A Reference Resource
Ronald Wilson Reagan
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 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.
Ronald Wilson Reagan, the son of Jack and Nelle Reagan, was born in a small apartment above the Pitney General Store on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois, His family, which included older brother Neil, moved to a succession of Illinois towns as his salesman father searched for a well-paying job. In 1920, the Reagans settled in Dixon.
Jack Reagan was a gregarious man with a grade-school education who made his way as a salesman, usually of shoes. He was a dreamer and also an alcoholic. Years later, Ronald Reagan recalled the searing experiences of being the child of an alcoholic father, including an incident where he dragged a "passed out" Jack Reagan into the house from the snow.
Jack and Nelle were both Democrats; in religion he was a Roman Catholic, and she an active member of the Disciples of Christ. After Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, Jack Reagan was rewarded for his Democratic activism by being named the local director of the Works Progress Administration, a federal agency created by Roosevelt to provide work for jobless Americans. Neil Reagan was also employed by the WPA. Ronald Reagan remembered his father as being fiercely opposed to racial and religious intolerance. He refused to allow his children to see the film Birth of a Nation, because it glorified the Ku Klux Klan. Jack Reagan died in 1941.
Ronald's mother, Nelle Wilson Reagan, nurtured and encouraged her sons. She taught them that alcoholism was a disease and urged them not to blame their father for succumbing to it. She had married Jack Reagan in a Catholic ceremony, and the older son Neil was raised as a Catholic. Both boys believed that Neil took after his father and Ronald more after his mother. Nelle raised Ronald in her church, the Disciples of Christ. She was a relentless do-gooder, visiting prisoners, poorhouse inmates, and hospital patients. She also organized drama recitals—some of which featured her sons—and worked as a salesclerk and seamstress in the 1930s. As an adult, Ronald often reminisced fondly about his mother's compassion and generosity. He moved her to Hollywood after Jack died; she died in 1962.
Youth and College Years
As a boy, Reagan's life was filled with scrapes and adventures. He once narrowly escaped death while playing under a train that suddenly began moving. Reagan graduated from Dixon High School in 1928, where he played on the football and basketball teams, became president of the student body, acted in school plays, and wrote for the yearbook. Reagan, an accomplished swimmer since early boyhood, worked six summers as a lifeguard in Lowell Park in Dixon on the treacherous Rock River. According to newspaper reports of the time and later research, he saved 77 people from drowning.
Reagan enrolled in 1928 at Eureka College in Peoria. He majored in economics but was an indifferent student, graduating with a "C" average in 1932. At Eureka, he played football and was a member of the college swim team, performed with the drama club, joined the debate club, worked as a reporter on the school newspaper, edited the college yearbook, and served as president of the student council. Admitted to college on a partial football scholarship, Reagan washed dishes at his fraternity house, Tau Kappa Epsilon, and at a girl's dormitory, and worked as a lifeguard and a swimming coach to pay the rest of his college costs and sent money home to his economically hard-hit family. He also had an early taste of politics: while still a freshman he made a dramatic oration on behalf of Eureka students who were striking to restore classes that the school administration had eliminated because of financial strains caused by the Great Depression. After the strike, the college president resigned.
Radio, Film, and Television Career
After graduation, Reagan landed a job as a radio sportscaster at WOC in Davenport, Iowa, for $10 per game and transportation expenses. His lively imagination and resonant radio voice compensated for his inexperience in radio. He found that if he memorized the first line of a commercial, everything he read would sound "natural," a technique he used in radio for the rest of his life. With his newfound mastery of commercials, Reagan became staff announcer and within two years transferred to WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, a powerful clear-channel NBC radio outlet. By 1936, he was earning a substantial salary with his recreations of Chicago Cubs baseball games and his sportscasts of Big Ten football.
Standing six-foot, one-inch tall, with wavy brown hair, blue eyes, and an inviting broadcaster's voice, Reagan possessed many attributes that portended a successful movie career. Moreover, he had enjoyed acting since his teenage years. In 1937, he went to California to cover the spring training of the Chicago Cubs—and to meet a Hollywood agent. By chance, Warner Brothers was seeking a new actor to replace a promising young star who had died in a car accident, and Reagan vaguely resembled him. He took a screen test for Warner Brothers, and the studio immediately offered him a then-munificent $200-a-week contract. As a Hollywood movie actor from 1937 to 1957, Reagan appeared in 52 films. (A 53rd film, The Killers, was never shown in theaters but was released for television in 1964.) His breakthrough film was Knute Rockne—All American (1940), the story of Notre Dame's legendary football coach. Rockne was played by the actor Pat O'Brien, who secured the small but vital role of George Gipp for his friend Reagan. Gipp is a talented but rakish football player who is terminally ill. In the movie version, Gipp on his deathbed tells Rockne: "Someday, when things are tough, maybe you can ask the boys to go in there and win just once for the Gipper." After he went into politics Reagan sometimes quoted Rockne's words to rally his own followers. He told the story so often in his presidential campaigns that reporters accompanying him gave Reagan the nickname of "The Gipper."
Reagan and many film critics believed that his best acting performance came in the screen version of the Henry Bellaman novel Kings Row. Reagan played Drake McHugh, a playboy, who awakens to find that his legs have been amputated by a sadistic surgeon. "Where's the rest of me?" cries McHugh upon discovering that he is legless. The line clung to Reagan, who called his 1965 autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me?
Reagan was a competent actor who pleased directors because he was punctual and quickly memorized his lines. He did his best work in light comedies and action movies and self-deprecatingly called himself "the Errol Flynn of the B's," referring to the low-budget films that were big money-makers for Warner Brothers and other studios. Reagan absorbed the craft of filmmaking, and especially the art of staging a scene effectively. It was a skill that he used repeatedly during his political career.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Reagan, who had been a member of the U.S. Army Cavalry Reserve since the 1930s, was called to active duty and commissioned a second lieutenant. His nearsightedness kept him out of combat, and he spent most of the next three years in the Army Air Corps First Motion Picture Unit. Reagan narrated training films for new recruits and appeared in several patriotic films designed to aid the war effort. Perhaps the most important of these was Rear Gunner (1943) made at the request of the Air Corps, which had a surfeit of pilots and a shortage of gunners. Other movies included Mr. Gardenia Jones (1942), Jap Zero (1943), and For God and Country (1943). Reagan was relieved from duty for several weeks to participate in the highly popular Irving Berlin musical, This Is the Army (1943), which raised millions for wartime charities.
Hollywood changed Ronald Reagan's world, on- and off-screen. He met the talented Jane Wyman during the filming of Brother Rat (1938), Reagan's ninth film and one of the best of his B-division efforts. Their romance blossomed, encouraged by the influential Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons, who took a special interest in Reagan's career because she was also from Dixon, Illinois. Reagan and Wyman married on January 26, 1940, and were promoted by Hollywood as the "ideal couple." They had a daughter Maureen in 1941 and adopted a son Michael in 1945.
