by Christyana Nordskog
Ronald Reagan lived a fascinating and extraordinary life. Not only was he a famous actor in Hollywood and a big television star, he was elected the 33rd Governor of California, and also served two terms as the 40th President of the United States from 1981-1989. Known as the “Great Communicator” because of his ability to connect with the American people, he won their affection and played a major role in shaping America’s future. Ronald Reagan’s life and presidency greatly impacted the lives of the American people and his legacy still lives on today.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. His parents were John (“Jack”) Reagan and Nelle Wilson Reagan. Ronald’s father nicknamed him “Dutch” when he was a baby, because he resembled “a fat little Dutchman.” Ronald had one sibling, an older brother named Neil. During his early childhood, Ronald’s family lived in several different cities and finally ended up settling in Dixon, Illinois. His family was religiously divided- his father was Catholic and his mother was Christian. Jack and Nelle let Ronald decide which church he wanted to join, and he chose to attend the Disciples of Christ Church with his mother.
Reagan attended Dixon High School, and while there developed an interest in sports and acting, and served as the student body president. He spent his summer vacations working as a lifeguard at Lowell Park (near Dixon). After graduating from high school, Reagan enrolled at Eureka College (he had earned an athletic scholarship) where he majored in economics and sociology. While he was in college, he played football, was captain of the swim team, served as student council president, and acted in school plays. He graduated in 1932 and worked as a radio sports announcer in Iowa.
Reagan took a screen test in 1937 while he was in Southern California covering the Chicago Cubs’ spring training season. The screen test was successful, and he signed a seven-year contract with the Warner Brothers movie studio. His first starring role was in the 1937 film “Love is on the Air” and over the next three decades, he appeared in over 50 other films. One of his best-known roles was as George Gipp (a Notre Dame football star) in the film “Knute Rockne, All American” (1940). His favorite acting role was portraying a double amputee in the 1942 film “Kings Row”, which he considered to be his best film.
Reagan married actress Jane Wyman in 1940. (She was his co-star in the 1938 film “Brother Rat”.) Together they had two biological children, Maureen and Christine, and an adopted son, Michael. Christine only lived one day, and Maureen passed away in 2001 from skin cancer. Jane filed for divorce in 1948 because of their differing political views/ambitions (among other reasons), and the divorce was finalized in 1949.
In 1941, Reagan was elected to the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild, where he served as an alternate. In 1947, he was elected president of the Guild and served from 1947-1952. During that time, he met and fell in love with actress, Nancy Davis. They were married in 1952 and had two children together, Patricia (Patti) and Ron.
Reagan was hired as the host of General Electric Theater, a weekly television drama series, in 1954. His contract with General Electric required him to tour the United States as a public relations representative. During that time, his political views shifted from liberal to conservative. (His political outlook had been shaped by his parents who were both Democrats, and his family had strongly supported Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 election.) His last work as a professional actor was from 1964-1965 as a host and performer on the television series “Death Valley Days”.
Reagan’s first step into the national political spotlight was in 1964, when he gave a televised speech for the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater. This famous speech, “A Time for Choosing”, raised one million dollars for Goldwater’s campaign, and is considered the event that launched Reagan’s political career. Two years later, in 1966, he was elected as the 33rd Governor of California, beating Democrat Edmund “Pat” Brown by almost one million votes. He was largely successful as Governor of California, and was re-elected to a second term in 1970.
After unsuccessfully campaigning for the Republican presidential nominations in the 1968 and 1976 elections, Reagan finally won the United States’ presidential election in 1980, with George Bush as his vice president. He defeated Democrat, President Jimmy Carter, and was the oldest person elected to the U.S. presidency at sixty-nine years of age. Reagan was sworn into office on January 20, 1981.
