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, in 1919, they returned to Tampico and lived above the H.C. Pitney Variety Store until finally settling in Dixon. After his election as president, residing in the upstairs White House private quarters, Reagan would quip that he was "living above the store again".
According to Paul Kengor, author of God and Ronald Reagan, Reagan had a particularly strong faith in the goodness of people, which stemmed from the optimistic faith of his mother, Nelle, and the Disciples of Christ faith, which he was baptized into in 1922. For the time, Reagan was unusual in his opposition to racial discrimination, and recalled a time in Dixon when the local inn would not allow black people to stay there. Reagan brought them back to his house, where his mother invited them to stay the night and have breakfast the next morning.
Following the closure of the Pitney Store in late 1920, the Reagans moved to Dixon; the midwestern "small universe" had a lasting impression on Reagan. 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. Over a six-year period, Reagan reportedly performed 77 rescues as a lifeguard, notching a mark on a wooden log for each one. 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 using as his source only basic descriptions that the station received by wire as the games were in progress.
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 with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. Before the film Santa Fe Trail with Errol Flynn 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.
Reagan's favorite acting role was as a double amputee in 1942's Kings Row, in which he recites the line, "Where's the rest of me?", later used as the title of his 1965 autobiography. Many film critics considered Kings Row to be his best movie, though the film was condemned by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther.
Although Reagan called Kings Row the film that "made me a star", he was unable to capitalize on his success because he was ordered to active duty with the U.S. Army at San Francisco two months after its release, and never regained "star" status in motion pictures. In the post-war era, after being separated from almost four years of World War II stateside service with the 1st Motion Picture Unit in December 1945, Reagan co-starred in such films as, The Voice of the Turtle, John Loves Mary, The Hasty Heart, Bedtime for Bonzo, Cattle Queen of Montana, Tennessee's Partner, Hellcats of the Navy and The Killers (his final film and the only one in which he played a villain) in a 1964 remake. Throughout his film career, his mother often answered much of his fan mail.
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.
During the late 1940s, Reagan and his wife provided the FBI with names of actors within the motion picture industry whom they believed to be communist sympathizers, though he expressed reservations; he said "Do they expect us to constitute ourselves as a little FBI of our own and determine just who is a Commie and who isn't?".
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."
Though an early critic of television, Reagan landed fewer film roles in the late 1950s and decided to join the medium. He was hired as the host of General Electric Theater, a series of weekly dramas that became very popular. His contract required him to tour GE plants sixteen weeks out of the year, often demanding of him fourteen speeches per day. He earned approximately $125,000 per year (about $1.07 million in 2010 dollars) in this role. His final work as a professional actor was as host and performer from 1964 to 1965 on the television series Death Valley Days. Reagan and Nancy Davis appeared together several times, including an episode of General Electric Theater in 1958 called "A Turkey for the President".
In 1938, Reagan co-starred in the film Brother Rat with actress Jane Wyman (1917–2007). They were engaged at the Chicago Theatre, and married on January 26, 1940, at the Wee Kirk o' the Heather church in Glendale, California. Together they had two biological children, Maureen (1941–2001) and Christine (who was born in 1947 but only lived one day), and adopted a third, Michael (born 1945). Following arguments about Reagan's political ambitions, Wyman filed for divorce in 1948, citing a distraction due to her husband's Screen Actors Guild union duties; the divorce was finalized in 1949. He is the only US president to have been divorced.
Reagan met actress Nancy Davis (born 1921) in 1949 after she contacted him in his capacity as president of the Screen Actors Guild to help her with issues regarding her name appearing on a Communist blacklist in Hollywood. She had been mistaken for another Nancy Davis. She described their meeting by saying, "I don't know if it was exactly love at first sight, but it was pretty close." They were engaged at Chasen's restaurant in Los Angeles and were married on March 4, 1952, at the Little Brown Church in the San Fernando Valley. Actor William Holden served as best man at the ceremony. They had two children: Patti (born October 21, 1952) and Ron (born May 20, 1958).
Reagan began his political career as a Democrat and, in December 1945, was prevented from leading an anti-nuclear rally in Hollywood by pressure from the Warner Bros. studio. He would later make nuclear weapons a key point of his presidency, specifically his opposition to mutually assured destruction, building on previous efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons to a new focus to reduce the numbers and types of them. In the 1948 election, Reagan strongly supported Harry S. Truman, appearing on stage with him during a campaign speech in Los Angeles. However, 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".