While Reagan was making training films in the Army, his wife's film career skyrocketed. In her early Hollywood years, Wyman had been cast in minor roles that displayed her physical attractiveness, but in 1945 she won plaudits for a serious role as an alcoholic's fiancé in The Lost Weekend. She received favorable notices for this film and for The Yearling (1946), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Two years later, in what critics consider her best role, she won the Oscar for best actress in a stunning portrayal of a raped teenager, deaf and mute, in Johnny Belinda.
While Wyman scaled the top rungs of film stardom and Reagan battled to recapture his pre-war popularity, their marriage fell apart. They were divorced in 1948. Four years later, after a period that Reagan described as the unhappiest of his life, he began seeing actress Nancy Davis. She had been moderately successful in ten films and had received good reviews for The Next Voice You Hear (1950) and Night into Morning (1951). But she gave up her acting career for Reagan: they were married on March 4, 1952. They had two children: Patricia, known as Patti Davis, born in 1952 and Ronald Prescott, born in 1958.
Reagan's optimistic nature reasserted itself after his marriage to Nancy Davis. But he struggled with his career. Reagan had signed a million-dollar, multi-year contract with Warner Brothers on the strength of Kings Row, which was released in 1942 when Reagan was in the Army. The movie audience that had come of age during the war years barely knew Reagan, who battled with Warner Brothers over his film roles and eventually left the studio. Reagan saw himself as a dramatic actor but was more effectively cast in lighter films, winning good notices for his performances in The Voice of the Turtle (1947) and The Girl From Jones Beach (1949). He gave a convincing performance as the epileptic baseball pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team (1952) at a time the name of the disease could not be mentioned on the screen.
In 1954, with his film career all but ended and his finances low, Reagan was offered a unique contract by General Electric. The company hired him to narrate (and occasionally act) on its new program, General Electric Theater, which soon dominated the Sunday night television ratings. Reagan received a $150,000 annual salary and was required to make several annual trips to GE plants, where he spoke to workers and executives. General Electric Theater kept Reagan's name and face in public view, and trips to the GE plants enabled Reagan to hone his speaking message and technique. General Electric canceled the contract in 1962 because Reagan would not agree to a new format for the program, which had been overtaken in the ratings by Bonanza. But in 1962, his brother Neil, an advertising executive, landed Reagan a contract to host Death Valley Days, a popular western series.
Shifting Politics: Union and Anti-Communist Leader
Throughout his life, Ronald Reagan displayed a strong interest in politics. Reagan's national political outlook was shaped by his parents, both Democrats, and especially by the onslaught of the Great Depression. The entire Reagan family supported Franklin D. Roosevelt for President in 1932 and backed his New Deal. Roosevelt's resonant optimism dazzled Reagan, who imitated the President's 1932 inaugural speech on a broomstick microphone to college friends. Reagan was grateful to FDR for providing work for his father and brother in New Deal relief programs. He voted for FDR each of the four times he was elected President and continued to speak well of him even after he became a conservative Republican.
In Hollywood, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Reagan also identified with Roosevelt's internationalism, especially his opposition to the aggressions of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. After World War II, Reagan aligned with the dominant faction in the Democratic Party: anti-Communist liberals, whose ranks included President Harry Truman, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and labor leader Walter Reuther. Reagan joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1937, became a member of the union's board in 1941 and its president in 1947 and continued to serve on the board after stepping down from the presidency in 1954. During that period, SAG was involved in a myriad of battles, including repeated efforts to purge itself of Communist influence. Reagan opposed the Communists and their allies; in 1953 he became a secret informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), reporting on Communist activities in Hollywood.
Reagan, however, was wary of the indiscriminate anti-Communism then sweeping the country in the early days of the Cold War. He worried that SAG's programs designed to root out Communists might harm innocent actors and actresses. He was skeptical of the House of Representatives' Committee on Un-American Activities, which in the late 1940s investigated Communist infiltration of Hollywood. But as president of SAG, Reagan helped implement the blacklist of suspected Communists that had been agreed to by movie producers frightened by the congressional investigations. Reagan did, however, work to clear the names of actors whom he thought had been wrongfully accused or had only dabbled with leftist groups, as he had done in the 1940s. He continued in the 1950s to campaign for Democratic candidates, including the liberal Helen Gahagan Douglas, who in 1950 lost a U.S. Senate race in California to Richard Nixon.
Reagan's Political Odyssey
Reagan's politics changed in the 1950s. Still an influential member of SAG—he resumed its presidency in 1959—Reagan and the SAG leadership continued to win better pay and benefits for actors. In partisan politics, however, Reagan identified more frequently with Republicans. He was a participant in the Democrats-for-Eisenhower campaigns in 1952 and 1956, which attracted many other Democrats. But in 1960, when many of these "Eisenhower Democrats" returned to the party fold and supported John F. Kennedy, Reagan championed the candidacy of Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon. Reagan did not especially like Nixon; he was motivated more by a distrust of Kennedy and the national Democratic Party, which Reagan saw as moving to the left. Reagan, still a nominal Democrat, delivered more than 200 speeches for Nixon, whom Kennedy narrowly defeated. When Nixon ran for governor of California in 1962 against Democrat Pat Brown, Reagan again supported him and this time changed his registration to Republican.
Reagan's political conversion in part reflected the change in his economic status. In 1945, his agent secured him a $1 million multi-year contract, more than $11 million in today's dollars, and Reagan became financially well off for the first time in his life in a day when marginal tax rates were the highest in U.S. history and individuals were not allowed to average their income. Reagan resented paying high taxes—it was a short step from there to the view that the federal government was violating his freedom. Reagan's critical attitude toward government was enhanced by his speaking trips for General Electric, which exposed him to company middle managers who shared his concerns. These anti-government views crept into Reagan's GE speeches, which at the beginning tended to be platitudinous, combining patriotic themes with stories of Hollywood. Over time, his speech evolved into a generalized message of freedom. Reagan, who in the 1940s excoriated "Big Business" now attacked "Big Government" and sang the praises of American business in talks titled "Encroaching Control" and "Our Eroding Freedoms."
During the eight years of his contract with General Electric, Reagan spoke at every one of the company's 135 plants and to many of GE's 250,000 employees in trips that served as a valuable political apprenticeship. Because he was afraid to fly, Reagan's contract specified that he travel by train. He made good use of the long trips between plants to write his speeches in longhand on legal pads, transcribing them onto 3x5 (and later larger) cards. In these speeches, Reagan carefully reworked his themes of individual freedom and anti-Communism, surrounding his message with homey stories drawn from local newspapers or Reader's Digest. The result was a basic address—known as "The Speech"—that expressed Reagan's core convictions and was sprinkled with topical anecdotes. Reagan's affable manner and genial optimism lightened the sternness of his warning that Americans were in danger of losing their individual freedoms.
