Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, followed a unique path to the White House. After successful careers as a radio sports announcer, Hollywood movie actor, and television host, he turned to politics and was elected governor of California in 1966, serving eight years. He ran unsuccessfully for President in 1968 and 1976, but in 1980, during a time of U.S. economic troubles and foreign policy difficulties, he won the Republican presidential nomination in a contest with George H.W. Bush and others and defeated President Jimmy Carter in the general election.

When Reagan took office, public confidence in government was at its lowest ebb since the Great Depression. Reagan largely succeeded in his goal of "making the American people believe in themselves again;" he called this the greatest accomplishment of his presidency. 1n 1984, Reagan was reelected to a second term in a 49-state landslide. During the eight years of his presidency, he reshaped national politics and carried out his campaign promises to cut taxes and increase the defense budget, using the latter as leverage to negotiate significant arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. Despite some setbacks, including notable budget deficits, Reagan left office in 1989 with strong approval ratings. His presidency has been ranked highly by the American people in subsequent polls. Reagan died on June 5, 2004.

Reagan Before Politics

Ronald Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. His family—father Jack, mother Nelle, and older brother Neil—moved to a succession of towns in Illinois, as his nomadic father searched for sales work. In 1920, the Reagans settled in Dixon, which Ronald Reagan considered his hometown.

Ronald's gregarious father, Jack Reagan, had a grade-school education and a gift of salesmanship. He was an able salesman but was hampered by persistent alcoholism. He died in 1941. Ronald's mother, Nelle Wilson Reagan, nurtured and encouraged her sons and gave freely to charities even though the Reagans were poor. As an adult, Ronald Reagan often reminisced fondly about his mother's compassion and generosity. Nelle Reagan died in 1962.

Reagan, then known by his boyhood nickname of "Dutch," graduated in 1928 from Dixon High School, where he showed interest in dramatics, drawing, and journalism. No member of his family had any higher education, but young Ronald Reagan enrolled at Eureka College, near Peoria. He worked his way through college with dishwashing and other jobs, also sending money home and inducing his brother to enroll at Eureka. Ronald Reagan was an indifferent college student; he majored in economics and received mostly "C" grades. But Reagan threw himself into extracurricular activities, especially dramatics, and played on the football team.

Following graduation, at a time when a quarter of Americans were unemployed, Reagan found work as a radio announcer, first in Davenport, Iowa, then later Des Moines. Reagan struggled at first but in time became one of the best-known sports announcers in the Midwest. He also became a popular speaker before Des Moines service groups and enlisted as a reserve officer in the U.S. Cavalry so he could ride horses regularly. But he dreamed of bigger things. In 1937, Reagan went to California with the Chicago Cubs baseball team on spring training and arranged through a friend for a screen test at Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers offered Reagan a contract for $200 a week that launched his film career.

During the next twenty years, Reagan made 52 films, beginning with Love Is on The Air in 1937 and ending with Hellcats of the Navy in 1957. Reagan began his movie making in the B-division of Warner's, where, he said, "they didn't want [the films] good, they wanted them Thursday." His break came when his friend, the actor Pat O'Brien, recommended him for the role of doomed Notre Dame football star George Gipp in Knute Rockne—All American (1940), in which O'Brien had the title role. Reagan was a feature film actor from then on, receiving particularly good notices for a dramatic role in Kings Row (1942), which Reagan considered his best film. Overall, Reagan earned a reputation as a capable actor who did his best work in light comedies. After his film career ended, Reagan became a spokesman for General Electric, hosting the highly rated Sunday television program General Electric Theater and speaking to GE employees around the country.

Political Aspirations and Success

Reagan admired President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose "New Deal for the American people" provided jobs for his father and brother during the depths of the Depression. His parents were Democrats, in a Republican area, and Ronald Reagan remained a Democrat until after he turned 50. Although he never lost his admiration for FDR, Reagan became an ardent conservative and switched his registration to Republican in 1962. Reagan's political and ideological evolution was the product of numerous factors: increased wealth, and the higher taxes that accompanied it; conflicts with leftist union leaders as an official of the Screen Actors Guild, and exposure in his General Electric days to a growing view that the federal government, epitomized by the New Deal, was stifling economic growth and individual freedom.

That view formed the essence of the speech Reagan gave on October 27, 1964, when he burst on the national political scene with a stirring televised appeal for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Using many of the stories and statistics that had become staples of his basic GE speech, Reagan contended that government restrictions and taxation were causing the erosion of individual freedom within the United States. He also decried what he saw as the weakness of the U.S. government in the face of the expansive Soviet Union, which Reagan said was bent on world domination. His performance inspired Republicans and raised $1 million in contributions for the faltering Goldwater campaign. Although Goldwater lost the election in a landslide, conservatives had found a new standard-bearer in Reagan.