In the early 1960s Reagan opposed certain civil rights legislation, saying that "if an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so." In his rationale, he cited his opposition to government intrusion into personal freedoms, as opposed to racism; he strongly denied having racist motives and later reversed his opposition to voting rights and fair housing laws. When legislation that would become Medicare was introduced in 1961, Reagan created a recording for the American Medical Association warning that such legislation would mean the end of freedom in America. Reagan said that if his listeners did not write letters to prevent it, "we will awake to find that we have socialism. And if you don't do this, and if I don't do it, one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free." He also joined the National Rifle Association and would become a lifetime member.
Reagan endorsed the campaign of conservative presidential contender Barry Goldwater in 1964. Speaking for Goldwater, Reagan stressed his belief in the importance of smaller government. He revealed his ideological motivation in a famed speech delivered on October 27, 1964: "The Founding Fathers knew a government can't control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing." He also said, "You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man's age-old dream – the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order – or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism." This "A Time for Choosing" speech, which later became known as "The Speech", raised $1 million for Goldwater's campaign and is considered the event that launched Reagan's political career.
California Republicans were impressed with Reagan's political views and charisma after his "Time for Choosing" speech, he announced in late 1965, his campaign for Governor of California in 1966. He defeated former San Francisco mayor George Christopher in the GOP primary. 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". Ronald Reagan accomplished in 1966, what US Senator William F. Knowland in 1958 and former Vice-President Richard M. Nixon in 1962 had tried; 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.
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.
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.
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".
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" upon arrival at George Washington University Hospital, Reagan was stabilized in the emergency room, then underwent emergency exploratory surgery. He 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.
Reagan implemented policies based on supply-side economics, advocating a laissez-faire philosophy and free-market fiscal policy, seeking to stimulate the economy with large, across-the-board tax cuts. He also supported returning the United States to some sort of gold standard, and successfully urged Congress to establish the U.S. Gold Commission to study how one could be implemented. Citing the economic theories of Arthur Laffer, Reagan promoted the proposed tax cuts as potentially stimulating the economy enough to expand the tax base, offsetting the revenue loss due to reduced rates of taxation, a theory that entered political discussion as the Laffer curve. Reaganomics was the subject of debate with supporters pointing to improvements in certain key economic indicators as evidence of success, and critics pointing to large increases in federal budget deficits and the national debt. His policy of "peace through strength" resulted in a record peacetime defense buildup including a 40% real increase in defense spending between 1981 and 1985.
During Reagan's presidency, federal income tax rates were lowered significantly with the signing of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 which lowered the top marginal tax bracket from 70% to 50% and the lowest bracket from 14% to 11%, however other tax increases passed by Congress and signed by Reagan, ensured that tax revenues over his two terms were 18.2% of GDP as compared to 18.1% over the 40-year period 1970-2010. Then, in 1982 the Job Training Partnership Act of 1982 was signed into law, initiating one of the United States' first public-private partnerships and a major part of the president's job creation program. Reagan's Assistant Secretary of Labor and Chief of Staff, Al Angrisani, was a primary architect of the bill. The Tax Reform Act of 1986, another bipartisan effort championed by Reagan, further reduced the top rate to 28%, raised the bottom bracket from 11% to 15%, and, cut the number of tax brackets to 4.
Conversely, Congress passed and Reagan signed into law tax increases of some nature in every year from 1981 to 1987 to continue funding such government programs as Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA), Social Security, and the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984 (DEFRA). Despite the fact that TEFRA was the "largest peacetime tax increase in American history", gross domestic product (GDP) growth recovered strongly after the early 1980s recession ended in 1982, and grew during his eight years in office at an annual rate of 7.91% per year, with a high of 12.2% growth in 1981. Unemployment peaked at 10.8% monthly rate in December 1982 - higher than any time since the Great Depression - then dropped during the rest of Reagan's presidency. Sixteen million new jobs were created, while inflation significantly decreased. The net effect of all Reagan-era tax bills was a 1% decrease in government revenues when compared to Treasury Department revenue estimates from the Administration's first post-enactment January budgets. However, federal income tax receipts increased from 1980 to 1989, rising from $308.7 billion to $549 billion, Reagan was still known for his lower-taxes philosophy.