Reagan's GE years coincided with a decline in the Democratic coalition that had been forged by Roosevelt and continued by President Truman. This was a coalition that knit together disparate elements on economic issues; in the 1950s it was tested by the cultural, racial, and regional issues that would tear apart the Democrats the 1960s. The arc of the nation's politics traversed a similar path to the one that Reagan had followed in his political evolution. Even though the Democrats under John F. Kennedy won the White House in 1960 and expanded their majority under Lyndon Johnson, millions of Americans were gradually becoming receptive to a conservative message.
The leader of the emergent Republican conservatives was Barry Goldwater, U.S. senator from Arizona, whose 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, largely written by Brent Bozell of the National Review, had crystallized the movement's message. Long before Reagan became a convert, Goldwater preached that the federal government was too intrusive domestically and too accommodating to the Soviets, who Goldwater believed were waging a proxy war in Vietnam. Goldwater contended that the Republican Party, dominated by its Eastern establishment, had become a "me-too" institution offering no clear alternatives to the Democrats. In 1964, Goldwater set out to change this. He won the Republican presidential nomination but in the general election was demonized by Johnson and his operatives as an "extremist" who would lead the nation into war. Johnson won the 1964 general election in a landslide.
Goldwater, however, had succeeded in his principal objective of transforming the GOP into a conservative party. It needed only a messenger to compete effectively with the Democrats and on October 27, 1964, a week before LBJ's landslide victory, found one in the person of Reagan. In his nationally televised speech for Goldwater, Reagan called for leadership that would reduce the domestic reach of the federal government while simultaneously bolstering its military establishment and resisting the worldwide spread of Communism. Borrowing phrases used by Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln in national crises, Reagan declared: "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We can preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we can take the first step into a thousand years of darkness." Specifically, Reagan called for America to abandon the "Great Society" domestic programs of Lyndon Johnson and for a foreign policy that vigorously opposed Soviet expansionism. These became dominant themes as Reagan moved center stage in national politics. The 1964 campaign also foreshadowed the Republican resurgence in the South, where whites backed Goldwater and later Reagan because they opposed civil rights bills on what both men said were constitutional grounds. Reagan emerged from the GOP ruins of 1964 as the leading standard-bearer of Republican conservatives.
Governor of the Golden State
Reagan was simultaneously ambitious and cautious about his political future. His interest was in national politics but with no passageway at hand into federal office, Reagan and his wife Nancy explored other possibilities with a small group of friends and entrepreneurs. Los Angeles automobile dealer Holmes Tuttle, the leader of this group, insisted that the path to Washington went through the California state capitol of Sacramento. After some hesitation, the Reagans agreed. They recruited the state's leading political consulting firm, Spencer-Roberts, to advise them in an attempt to win the governorship of California in 1966. Stuart K. Spencer and Bill Roberts, the consultants, had supported Nelson Rockefeller against Goldwater in 1964; they were Republican pragmatists without a defining ideology. The employment of Spencer-Roberts sent a message to Republican moderates that Reagan was similarly pragmatic; it also deprived Reagan's foes of Spencer-Roberts' services.
In setting out to become governor, Reagan faced first the hurdle of the Republican primary and then what appeared to be the formidable task of defeating the incumbent, two-term, Democratic governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown of San Francisco. Brown was seen as a political giant-killer after defeating nationally known Republicans in 1958 and 1962, but he suffered from the ravages of incumbency and a party deeply split over civil rights issues and the Vietnam War. Many voters thought that the Brown administration had responded ineffectually to the Watts Riots of 1965 and to radical demonstrations at the University of California at Berkeley. Additionally, Brown had balanced the state budget with an accounting gimmick; Californians realized that this was a ploy to avoid new taxes.
Brown and his strategists dismissed Reagan as a lightweight—an opinion based almost solely on the fact that he was an actor—and a right-winger. Since labeling Goldwater an "extremist" had been an effective tactic for LBJ, Brown believed this line of attack would work against Reagan. So Brown and his operatives tried to help Reagan win the GOP nomination by leaking damaging information about his Republican opponent George Christopher to columnist Drew Pearson. This bizarre strategy backfired. Reagan defeated Christopher, who was so angry at Brown for what he believed was a smear that he backed Reagan and helped unify the Republicans. The attempt to pin the "extremist" label on Reagan also failed; Reagan said that if members of the John Birch Society supported him, they were buying his philosophy rather than the other way around. Brown had a more valid argument that Reagan was lacking in government experience, but Reagan defused this by saying that it would be good to have sometime take a look at the state budget with "fresh eyes." Reagan was helped, as he would be in other campaigns, by his self-deprecating humor. Asked what kind of governor he would be, Reagan responded: "I don't know, I've never played a governor." In the November election, Reagan rolled to an overwhelming victory, winning by nearly a million votes and carrying 53 of the state's 58 counties. Four years later, Reagan won a second term.
After early stumbles, Reagan became a largely successful governor. He surprised liberal Democrats and alienated the far right of the Republican Party by showing a proclivity for compromise. He preferred partial victories to, as he put it, "going off the cliff with all flags flying." His rhetoric remained conservative, and he used student demonstrators and others who objected to his policies as a foil. Speaking of student protesters whom he encountered on college campuses, Reagan quipped, "Their signs said, 'make love, not war,' but it didn't look like they could do either." Repeatedly, he reiterated a campaign theme: Campus demonstrators should "obey the rules or get out."
Reagan promised in his campaign that he would "squeeze, cut, and trim" the growth of state government. This was not easy to do, and Reagan had inherited what was at the time the largest budget deficit in California history. He tried initially to cut spending in each department and agency of the state 10 percent across the board; the state legislature said this penalized departments that were already economizing and rewarded those that were not. Reagan had to withdraw the budget and submit a more realistic one. To balance the budget, as required by the state constitution, Reagan proposed massive increases in individual and corporate income taxes and many other taxes as well. The price tag for these tax increases, which passed the legislature with bipartisan support against the opposition of a handful of conservative Republicans, came to a state-record $1 billion.
Beyond fiscal policy, most of Reagan's achievements as governor came in his second term. In 1971, he worked with the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, Bob Moretti, to win passage of the Welfare Reform Act, which tightened eligibility requirements and increased benefits. Welfare rolls declined; the liberal Urban Institute later said this was one of the most successful programs of the Reagan governorship. Reagan also worked with Democrats in the legislature in 1971 and 1972 to obtain property-tax relief, which both he and the Democrats had promised. Some conservatives grumbled, but most Republicans supported their popular governor. By negotiating and compromising with his opponents, Reagan often achieved part of his policy objectives. And because as governor he commended attention from the media to a degree that the Democratic legislators did not, Reagan usually was given most of the political credit.