Backed by a group of wealthy Southern Californian entrepreneurs headed by auto dealer Holmes Tuttle and encouraged by Nancy Reagan, Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966 against two-term incumbent Democratic governor, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown. After defeating a well-known moderate Republican in the primary, Reagan won the governorship by nearly a million votes and was reelected for a second term in 1970. During his governorship, Reagan proved to be more pragmatic than his critics—or indeed, many of his supporters—had anticipated. Especially notable was his quick agreement to a record tax increase to solve an inherited budget deficit. Reagan also restored order on California's tumultuous university and college campuses, worked with Democrats to achieve welfare reform legislation and property tax relief, and protected the wild rivers of the state's north coast. On balance, his successes outnumbered his failures, which included a clumsy attempt to reform the state's mental hospitals and an ill-fated initiative that would have imposed a state and local government-spending cap.

Boosted by his success in California, Reagan made an abortive run for the presidency in 1968, a candidacy that divided his followers and national conservatives. Some of them wanted Reagan to seek the presidency; others believed he should prove himself longer as governor before running for higher office. Trying to please both factions, Reagan ran a half-hearted campaign that came to naught. But in 1976, with the governorship behind him, Reagan just missed wresting the Republican presidential nomination from Gerald Ford, who had become President in 1974 after the resignation of Richard Nixon. Reagan's near-miss candidacy made him the leading Republican contender in 1980, when he handily won his party's nomination and went on to defeat incumbent President Jimmy Carter by a significant margin.

Reagan's Presidency

Reagan came to the presidency with a sweeping and specific set of policy goals. In domestic affairs, he set out to revitalize the economy, reduce taxes, balance the federal budget, and reduce the size and scope of the federal government. In foreign affairs, he vowed to rebuild the American military and confront the Soviet Union and its allies with new vigor and purpose. He promised to negotiate with the Soviets from a position of strength. He feared that the accepted national policy of deterring the Soviets through a balance of nuclear terror ("mutual assured destruction") would lead to a nuclear war.

Reagan's presidency was nearly cut short by the bullet of a would-be assassin—he was shot and seriously wounded as he was leaving a Washington hotel on March 30, 1981. Reagan's brave performance in the hospital—"I hope you're all Republicans," he said to the doctors who were about to operate on him—gave him for a time a near-mythic status with the American people. With his approval ratings soaring, Reagan after his recovery won passage of much of his economic program, which featured large tax cuts and spending cuts that turned out to be smaller than advertised. Late in the year, the economy plunged into recession, reducing government revenues just as the United States was undertaking the defense buildup promised by Reagan. Taken together, the reduction in revenues and the increased military spending sent budget deficits soaring. Reagan largely ignored the deficits and focused on the recession. Many in his own party were critical of Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, a Carter appointee who prescribed high interest rates to bring down inflation and crush the recession, but Reagan stuck with Volcker. Unemployment rose, but inflation subsided, and the economy turned upward in 1983, an expansion that continued throughout the Reagan presidency.

With the economy stable, Reagan turned his attention to foreign affairs; believing that the massive military buildup that Congress had approved would enable him to negotiate for reduced nuclear arsenals from a position of strength. There was little movement in this direction, however, during Reagan's first term. Soviet leaders resented Reagan's description of their country, in a March 8, 1983, speech, as "the evil empire" and in any case were preoccupied with their own leadership issues. During Reagan's first term, the Soviets went through a succession of geriatric leaders, none of whom was willing to negotiate with a U.S. President.

Americans reelected Reagan by a landslide in 1984 largely because of the economic turnaround and the perception that he was a steady leader. The nation's economy continued to expand during Reagan's second term, as did the budget deficits and the national debt. While all income levels gained from the new prosperity, Reagan's critics claimed that the wealthy were disproportionately benefited. It was in foreign affairs that Reagan had his greatest successes—and also his greatest setback. He worked diligently with the Soviet Union's new reform-minded leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to improve superpower relations. The crucial product of their negotiations was the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, the first treaty of the Cold War to reduce the number of nuclear missiles rather than stabilizing them at higher levels. The INF treat paved the way for other agreements that reduced the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers. As Gorbachev wrote, "it is difficult to overestimate the significance of this step." Gorbachev made a positive impression on Americans during a 1987 visit to the United States, and Reagan impressed the Russian people on a reciprocal 1988 trip to the Soviet Union.

Reagan's reputation was tarnished when the public learned in late 1986 that members of the President's National Security Council staff had engineered an arms sale to Iran, then involved in a bloody war with Iraq, in an ill-conceived attempt to win the release of Americans held hostage in Lebanon. Some of the proceeds from the arms sales were funneled to rebels ("Contras") opposing the Marxist government of Nicaragua. The two events became known as the Iran-Contra affair. This scandal bedeviled Reagan during the last years of his presidency, but did not overshadow his monumental accomplishments in the Cold War. Many years later, the independent counsel who had been appointed to investigate the Iran-Contra affair concluded that there was no evidence Reagan knew that proceeds from the arms sales had been diverted to the Contras.

Reagan After the Presidency

Reagan left office in January 1989, handing the presidency over to his favored successor, Vice President George H. W. Bush. Polls showed that Reagan had the highest approval rating of any departing President since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1994, Reagan announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. As he battled this affliction out of the public eye, his reputation among Americans grew. It culminated in a bipartisan and international outpouring of sentiment at a state funeral after Reagan died on June 5, 2004.