Together with the United Kingdom's prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Reagan denounced the Soviet Union in ideological terms. In a famous address on June 8, 1982, to the British Parliament in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, Reagan said, "the forward march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism–Leninism on the ash-heap of history". On March 3, 1983, he predicted that communism would collapse, stating, "Communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written". In a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983, Reagan called the Soviet Union "an evil empire".
After Soviet fighters downed Korean Air Lines Flight 007 near Moneron Island on September 1, 1983, carrying 269 people, including Georgia congressman Larry McDonald, Reagan labeled the act a "massacre" and declared that the Soviets had turned "against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere". The Reagan administration responded to the incident by suspending all Soviet passenger air service to the United States, and dropped several agreements being negotiated with the Soviets, wounding them financially. As result of the shootdown, and the cause of KAL 007's going astray thought to be inadequacies related to its navigational system, Reagan announced on September 16, 1983, that the Global Positioning System would be made available for civilian use, free of charge, once completed in order to avert similar navigational errors in future.
Under a policy that came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine, Reagan and his administration also provided overt and covert aid to anti-communist resistance movements in an effort to "rollback" Soviet-backed communist governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Reagan deployed the CIA's Special Activities Division to Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were instrumental in training, equipping and leading Mujaheddin forces against the Soviet Army. President Reagan's Covert Action program has been given credit for assisting in ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, though some of the United States funded armaments introduced then would later pose a threat to U.S. troops in the 2000s (decade) war in Afghanistan. However, in a break from the Carter policy of arming Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, Reagan also agreed with the communist government in China to reduce the sale of arms to Taiwan.
Reagan was sworn in as president for the second time on January 20, 1985, in a private ceremony at the White House. Because January 20 fell on a Sunday, a public celebration was not held but took place in the Capitol Rotunda the following day. January 21 was one of the coldest days on record in Washington, D.C.; due to poor weather, inaugural celebrations were held inside the Capitol. In the coming weeks he shook up his staff somewhat, moving White House Chief of Staff James Baker to Secretary of the Treasury and naming Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, a former Merrill Lynch officer, Chief of Staff.
Reagan announced a War on Drugs in 1982, following concerns about the increasing crack epidemic. Though Nixon had previously declared a war on drugs, Reagan advocated more militant policies.
Reagan recognized the change in the direction of the Soviet leadership with Mikhail Gorbachev, and shifted to diplomacy, with a view to encourage the Soviet leader to pursue substantial arms agreements. Reagan's personal mission was to achieve "a world free of nuclear weapons", which he regarded as "totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization". He was able to start discussions on nuclear disarmament with General Secretary Gorbachev. Gorbachev and Reagan held four summit conferences between 1985 and 1988: the first in Geneva, Switzerland, the second in Reykjavík, Iceland, the third in Washington, D.C., and the fourth in Moscow. Reagan believed that if he could persuade the Soviets to allow for more democracy and free speech, this would lead to reform and the end of Communism.
Early in his presidency, Reagan started wearing a custom, technologically advanced hearing aid, first in his right ear and later in his left as well. His decision to go public in 1983 regarding his wearing the small, audio-amplifying device boosted their sales.
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 that 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.
Reagan died of pneumonia, complicated by Alzheimer's disease at his home in Bel Air, California, on the afternoon of June 5, 2004. A short time after his death, Nancy Reagan released a statement saying, "My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has died after 10 years of Alzheimer's disease at 93 years of age. We appreciate everyone's prayers." President George W. Bush declared June 11 a National Day of Mourning, and international tributes came in from around the world. Reagan's body was taken to the Kingsley and Gates Funeral Home in Santa Monica, California later in the day, where well-wishers paid tribute by laying flowers and American flags in the grass. On June 7, his body was removed and taken to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where a brief family funeral was held conducted by Pastor Michael Wenning. His body lay in repose in the Library lobby until June 9; over 100,000 people viewed the coffin.
His burial site is inscribed with the words he delivered at the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library: "I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph and that there is purpose and worth to each and every life."
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