Reagan also displayed a winning mix of accommodation and stubbornness in dealing with the many problems confronting California's state-supported universities and colleges. In 1967, he urged the Board of Regents of the University of California to institute a tuition charge for in-state students. Traditionally, the university offered free tuition to the upper rung of academically qualified in-state students; in fact, as Reagan and his allies pointed out, the policy had been maintained only by huge increases in student fees. But the regents balked at discarding tradition; after much negotiation they ultimately imposed a small tuition. Reagan took a hard line in dealing with the endemic student unrest that afflicted the state's campuses. While he acknowledged the right of students to protest peacefully, he cracked down on student violence at the University of California and at San Francisco State College on grounds that militant protesters were preventing the majority of students from attending classes. At the request of administrators, Reagan sent in the National Guard to quell violence and keep open University of California campuses at Berkeley in 1969 and Santa Barbara in 1970. Public opinion backed Reagan, but even some of the governor's supporters believed that his rhetoric on this issue was on occasion unnecessarily provocative.
Reagan's most unexpected achievements as governor were in the environmental arena. Environmentalists distrusted him because of his pro-business positions and because he had scoffed at the importance of redwood trees during his campaign, but Reagan appointed a progressive resources director, Norman (Ike) Livermore, at once a lumberman and member of the Sierra Club, who persuaded him to accept creation of a Redwood National Park in northern California. With Livermore's encouragement, Reagan blocked a high dam proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers that would have destroyed one of California's most scenic valleys and subsequently supported and signed into law a bill protecting wild rivers on the state's north coast. He also broke with the administration of President Richard Nixon and blocked a proposed trans-Sierra highway that would have bisected the John Muir Trail.
Reagan for President?
As soon as he became governor, Reagan became a conservative favorite for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. This political goal split Reagan's advisers, some of whom saw the governorship as largely a stepping-stone and others who believed that Reagan should write a strong record in Sacramento before seeking the presidency. Reagan hesitated in the face of this divided counsel; by the time he launched his candidacy, Nixon was well on his way to sewing up the nomination.
After leaving the governor's office at the end of 1974, Reagan stayed in the limelight by writing a column that appeared in 175 newspapers, recording commentaries that aired on more than 200 radio stations, and giving speeches. He dodged the question of his political future to avoid giving the appearance of undermining President Gerald Ford, who had in August 1974 succeeded President Nixon after he resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal. In truth, Reagan, who had given Nixon every benefit of the doubt as the scandal unfolded, gave almost none to Ford, who had enraged conservatives by selecting former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller as vice president. As conservatives saw it, their liberal nemesis was now a heartbeat away from the presidency and would have a head start over Reagan for the nomination if Ford were elected and served out his term. Ford tried, too late, to appease conservatives by dropping Rockefeller from the ticket when he ran for election in 1976. By the time this happened, Reagan had decided to oppose Ford for the Republican presidential nomination. Reagan ran a strong race after an uncertain start but lost narrowly in a contest where most of the party establishment backed the incumbent President. (A more detailed account of the Ford-Reagan contest for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination appears in the Campaigns and Elections section.)
Ronald Reagan was a leading force in national politics for a quarter century. He had an impact because he had deep convictions, star power, and political skills—and also because he arrived on the scene when the winds of change were blowing in the direction of conservatives. That was not apparent to most Americans when Reagan made his national debut in behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964. The New Deal coalition created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 had been the dominant political movement in the United States for three decades, as it would continue to be until the last year of the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency in 1968. But in the 1960s, the coalition was fraying along lines of race and class, and the unraveling accelerated during the Vietnam War. The business community and many rank-and-file Republicans had become increasingly resistant to what they deemed the heavy hand of government. Many white southerners shared this view as the federal government clamped down on the states while enforcing the civil rights laws of the 1960s—in time the racial backlash would spread to the North after urban disorders there.
Meanwhile, within the Republican Party, resurgent conservatives mobilized against what they saw as the "me-too" policies of the GOP's long dominant Eastern leadership. In 1964, Goldwater transformed the party by narrowly defeating Nelson Rockefeller, the champion of the Eastern establishment. Goldwater lost by a landslide to President Lyndon B. Johnson in the general election, but the GOP remained in conservative hands. On its face, the 1964 presidential election was a reaffirmation of the New Deal and LBJ's "Great Society," but Goldwater carried five states in the Deep South and won the overall popular vote in the region in an augury of elections to come. The immediate beneficiary of this political realignment was the malleable Richard Nixon, who won the White House in 1968 against a divided Democratic Party and the independent candidacy of George Wallace at a time the nation was shaken by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Nixon was reelected in 1972, then forced to resign in 1974 because of the Watergate scandal. Vice President Gerald Ford inherited the presidency but was a weakened candidate after he pardoned Nixon in September 1974. It was in this context that Reagan challenged Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976.
Ford entered the race with the endorsement of almost the entire party political establishment—Paul Laxalt of Nevada, a longtime friend of Reagan, was the only U.S. senator to back him against Ford. But Reagan was a hero to conservatives, and he lacked the political baggage of having been part of a Washington establishment that been discredited by the interlocking traumas of Watergate and the Vietnam War. Reagan's strategists believed that if he scored a quick victory in the first primary of New Hampshire, support for Ford would evaporate. But Ford's strategists seized on a speech Reagan had made in September 1975 in which he said the federal government could reduce spending by $90 billion by allowing state governments to assume responsibility for various federal programs. Ford contended that the Reagan plan would give states a choice of bankruptcy or raising taxes. In anti-tax New Hampshire, this was a powerful argument. Thrust on the defensive, Reagan's campaign operatives made several tactical errors, including keeping the candidate out of the state on election day. Reagan lost the primary by a hairsbreadth, and Ford quickly parlayed the advantage this gave him into victories in six other primaries. With the North Carolina primary upcoming, the Reagan campaign was on the ropes.
At this point, Reagan struck back by making an issue of the Panama Canal, which the Ford administration planned to turn over to Panama. He also hit hard at Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whom Reagan charged with being too accommodating to the Soviet Union. To the surprise of the White House and most of the media, Reagan won the North Carolina primary and revived his campaign. He went on to sweep several primaries, including big ones in Texas and California. Ford countered with a "Rose Garden strategy," using the power of the presidency to win over uncommitted delegates, even inviting a number of them to the White House. By mid-July he had the advantage; Reagan tried to forestall the inevitable by naming Pennsylvania Republican senator Richard Schweiker as his prospective running mate in an attempt to win over moderate Republicans who were on the fence. Ford prevailed at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City by the narrow margin. On a secret ballot, Ford's operatives privately acknowledged, Reagan would have been the runaway choice of the convention.