An assassination attempt was made on President Reagan just sixty-nine days into his administration. John Hinckley Jr. fired several shots at him as he was leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981. One of the bullets hit one of the President’s lungs, just narrowly missing his heart. He was rushed to the hospital and underwent surgery. He recovered quickly, and within a couple of weeks, returned to his presidential duties. Secret Service agents subdued Hinckley and took him into custody in the immediate aftermath of the assassination attempt. President Reagan’s good-natured humor and grace during that dangerous incident caused his support and popularity to increase greatly. (Reagan believed that God had spared his life, and considered himself a “born-again Christian”. He attended services at Bel-Air Presbyterian Church and became an official member after he left the Presidency.)
President Reagan’s economic policies were referred to as “Reaganomics”. The main goals were to reduce the growth of government spending, reduce the federal income tax, reduce government regulation, and tighten the money supply in order to reduce inflation. Reagan advocated for increases in military spending and reductions in certain social programs. The nation’s economy began to recover by 1983, and entered a seven-year period of prosperity that would last through the rest of Reagan’s presidency.
The biggest issue that Reagan faced during his first term as President dealt with foreign affairs- the escalation of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which he dubbed “the evil empire”. He started a build-up of U.S. weapons and troops, and implemented what was known as the “Reagan Doctrine”. This doctrine provided aid to anti-communist movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. He also announced the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, which was a plan to develop space-based weapons that would protect the United States from attacks by Soviet nuclear missiles. He sent eight hundred U.S. marines to Lebanon as a peace-keeping force in 1982, and ordered U.S. forces to invade Granada after Marxist rebels overthrew the government there. In addition, his administration also had to deal with an ongoing controversial relationship between the U.S. and Libyan lead Muammar al-Gaddafi.
Reagan was re-elected as president (with Bush) in November, 1984. He defeated Democrat, Walter Mondale in a landslide, winning 49 out of 50 states’ votes and receiving 525 out of 538 electoral votes. Reagan became the oldest man ever elected president at seventy-three years old. During his second term, a political scandal known as the Iran-Contra affair occurred. In a nutshell, it had to do with the President authorizing the sale of arms to Iran in exchange for help in freeing fifty-two American hostages in Lebanon, but the money diverted and ended up aiding the Contras (an anti-communist insurgency) instead. The Iran-Contra scandal resulted in a popularity decline for Reagan and several indictments and convictions of his staff.
The prevention of communist expansion was at the heart of President Reagan’s foreign policy, so he made a diplomatic relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union at the time. He sought to achieve “peace through strength”. During his second term in office, Reagan and Gorbachev had four Summit Conferences (between 1985 and 1988). At the Washington Summit in December 1987, they both signed the Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty. This was a historic agreement to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. That same year, President Reagan gave a speech at the Berlin Wall in Germany, challenging Gorbachev to tear it down. Twenty-nine months later, Gorbachev allowed the Berlin Wall to be dismantled, ending the Soviet domination of East Germany.
At the end of his second term in office, the Nation was enjoying its longest recorded period of peacetime prosperity without recession or depression, and polls showed that more than half of the American people gave him a favorable rating. He and Nancy left the White House in January 1989, and returned to their home Los Angeles, California. Reagan returned to Germany in September 1990 and took several symbolic swings at a remaining chunk of the Berlin Wall. A section of that wall stands in his presidential library and museum today. (The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum was opened to the public in November 1991, and is located in Simi Valley, California.)
In November 1994, Reagan revealed in a letter to the American people that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He died a little less than a decade later on June 5, 2004 at his home in Los Angeles, California at the age of ninety-three. His funeral took place on June 11 in Washington, D.C. and he was later buried on the grounds of his presidential library.
These are some of Ronald Reagan’s most famous quotes:
“If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a Nation gone under.”
“In this present crisis, the government is not the solution to our problems; the government is the problem.”
“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
“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.”
In conclusion, Ronald Reagan’s life made a huge impact on the United States and the people in it. His presidency was largely successful and played a major role in shaping America’s future. During his years in office, he made the economy more efficient and prosperous and played a significant role in bringing a peaceful end to the Cold War. He won the affection of the American people and it is said that he restored faith in the American Dream with his passionate love for the United States. His faith in God and his love of family and country was evident and strong to the end of his life. This was just a glimpse of his amazing life and legacy.
Reagan, Ronald, An American Life, (Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.: New York, NY) 1990