Some consider Ronald Reagan the greatest president in contemporary American history: under his watch, the country saw the longest period of peacetime prosperity in its history. Critics of the Reagan era, however, point to the Iran-Contra scandal and the administration’s reluctance to recognize the AIDS crisis. Regardless of how Reagan’s legacy is viewed, it is certainly an enduring one.
Ronald Reagan’s Early Days
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in an apartment in the small town of Tampico, Illinois, the second of two sons of John Edward Reagan, a shoe salesman, and Nelle Wilson Reagan, a homemaker. John Reagan purportedly remarked that the baby looked like a “fat little Dutchman,” earning Ronald the nickname “Dutch.”
In search of a better job, Jack Reagan moved his family a number of times before Ronald turned 10, finally settling in Dixon, Illinois. Ronald enjoyed football and theater and worked as a lifeguard at Lowell Park in Dixon; in seven summers on the job, he worked seven days a week, saved 77 lives, and helped to pay for his tuition at Eureka College.
As a young man, Reagan was deeply impressed by Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his radio addresses. The appreciation led him to pursue a radio career after college. Reagan got a job as sports announcer and began to hone his communication skills.
In 1935, Reagan enlisted as a private in the Army Reserves, but extreme nearsightedness prevented his military career from flourishing. Two years later, a friend in Los Angeles suggested that Reagan take a screen test for Warner Brothers, and he was almost immediately offered a seven-year contract.
Reagan’s film career included more than 50 roles. He was most often offered “good guy” parts and earned the nickname “The Gipper” for his role as a football hero from Notre Dame in the film in “Knute Rockne—All American” (1940). Although Reagan never became an A-list star, he did serve for five years (1947–1952) as president of the Screen Actors Guild, the union for professional actors.
Sources in this Story
- History.com: Ronald Reagan
- CNN: Ronald Reagan
- The New York Times: Ronald Reagan Dies at 93; Fostered Cold-War Might and Curbs on Government
- University of Virginia: Miller Center on Public Affairs: Ronald Wilson Reagan
- PBS: Reaganomics
- PBS: The American Experience: Reagan: Alzheimer’s Letter
- The New York Times: Actor’s Illness Helped Reagan To Grasp AIDS, Doctor Says
Reagan’s Political Career
Reagan’s political opinions began to shift in the 1940s and 1950s, as he became more conservative and anti-communist. In 1954, he became host of the television show “General Electric Theater,” which required him to travel across the country speaking at GE plants. Speaking out against high taxes and government regulation, Reagan found that audiences were receptive to his small government message.
Reagan spent eight years with GE, sharpening his public speaking skills and building support among conservatives. During the 1964 presidential election, he raised his national profile giving speeches on behalf of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. “Reagan emerged from the GOP ruins of 1964 as the leading standard-bearer of Republican conservatives,” writes the Miller Center of Public Affairs.
Reagan entered politics two years later, winning the governorship of California. He served two terms before running for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, falling short to President Gerald Ford. Reagan won the nomination in 1980 and handily defeated President Jimmy Carter in the general election, overcoming concerns that the was too conservative and too old to win.
The early days of Reagan’s administration were eventful. Shortly after his inauguration, Iran released hostages who had been taken under President Carter’s watch. Two months later, Reagan survived an assassination attempt.
A key mission of the Reagan presidency was to deal with high inflation and a faltering economy. President Reagan instituted what came to be known as Reaganomics, a financial plan that included massive tax and federal funding cuts with an emphasis on the free market. Inflation dropped dramatically under the system, but the national deficit continued to grow.
One episode that helped define the Reagan presidency was his handling of the strike by the air traffic controllers’ union in August 1981. When 13,000 controllers went on strike in violation of federal law, Reagan, himself a former union head, issued an ultimatum to return within 48 hours and fired the majority of controllers who did not meet the ultimatum.
Reagan ’s most enduring foreign policy achievement was his ability to effectively negotiate with Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev; he and the Soviet leader signed a 1987 treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear weapons.
The same year Reagan gave a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany and delivered the famous words, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The phrase portended the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eventual decline of communism in Eastern Europe.
Reagan also had his fair share of scandal. During his second term, administration officials were accused of selling weapons to Iran in exchange for American hostages held by Hezbollah. Some of the sale proceeds were also used to fund Nicaraguan Contra rebels in violation of congressional order. Though his claims that he was unaware of the illegal activity cast doubt on his competency, Reagan emerged from the Iran-Contra scandal as popular as ever.
The Reagan administration has also been criticized for failing to confront the AIDS crisis, which began in the early 1980s.
The Man and His Work
- “The Reagan I Knew” by William F. Buckley Jr.
- “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan” by Edmund Morris
- “Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader” by Dinesh D’Souza
- “The Reagan Diaries” by Ronald Reagan
- “Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History” by John Patrick Diggins
The Rest of the Story
Five years after the end of his second term, Reagan shocked the American public with a letter detailing his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.
The letter ended with the famous words, “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.” He died on June 5, 2004, and was given an elaborate state funeral.
Like all presidents, Reagan is remembered with a mix of praise and criticism. His ability to reach out and connect with American citizens earned him the title, “The Great Communicator,” but was known as the “Teflon President,” for his uncanny ability to field potential scandals unscathed.
Although some economists fault Reagan for the massive deficit that remained after his administration, he has been lauded by Republicans as a party hero for cultivating America’s longest period of peacetime prosperity.
Ronald Reagan Primary Sources
The American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara holds the most easily accessible collection of Reagan’s public papers, which include speeches, press conferences, public statements and other material released during his presidency.
The Miller Center on Public Affairs features audio and video of dozens of Reagan speeches.
This article was originally written by Isabel Cowles; it was updated January 16, 2017.