Reagan gave token support to Ford in the fall campaign against Democrat Jimmy Carter; some of Ford's operatives asserted afterward that more robust campaigning by Reagan could have changed the outcome. On the other hand, Reagan's challenge sharpened Ford and made him a better candidate in the general election. Far behind Carter during the summer, Ford made a strong comeback in the fall but fell short. His defeat left Reagan as the heir apparent in the Republican Party.
The Republican Primaries
Although he did not formally declare his candidacy until November 1979, Reagan made it clear to his inner circle from the moment of the 1976 convention that he intended to again seek the presidency. He was the choice of rank-and-file Republican voters in public opinion polls although many establishment GOP politicians thought he was too conservative and perhaps too old to win the White House. Six other Republicans sought the nomination in 1980: Senate minority leader Howard Baker of Tennessee, former Texas governor John Connally, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, Representative Phillip Crane of Illinois, former CIA director George H.W. Bush, and Representative John Anderson of Illinois.
None of these men had Reagan's combination of political stature and communication skills, although Bush, who had represented the United States at the United Nations and in China, and had served in the House and as Republican national chairman, had broader experience. Moreover, conservatives were the dominant force within the Republican Party, and Reagan was their champion. Moderate Republicans worried that Reagan would be too confrontational toward the Soviet Union. Then, at a time when Reagan had virtually been anointed the Republican nominee, Bush upset him in the first primary test, the Iowa caucuses. Reagan's campaigning in Iowa had been lackadaisical, and Bush and others questioned whether Reagan could simultaneously carry out his promises to lower taxes, increase military spending, and balance the federal budget. John Anderson said Reagan could do all this only "with mirrors." Bush derisively called Reagan's fiscal plans "voodoo economics."
Bush's victory in Iowa touched off a power struggle within the Reagan campaign and motivated the candidate. Members of Reagan's old California political team, encouraged by Nancy Reagan, knew that their candidate was at his best when voters saw him in person, where they could hear his often inspiring oratory and sense his personal warmth. Reagan campaigned nearly uninterrupted for twenty-one days in New Hampshire, a display of stamina that quieted concerns about his age. And when he faced off against his rivals in two February debates, Reagan proved a superior candidate.
In an incident that has become legendary in American political history, the moderator of the second debate ordered Reagan's microphone turned off as the candidates and their advisers argued about the debate's format. Reagan, paraphrasing a line from an old Spencer Tracy movie, defiantly responded, "I paid for this microphone." He soared in the polls and routed all his opponents in the primary. With New Hampshire as his springboard, Reagan rolled to the nomination, winning twenty-nine of the thirty-three primaries in which he and Bush competed. (Bush won the other four plus a primary that Reagan did not enter.) At the Republican national convention in Detroit, Michigan, Reagan then reached out to the moderate wing of the party by choosing Bush as his vice presidential running mate.
The 1980 Presidential Campaign
Carter and Reagan were not alone in the 1980 presidential campaign. Representative John Anderson, a moderate Republican from Illinois who had run in his party's primaries, saw Reagan as too conservative and launched an independent campaign for the presidency. Anderson's platform was liberal compared to Reagan's—and in some respects even to Carter's. He posed a potential problem to both the Carter and Reagan campaigns. Carter's strategists worried that he would win the votes of disaffected Democrats, especially in populous Northeastern states. Reagan's strategists worried that he would lure enough Republican moderates and independents to make things close in Republican-leaning states.
Reagan left the Republican National Convention in mid-July 1980 with a commanding lead over Carter in the polls. The race tightened considerably, however, over the ensuing months, in part because Democrats closed ranks after Carter was renominated in mid-August at the Democratic Convention in New York. Reagan's early stumbles also aided the Carter comeback.
A month before he formally opened his general election campaign, Reagan gave a speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, not far from where three civil rights workers were brutally murdered in 1964. Pollster-strategist Richard Wirthlin, whose surveys showed Reagan strong in the South but needing the votes of moderates in the North, urged Reagan not to attend this event, but Reagan said he had accepted the invitation and would not back out. In his speech in Neshoba, Reagan reaffirmed his support for state's rights, the doctrine that had been widely invoked in the region in support of segregation. The Mississippi incident was followed by other missteps: Reagan appeared before a jeering crowd of hecklers in the Bronx; he proclaimed the Vietnam War "a noble cause;" he suggested that both creationism and Darwinism should be taught in schools; he wrongly linked President Carter to the Ku Klux Klan. After Reagan expressed his support for Taiwan, his campaign team sent George Bush to China to reassure Chinese leaders that a Reagan presidency would not bring a wholesale reevaluation of Sino-American relations.
The cumulative effect of these incidents raised questions about Reagan's competency and threatened to derail his strategy of making Carter's record the focus of the campaign. It also played into Carter's strategy of portraying Reagan as an "extremist" who would divide America along racial, religious, and regional lines. But Carter overplayed his hand, denouncing Reagan in such strident terms that even some Democrats were put off by his attack. Meanwhile, the Reagan campaign rebounded. With Nancy Reagan playing a key role, Reagan brought in Stuart K. Spencer, a political consultant who had been instrumental in his first political victory when he ran for governor of California. Spencer was a calming presence for Reagan, and he helped keep the campaign focused on Carter's record. Even so, by mid-October, Carter had closed the considerable gap between him and his challenger. Reagan clung to a small lead in most polls, but his lead was within the margin of error.
Reagan and Carter had serious policy differences. Reagan urged a more muscular stance towards the Soviet Union and promised a major rearmament effort; he also made clear his opposition to SALT II, an arms treaty with Moscow that Carter had signed and that was currently pending before the Senate. Carter promised to prosecute the Cold War vigorously; indeed during the last year of his term, he had increased defense spending and strongly warned the Soviets, via the "Carter Doctrine," not to make advances in the Middle East. But he also emphasized that he was a moderate in foreign policy, contending that with Reagan in the Oval Office, the nation was more likely to become involved in a war.
The two candidates also differed on domestic issues. Carter promised strong support for environmental regulations and assured voters he would protect abortion rights. He claimed the economy was rebounding, pointing to a recent growth in housing starts and business loans. Reagan contended that environmental regulations were hurting the economy and made clear his opposition to abortion, although he did not dwell on the issue. Reagan promised to cut taxes, shrink the size of the federal government, and balance the federal budget. He said the nation was in recession. When told by his advisers that this was not technically true, Reagan stuck to his guns. He then formulated what became a surefire applause line of his campaign: "Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his"
Beyond their differences on issues, Reagan had two clear advantages over Carter. The first is that he was a Washington outsider, as Carter had been in 1976. In the eyes of many Americans, Carter had promised much but delivered little and was to blame for the economic calamities that had befallen the nation. Reagan also had an optimistic temperament. Carter, in contrast, was defensive and stopped holding White House press conferences because of the critical nature of the questions.
