Monday, June 20, 2016

Ronald Reagan: Politic's Leading Man

Luke's American Adventures: Ronald Reagan: Politic's Leading Man

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois, to John Edward "Jack" Reagan and Nellie Wilson Reagan. Nicknamed "Dutch," by his father, Reagan's early childhood was spent moving after his father’s reputation became too much for that town. The family finally settled in Dixon, Illinois in 1920, where Jack opened a shoe store. In 1928, Reagan graduated from Dixon High School. During the school year, Reagan was an athlete, high school thespian, and student body president; his summers were spent as a lifeguard. An athletic scholarship allowed Reagan to enroll at Eureka College, where he majored in economics and sociology while being active in student life. He was part of the football, track, and swim teams, served as student council president, and acted in school productions. After graduating in 1932, he found work as a radio sports announcer in Iowa, eventually find his way to California and an acting contract with Warner Brothers.

The Gipper

Ronald Regan as George "The Gipper" Gip, 1940
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In 1937, Reagan signed a seven-year contract with the movie studio, and ultimately had a thirty-year career in Hollywood. He appeared in more than 50 films, and performed his best-known role in the 1940 biopic Knute Rockne, All American, where he portrayed Notre Dame football star George Gipp. Another notable role was in the 1942 film Kings Row, in which Reagan portrays an accident victim who wakes up to discover his legs have been amputated. In 1940, Reagan married actress Jane Wyman, with whom he had daughter Maureen and adopted a son, Michael before the couple divorced in 1948. During World War II, Reagan entered the Army. Disqualified from combat duty due to poor eyesight, he spent his time in the Army making training films, rising to the rank of Captain.

From 1947 to 1952, Reagan served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. During this time, he met actress Nancy Davis, who had sought his help after she was mistakenly listed as a possible communist sympathizer on the Hollywood blacklist. Both were immediately attracted to each other, but Reagan was skeptical of marrying again due to his painful divorce from Wyman. Over time, he recognized Nancy as his kindred spirit, and they wed in 1952. The pair had two children, Patricia Ann and Ronald, and the marriage lasted over fifty years.

As Reagan's film career began to plateau, he landed a job as host of the weekly television drama series The General Electric Theater in 1954. Part of his responsibility as host was to tour the United States as a public relations representative for GE. It was during this time that his political views shifted from liberal to conservative; he led pro-business discussions, speaking out against excessive government regulation and wasteful spending—central themes of his future political career.

Ronald Reagan, host of The General Electric Theater
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Politics and Presidency

Reagan stepped into the national political spotlight in 1964, when he gave a well-received televised speech for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Two years later, in his first race for public office, Reagan defeated Democratic incumbent Edmund "Pat" Brown Sr. by almost one million votes, winning the California governorship was reelected to a second term in 1970. After making unsuccessful bids for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and 1976, Reagan finally received his party's nod in 1980. In that year's general election, he overwhelmingly defeated Democrat incumbent President Jimmy Carter, winning the electoral college 489 to 49 and capturing almost 51 percent of the popular vote. At age 69, Reagan was the oldest person elected to the U.S. presidency.

Attempted Assassination

President Regan's first post-recovery national address
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In his inaugural speech on January 20, 1981, Reagan announced that "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem." He called for an era of national renewal and hoped that America would again be "a beacon of hope for those who do not have freedom." He and Nancy Reagan also ushered in a new era of glamor to the White House with designer fashions and a controversial redecoration of the executive mansion that had last seen substantial updating during the Kennedy administration. On March 30, 1981, less than eight weeks into his term, President Reagan exited the Washington Hilton Hotel with several of his advisers and shots rang out. Quick-thinking Secret Service agents thrust the wounded president into his limousine, and the driver raced to George Washington University Hospital, not daring to wait for an ambulance. His would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr., also shot three other people, none of them immediately fatal. (Press Secretary James Brady was left paralyzed, and when he died in 2014, coroners deemed the cause of death a complication of the shooting.) At the hospital, doctors determined that the gunman's bullet had pierced one of the president's lungs and narrowly missed his heart. Reagan, known for his good-natured humor, later told his distressed wife the problem: "Honey, I forgot to duck." Within several weeks of the shooting, President Reagan was back at work.

On the domestic front, President Reagan advanced numerous conservative policies. Tax cuts were implemented to stimulate the United States' economy. He also advocated for increases in military spending, reductions in certain social programs and measures to deregulate business. By 1983, the nation's economy had begun to recover and, according to many economists, entered a seven-year period of prosperity. Critics, however, charged that his policies had actually increased the deficit and hurt the middle class and poor. In 1981, Reagan once again made history by appointing Judge Sandra Day O'Connor as the first woman to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The most pressing foreign policy issue of Reagan's first term was the Cold War. Dubbing the Soviet Union "the evil empire," Reagan embarked on a massive buildup of U.S. weapons and troops. He implemented the Reagan Doctrine, which provided aid to anti-communist movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In 1983, he announced the Strategic Defense Initiative; nicknamed "Star Wars," the SDI was a plan aiming to develop space-based weapons to protect America from attacks by Soviet nuclear missiles. In the Middle East, Reagan sent 800 U.S. Marines to Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping force, in June 1982. Nearly one year later, in October 1983, suicide bombers attacked the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans. That same month, Reagan ordered U.S. forces to invade the Caribbean island of Granada after Marxist rebels overthrew the government. In addition to the problems in Lebanon and Grenada, the Reagan administration had to deal with an ongoing contentious relationship with Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan pay their respects to Beirut bombing victims
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

“Tear Down This Wall”

In November 1984, Ronald Reagan was re-elected in another landslide, defeating Democratic challenger Walter Mondale. Reagan carried 49 of the 50 U.S. states in the election, and received 525 of 538 electoral votes—the largest number ever won by an American presidential candidate. Yet his second term was tarnished by the Iran-Contra affair, a convoluted "arms-for-hostages" deal with Iran to funnel money toward anti-communist insurgencies in Central America. Though he initially denied knowing about it, Reagan later announced that it was a mistake.

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
 Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
During his second term, Reagan also forged a diplomatic relationship with the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev, chairman of the Soviet Union. In 1987, the Americans and Soviets signed a historic agreement to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. That same year, Reagan spoke at Germany's Berlin Wall. This symbol of communism was erected during the Kennedy administration, and famously challenged the leader, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” More than two years later, Gorbachev allowed the people of Berlin to dismantle the wall, ending Soviet domination of East Germany. After leaving the White House, Reagan returned to Germany in September 1990—just weeks before the country was officially reunified—and, with a hammer, took several symbolic swings at a remaining chunk of the wall.

After leaving the White House in January 1989, Reagan and wife Nancy returned to their home in Los Angeles, California, and the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs opened two years later in Simi Valley, California. In November 1994, Reagan revealed in a handwritten letter to the American people that he had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Nancy split her time between caring for him and becoming involved with the National Alzheimer's Association and its affiliate, the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute in Chicago. Nearly a decade later after the revelation, 93-year-old Ronald Reagan died at his Los Angeles home, making him the nation's longest-lived president at that time. A state funeral was held in Washington, D.C., and President Reagan was later buried on the grounds of his Simi Valley library. Nancy Reagan died of heart failure in 2016 at the age of 94 and was also interred at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs. (In 2006, Gerald Ford surpassed Reagan for the longest-lived title. Coincidentally, when Nancy died in 2016, she was the second-eldest First Lady at her death; Bess Truman is the eldest.)

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