main themes: “to send the welfare bums back to work”, and, in reference to burgeoning anti-war and anti-establishment student protests at the University of California at Berkeley, “to clean up the mess at Berkeley.” He was elected, defeating two-term governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, and was sworn in on January 2, 1967. In his first term, he froze government hiring and approved tax hikes to balance the budget.
Shortly after the beginning of his term, Reagan tested the presidential waters in 1968 as part of a “Stop Nixon” movement, hoping to cut into Nixon’s Southern support and be a compromise candidate if neither Nixon nor second-place Nelson Rockefeller received enough delegates to win on the first ballot at the Republican convention. However, by the time of the convention Nixon had 692 delegate votes, 25 more than he needed to secure the nomination, followed by Rockefeller with Reagan in third place.
Despite an unsuccessful attempt to recall him in 1968, Reagan was re-elected in 1970, defeating “Big Daddy” Jesse Unruh. He chose not to seek a third term in the following election cycle. One of Reagan’s greatest frustrations in office concerned capital punishment, which he strongly supported. His efforts to enforce the state’s laws in this area were thwarted when the Supreme Court of California issued its People v. Anderson decision, which invalidated all death sentences issued in California prior to 1972, though the decision was later overturned by a constitutional amendment. The only execution during Reagan’s governorship was on April 12, 1967, when Aaron Mitchell’s sentence was carried out by the state in San Quentin’s gas chamber.
Reagan did not seek re-election to a third term as governor in 1974 and was succeeded by Democratic California Secretary of State Jerry Brown on January 6, 1975.
In 1976, Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford in a bid to become the Republican Party’s candidate for president. Reagan soon established himself as the conservative candidate with the support of like-minded organizations such as the American Conservative Union which became key components of his political base, while President Ford was considered a more moderate Republican.
Reagan’s campaign relied on a strategy crafted by campaign manager John Sears of winning a few primaries early to damage the inevitability of Ford’s likely nomination. Reagan won North Carolina, Texas, and California, but the strategy failed, as he ended up losing New Hampshire, Florida, and his native Illinois. The Texas campaign lent renewed hope to Reagan, when he swept all ninety-six delegates chosen in the May 1 primary, with four more awaiting at the state convention. Much of the credit for that victory came from the work of three co-chairmen, including Ernest Angelo, the mayor of Midland, and Ray Barnhart of Houston, whom President Reagan tapped in 1981 as director of the Federal Highway Administration.
However, as the GOP convention neared, Ford appeared close to victory. Acknowledging his party’s moderate wing, Reagan chose moderate Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his running mate if nominated. Nonetheless, Ford prevailed with 1,187 delegates to Reagan’s 1,070. Ford would go on to lose the 1976 Presidential election to the Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Reagan’s concession speech emphasized the dangers of nuclear war and the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Though he lost the nomination, he received 307 write-in votes in New Hampshire, 388 votes as an Independent on Wyoming’s ballot, and a single electoral vote from a faithless elector in the November election from the state of Washington, which Ford had won over Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.
The 1980 presidential campaign between Reagan and incumbent President Jimmy Carter was conducted during domestic concerns and the ongoing Iran hostage crisis. His campaign stressed some of his fundamental principles: lower taxes to stimulate the economy, less government interference in people’s lives, states’ rights, a strong national defense, and restoring the U.S. Dollar to a gold standard.
Reagan launched his campaign by declaring “I believe in states’ rights”, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, known at the time for the murder of three civil rights workers who had been trying to register African-Americans to vote during the civil rights movement. After receiving the Republican nomination, Reagan selected one of his primary opponents, George H.W. Bush, to be his running mate. His showing in the October televised debate boosted his campaign. Reagan won the election, carrying 44 states with 489 electoral votes to 49 electoral votes for Carter (representing six states and Washington, D.C.). Reagan received 50.7% of the popular vote while Carter took 41%, and Independent John B. Anderson (a liberal Republican) received 6.7%. Republicans captured the Senate for the first time since 1952, and gained 34 House seats, but the Democrats retained a majority.
During the presidential campaign, questions were raised by reporters on Reagan’s stance on the Briggs Initiative, also known as Proposition 6, a ballot initiative in Reagan’s home state of California where he was governor, which would have banned gays, lesbians, and supporters of LGBT rights from working in public schools in California. His opposition to the initiative was instrumental in its landslide defeat by Californian voters. Reagan published an editorial in which he stated “homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles…” and that prevailing scientific opinion was that a child’s sexual orientation cannot be influenced by someone else.