The temperamental contrast between the two men was at the center of what may have been the campaign's decisive moment: the Reagan-Carter debate of October 28, a week before the election. Both candidates held their own on substantive issues—indeed, many observers thought Carter was the better of the two, but Reagan was more relaxed and confident. When Carter accurately pointed out Reagan's record of opposition to the Medicare program in the hopes of portraying his opponent an extremist, Reagan ignored the charge and softly replied, "There you go again," a line he had rehearsed in debate practice. He wound up the debate with an effective iteration of his basic campaign theme asking Americans to make their decision on the basis of the Carter administration's record: "Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?" For voters who answered "no" to these questions, Reagan was the clear alternative.
Reagan widened his lead in the polls in the week after the debate. The Reagan team had earlier worried that Carter might pull off an "October surprise" by winning freedom of the Americans held hostage in Iran, but after the debate they doubted that even this would rescue the President. On election day, Reagan overwhelmed Carter, winning 51 percent of the vote to Carter's 41 percent. Anderson had less than 7 percent of the vote but siphoned support from Carter in states such as New York and Massachusetts, enabling Reagan to carry these states and win an electoral landslide. Reagan won 489 electoral votes to Carter's 49.
Carter's showing was the worst for any incumbent President who sought reelection since Herbert Hoover in 1932. This was largely because the frustrations with Carter outweighed the reservations about Reagan among undecided voters, who broke heavily against the President. Reagan did well among Catholic voters and made inroads among working-class Democrats and union families. He also did well in the South, which was Carter's base. And the country as a whole was in the mood for change. The Republicans picked up fifty-three seats in the House of Representatives and twelve in the Senate, giving them a majority for the first time in the Senate since 1954. Some of the Republican gains were seen by Reagan's team as a sign that he had long coattails.
The Campaign and Election of 1984
Republicans enthusiastically renominated Reagan and Bush in 1984. The President's popularity had risen dramatically since its nadir in late 1982, largely because the economic boom that had begun in 1983 picked up steam the following year. Lower inflation, reduced tax rates, less joblessness, and a robust gross national product provided Reagan and his supporters with a litany of accomplishments. In foreign affairs, a massive defense build-up and the President's muscular rhetoric led many Americans to conclude that Reagan was protecting the nation's interests and its international stature. The sum of these accomplishments was a restored public confidence and national pride epitomized by the chants of "USA, USA" that began at the Olympic summer games in Los Angeles and were often heard at Reagan rallies in the fall. The mood was captured by the Reagan campaign theme, expressed radiantly in feel-good television commercials: Morning Again in America.
The frontrunner for the Democratic nomination was Minnesotan Walter Mondale, who served as vice president under Jimmy Carter. Mondale fought back determined challenges in the primaries from Senator Gary Hart of Colorado and civil rights activist Reverend Jessie Jackson to secure the nomination, which he received on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, California. Mondale defied convention—and the advice of some of his strategists—by proclaiming in his acceptance speech that he would raise taxes and predicting that Reagan would also raise them if reelected. He also injected a note of excitement into the campaign by picking a woman, New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, as his running mate.
Reagan's reelection campaign was in some respects the inverse of his 1980 campaign, when he asked voters if they were better off than they had been four years earlier. The polls in 1984 showed that a large majority of Americans were now answering this question affirmatively. Reagan's strategists ignored Mondale for much of the campaign. They expected—and wanted—the election to be a referendum on the Reagan presidency.
Mondale's strategy was to acknowledge Reagan's popularity but question his policies. The Democratic contender declared that Reagan's tax cuts benefited the rich. He claimed that the President endorsed a conservative social agenda—opposing abortion rights and favoring prayer in schools—that was out of touch with the American mainstream. Mondale warned that Republican fiscal policies had created huge budget deficits that endangered the nation's long-term economic health; in a tactic that showed more honesty than political good sense, he reiterated his acceptance promise that he would raise taxes to balance the federal budget. Finally, Mondale repeatedly suggested that Reagan was too old for the presidency.
Throughout most of the summer and into the early fall, Reagan held a double-digit lead in the polls. His campaign, though, was largely on automatic pilot. The President's political advisers kept his schedule light and the candidate away from the news media. But Reagan's campaign team could not protect Reagan from himself. The President was ill prepared for his first televised debate with Mondale in October. He stumbled over lines and responded ineffectively to Mondale's charges that he favored reduction of Social Security and Medicare benefits. Reagan's poor performance had done what the Democrats had been unable to do: raise the issue of whether he was too old to be President. Reagan's political team set about rebuilding their 73-year-old candidate's confidence, streamlining his preparation—at the urging of Nancy Reagan—for a second debate with Mondale. In Kansas City, a rested and revitalized President took the stage. The night's highpoint occurred when Reagan fielded a question about his age, remarking—in deadpan fashion—that "I will not make age an issue of this campaign . . . I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Mondale laughed uncomfortably, realizing that Reagan had disposed of the age issue with a one-liner. Reagan had gone up in the polls after his "there-you-go-again" debate with Carter four years earlier. In 1984, a campaign in which he led from beginning to end, Reagan's numbers soared even higher after the second debate with Mondale. In the aftermath of the debate, Reagan's lead shot up to 17 percentage points; throughout the remainder of the campaign, it would never dip below 15 percentage points.
The Reagan-Bush ticket won an overwhelming victory on election day, carrying every state but Mondale's Minnesota and the District of Columbia, and defeating Mondale in the Electoral College by 525 to 13. Reagan's popular vote total was even more impressive—54 million votes to Mondale's 37 million—a margin exceeded only by Nixon's win over George McGovern in 1972.
Reagan's victory was a testament to the President's personal popularity but also arguably a ratification of public support for his economic program, especially tax cuts. Reagan won a majority of independents and more than a fifth of the Democratic vote. He ran more strongly among the youngest cohort of voters than any Republican in the twentieth century. Traditional Republican support among white Protestants, small-town and rural Americans, college graduates, upper-class Americans, and white-collar managers and professionals remained exceedingly strong. Catholics who had supported Reagan in 1980 voted for him again in 1984, as did a large number of skilled and unskilled workers, high school graduates, and persons of moderate incomes.
But Reagan's reelection was more a personal triumph than a partisan endorsement. He had run a campaign with few issues that gave few clues as to his direction in a second term. And his coattails were short, as Democrats kept control of the House of Representatives. Republicans clung to control of the Senate in 1984, but the midterm elections of 1986 would put Democrats back in the majority.
Reagan came to the presidency in 1981 with a straightforward and well-articulated domestic agenda. He promised to cut taxes, curb government spending, and balance the federal budget or at least reduce the deficit. His well-crafted Inaugural Address identified the major themes the new President hoped would define his administration. After noting the severity of the nation's economic crisis, Reagan declared that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." He took pains to reassure Americans that he did not want to "do away with government." Rather, he sought "to make it work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back." Reagan also promised to restore public confidence. Solving the nation's problems required "our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds . . . And, after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans."
As a conservative, Reagan was committed to reducing the size and mission of government. But as a practical politician, he recognized the importance of reaching out to the Democrats, who controlled the House by a wide margin. His task was made easier because President Carter had been alienated from the Washington establishment. In the interval between the election and his assumption of office, Reagan met with House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill and important Washington figures such as Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post. (Mrs. Graham and First Lady Nancy Reagan soon became friends.) By the time he took the oath of office, Reagan had laid the basis for a successful start to his presidency.
Organizing the Reagan Administration
Reagan had been thinking about prospective cabinet appointments weeks before he was elected. Four of his decisions were easy: his old friend and onetime Hollywood attorney William French Smith wanted to the key post of attorney general, and Reagan gave it to him. He also felt a sense of obligation to Richard Schweiker, whom Reagan has tapped as his prospective running mate in 1976 and who had backed Reagan ever after, and to Drew Lewis and Raymond Donovan, key players in his 1980 campaign. Schweiker was named to head the Department of Health and Human Services; Donovan and Lewis were appointed secretaries of Labor and Transportation, respectively. Reagan's most difficult choice was at the State Department. His old ally Caspar W. Weinberger, who as state finance director had rescued the Reagan governorship, wanted the job. Some members of Reagan's transition advisory committee preferred George Shultz. After an inconclusive telephone conversation with Shultz, Reagan instead chose Alexander Haig, who had been recommended by former President Richard M. Nixon, whom Haig had served as chief of staff in the final troubled days of Nixon's presidency. Weinberger was given an important consolation prize as secretary of Defense, in which he would become influential.
Other appointees, however, were less familiar to Reagan. The transition team suggested and Reagan approved the selection of Donald Regan, a Wall Street banker, as secretary of the Treasury, and Samuel Pierce, an African American lawyer, as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Reagan accepted Vice President George Bush's recommendation of Malcolm Baldrige for Commerce secretary, Senator Bob Dole's suggestion of John Block as secretary of Agriculture, and Senator Paul Laxalt's choice of James Watt as secretary of the Interior.
Reagan gave an important signal of his practical nature—and his inability to hold grudges—in choosing James A. Baker III as his White House chief of staff. Baker had been a key member of President Ford's political team in 1976 when it beat back the Reagan challenge; he had managed George H.W. Bush's campaign against Reagan in 1980. Baker's rival for the post was Edwin Meese III, who had served Reagan since his governorship. But Reagan shared the apprehension of his closest aide Michael Deaver and his political consultant Stuart K. Spencer that Meese lacked the organizational skills needed for the job: he instead gave Meese the post of White House counsellor and designated Deaver as Baker's assistant. One of Deaver's main jobs was maintaining daily liaison with Nancy Reagan. Baker, Deaver, and Meese, sometimes called the Trio, proved a talented team. They were well suited to Reagan, who preferred to delegate much of the day-to-day issues to his staff and focus on selling his economic program to the American people and Congress. While he was sometimes criticized for being uninformed, Reagan had a grasp of the issues most important to them and, as his pollster Richard Wirthlin noted, a sure sense of the sentiments of his fellow Americans. He was also willing to make decisions.
Reagan's First Months: Triumphs and Near Tragedy
Reagan and his advisers, particularly Baker, made the economy their first priority from the outset. They were helped in this when Iran released the Americans held hostage in Tehran as Reagan was taking the oath of office. Had they not done so, Meese later observed, Reagan would necessarily have been preoccupied with this issue in his early weeks in office. Instead, Reagan and his team were free to concentrate on getting their economic plan through the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. To win in the House, they needed every Republican vote and the defection of conservative, mostly southern Democrats—organized in a caucus called "The Boll Weevils" —who found it politically difficult to oppose the new President because Reagan had carried their districts by large margins.
Reagan's economic program had two major components: tax reductions and budget cuts, which took center stage, and monetary policy, which was as important but held a lower profile. Within weeks of becoming President, Reagan asked Congress to cut marginal tax rates over the next three years by 30 percent and to trim the budget for the coming year by $41 billion. He and his team confidently predicted that these actions would stimulate economic productivity.
But the budget cuts, while receiving huge media attention, were from the start peripheral as they targeted only a small percentage of federal spending, mainly Great Society-era programs designed to widen the nation's social welfare net. Reagan was simultaneously proposing massive increases in defense spending. He also followed the advice of David Stockman, his director of the Office of Management and Budget, to avoid reforming entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare that were the largest components of the budget. The budgets of these politically entrenched programs were determined by complex formulas written into the laws creating them. Trying to cutback these programs presented an enormous political challenge, as Reagan learned when the Senate unanimously rebuffed an early attempt to change the Social Security rules. In truth, Reagan had little interest in overturning such popular programs. As he made clear in his diaries, released nearly two decades after his presidency, Reagan's aim was to whittle away at Lyndon Johnson's Great Society while leaving Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal largely intact.
Reagan's tax and budget proposals were nonetheless controversial. Cutting programs designed to help the poor, liberals argued, placed those Americans at even greater risk. Critics from across the political spectrum warned that the combination of large tax cuts, minimal budget cuts, and increased defense spending was a recipe for an unbalanced federal budget and a larger national debt. Reagan's advisers, believers in supply-side economics, responded that the economic recovery engendered by Reagan's tax and budget cuts would expand the tax base and eventually achieve a balanced budget. But this outcome assumed that Congress would make the spending cuts that Reagan had proposed. Instead, Congress enacted most of the tax cuts but made a "Christmas tree" out of the budget bill. It came as a surprise to Reagan that Republican members of Congress loaded up the budget bill with pet spending projects as readily as Democrats did. The budget would have been out of balance even if the cuts proposed by Reagan had been enacted. As it turned out, the combination of lost tax revenues and higher spending sent the deficit ballooning.
Monetary policies, a key to the nation's economic health, had a lower profile early in the Reagan years. They were the domains of the Federal Reserve, which could act without presidential or congressional approval. Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, a Carter appointee who quickly won Reagan's confidence, aimed to bring inflation under control by tightening the nation's money supply. The result was higher interest rates for borrowing money, which squeezed small businesses and middle-class Americans. Volcker believed that this painful, economic medicine was necessary to break the back of inflation.