During his Presidency, Reagan pursued policies that reflected his personal belief in individual freedom, brought changes domestically, both to the U.S. economy and expanded military, and contributed to the end of the Cold War. Termed the Reagan Revolution, his presidency would reinvigorate American morale and reduce the people’s reliance upon government. As president, Reagan kept a series of diaries in which he commented on daily occurrences of his presidency and his views on the issues of the day.
To date, Reagan is the oldest man elected to the office of the presidency (at 69). In his first inaugural address on January 20, 1981, which Reagan himself wrote, he addressed the country’s economic malaise arguing: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
The Reagan Presidency began in a dramatic manner; as Reagan was giving his inaugural address, 52 U.S. hostages, held by Iran for 444 days were set free.
On March 30, 1981, only 69 days into the new administration, Reagan, his press secretary James Brady, Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy were struck by gunfire from would-be assassin John Hinckley, Jr. outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. Although “close to death” during surgery, Reagan recovered and was released from the hospital on April 11, becoming the first serving U.S. President to survive being shot in an assassination attempt. The attempt had great influence on Reagan’s popularity; polls indicated his approval rating to be around 73%. Reagan believed that God had spared his life so that he might go on to fulfill a greater purpose.
In 1984 Reagan accepted the Republican nomination in Dallas, Texas, on a wave of positive feeling. He proclaimed that it was “morning again in America”, regarding the recovering economy and the dominating performance by the U.S. athletes at the 1984 Summer Olympics, among other things. He became the first American president to open an Olympic Games held in the United States.
Reagan’s opponent in the 1984 presidential election was former Vice President Walter Mondale. With questions about Reagan’s age, and a weak performance in the first presidential debate, his ability to perform the duties of president for another term was questioned. His apparent confused and forgetful behavior was evident to his supporters; they had previously known him clever and witty. Rumors began to circulate that he had Alzheimer’s disease. Reagan rebounded in the second debate, and confronted questions about his age, quipping, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”, which generated applause and laughter, even from Mondale himself.
That November, Reagan was re-elected, winning 49 of 50 states. The president’s overwhelming victory saw Mondale carry only his home state of Minnesota (by 3800 votes) and the District of Columbia. Reagan won a record 525 electoral votes, the most of any candidate in United States history, and received 58.8% of the popular vote to Mondale’s 40.6%.
On July 13, 1985, Reagan underwent surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital to remove cancerous polyps from his colon. He relinquished presidential power to the Vice President for eight hours in a similar procedure as outlined in the 25th Amendment, which he specifically avoided invoking. The surgery lasted just under three hours and was successful. Reagan resumed the powers of the presidency later that day. In August of that year, he underwent an operation to remove skin cancer cells from his nose. In October, additional skin cancer cells were detected on his nose and removed.
In January 1987, Reagan underwent surgery for an enlarged prostate which caused further worries about his health. No cancerous growths were found, however, and he was not sedated during the operation. In July of that year, aged 76, he underwent a third skin cancer operation on his nose.
After leaving office in 1989, the Reagans purchased a home in Bel Air, Los Angeles in addition to the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara. They regularly attended Bel Air Presbyterian Church and occasionally made appearances on behalf of the Republican Party; Reagan delivered a well-received speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Previously on November 4, 1991, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was dedicated and opened to the public. At the dedication ceremonies, five presidents were in attendance, as well as six first ladies, marking the first time five presidents were gathered in the same location. Reagan continued publicly to speak in favor of a line-item veto; the Brady Bill; a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget; and the repeal of the 22nd Amendment, which prohibits anyone from serving more than two terms as president. In 1992 Reagan established the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award with the newly formed Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. His final public speech was on February 3, 1994 during a tribute to him in Washington, D.C., and his last major public appearance was at the funeral of Richard Nixon on April 27, 1994.
In August 1994, at the age of 83, Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, an incurable neurological disorder which destroys brain cells and ultimately causes death. In November he informed the nation through a handwritten letter, writing in part:
“I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease… At the moment I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done… I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you.”
Ronald Reagan died of pneumonia, brought on by Alzheimer’s disease at his home in Bel Air, California on the afternoon of June 5, 2004.
Read more about Ronald Reagan here.