As Congress debated Reagan's tax and budget proposals—their passage still in doubt—tragedy nearly struck. After a speech at a Washington, D.C., hotel on March 30, John Hinckley Jr., a loner afflicted with mental problems, fired several shots at the President, one of which hit Reagan in the chest. At first, Reagan did not realize he had been shot and thought his ribs had been broken when he was hurled into the presidential limousine. (Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, was permanently injured with a bullet to the brain; a Secret Service agent and District police officer were also wounded.) Secret Service agents diverted the presidential limousine that was en route to the White House to a hospital, a move that probably saved Reagan's life. Reagan, gasping for breath but ever the trouper, walked into the hospital, then collapsed. Later he won the plaudits of the nation when his jokes on the operating table were relayed to the public, including a quip to an anxious Nancy Reagan, "Honey, I forgot to duck." On the operating table Reagan told the doctors he hoped they were all Republicans. The doctors appreciated Reagan's humor, but they were not laughing. The bullet had missed Reagan's heart by less than an inch.
Americans responded to Reagan's gallantry with an outpouring of support that helped the White House and its congressional supporters rally support for passage of the administration's tax and budget cuts. Of course, Reagan's program did not pass merely out of sympathy. Polls showed that the tax cuts were popular with voters, and the White House team, led by Baker, moved deftly to maximize its political advantage. Reagan provided an added incentive for the Boll Weevil Democrats in the House by promising not to campaign in the mid-term 1982 election against any Democrat who voted for both his tax and budget bills. After compromises that slightly lessened the tax cuts and restored some of the proposed budget cuts, Congress quickly passed both bills. The heart of Reagan's economic program was now in place. He had obtained a 25-percent reduction in taxes over three years. Supposedly, Congress had also made $38 billion in budget cuts but these were more than offset by other spending increases stemming from the administration's military spending and congressional pork-barrel projects.
Along with passage of his economic program, Reagan won an important victory in his first year when he challenged the nearly 12,000-member Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). The controllers had called an illegal strike, threatening to bring the nation's air traffic to a standstill. Even though PATCO had been one of the few labor unions to support him for President in 1980, Reagan fired the strikers when they defied a back-to-work order. This left traffic control of the nation's skies in the hands of managerial staff, a few loyal controllers, and new hires. Some critics predicted a rash of dire accidents, but this did not happen and Reagan emerged from the controversy with the reputation of a strong leader who was able to make tough decisions. Firing the PATCO strikers also sent a clear message to corporate America, which was encouraged to bargain more firmly with organized labor and hold down wages that had skyrocketed in the inflationary decade of the 1970s.
The Reagan Recession
Reagan won the early victories that he and his advisers desired, but the momentum they generated proved difficult to sustain. The weakness of the economy was the principal reason. Even before Reagan's economic program was signed into law, the Federal Reserve had identified the loose monetary policies that had led to what economists called "The Great Inflation" of the 1970s as Public Enemy No. 1. When the Fed under Paul Volcker tightened interest rates to curb inflation, the economy plunged into recession and Reagan's popularity dipped with it. He reached a low-point—below what he would experience during the Iran-Contra scandal—in January 1983 when a Gallup survey gave Reagan an approval rating of 35 percent. Given the monetary circumstances Reagan inherited, it is unlikely that a recession could have been avoided. But the Reagan tax bill worsened the deficit. Reagan's prediction that the tax cuts would increase revenues missed the mark, at least during the 1981-1982 recession. The 1982 budget deficit was $113 billion—more than $30 billion more than when Carter left office. Unemployment rose to 11 percent, and Reagan was often picketed when he campaigned for Republican candidates in the 1982 midterm elections.
Leading Republicans, including Senate leader Howard Baker, urged Reagan to break with the Federal Reserve, but he refused to do so, believing that tight interest rates would eventually work. "Stay the course," Reagan proclaimed over and over again. Over time, despite the human costs of the recession, the Fed's policies did work. Tight money and reduced inflation laid the basis for a boom that began in 1983 and was still going when Reagan left the White House in 1989. Once the economy turned upwards, Reagan chided his critics, saying "They don't call it Reaganomics anymore." One reason for this was that Reagan himself no longer indulged the more extreme claims of supply-side economics. The President stopped talking about balancing the budget and in 1982 supported the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA), a measure presented as a tax reform bill that was also a tax increase. Congress passed TEFRA, and Reagan signed it into law. In 1984, he supported another tax increase, again packaged as reform.
On another fiscal front, after failing in an aborted attempt to reduce some Social Security benefits, Reagan teamed with House Speaker Tip O'Neill to bring spiraling Social Security costs under control. Reagan appointed a commission, headed by Alan Greenspan, on which O'Neill and Senate leader Baker also had appointees, that came up with a monumental compromise that slightly raised the retirement age, boosted payroll taxes, and taxed the benefits of high-end recipients for the first time. Reagan signed the bill into law in the White House Rose Garden on April 20, 1983, at a ceremony attended by O'Neill, who said, "This is a happy day for America." This compromise preserved the solvency of the Social Security system for a generation.
Reagan's problems in 1982 and 1983 were not limited to the economy. Secretary of the Interior James Watt rankled environmentalists who found his opposition to federal environmental protections unacceptable. Watt declared that "We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber" and proposed to reduce federal funding for urban parks, lease federal lands off the California coast for oil and gas exploration, sell federal land to pay off the deficit, and give states the right to regulate environmentally hazardous strip-mining. Environmental groups opposed Watt's proposals, almost all of which died on the vine or were blocked by Congress. After making comments that even Reagan loyalists found offensive to ethnic groups and handicapped persons, Watt resigned under pressure in October 1983.
The administration also angered civil rights organizations on a number of fronts. Reagan made ill-considered remarks about Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1982 as Congress debated making King's birthday a national holiday. The same year the Reagan administration supported a lawsuit brought by Bob Jones University of South Carolina against the Internal Revenue Service over its long-standing policy of denying tax breaks to segregated schools. The policy originated in 1970 in an effort to combat the development of segregated private schools, which had become popular among whites in the wake of public school desegregation in the South. The IRS policy, though, also affected religious schools such as Bob Jones University, which enrolled a few minority students but forbade interracial dating and marriage.
Counsellor to the President Ed Meese and Attorney General William French Smith persuaded Reagan to order the Justice Department to withdraw its support for the IRS policy, but failed to calculate the political consequences. Many Americans—black and white—protested the administration's actions; even some of Reagan's political aides disagreed with the policy change. Reagan backtracked and supported legislation to maintain existing policies. While this legislation languished in Congress, the Supreme Court ruled against Bob Jones University and in favor of the IRS.
In both the James Watt and Bob Jones controversies, Reagan demonstrated a practicality that blunted liberal opposition to his environmental and civil rights policies but also raised questions on the right. Some social conservatives were dismayed by Reagan's retreat on Bob Jones. On economic issues, the more extreme supply-siders became disillusioned with Reagan for his embrace of tax increases after the initial tax cuts and for his refusal to cut Social Security or other entitlement programs. But in following a middle course, Reagan had the approval of a majority of Americans, as demonstrated by his rising approval ratings after the recession ended.
The Reagan Boom
Reagan's confidence in the innate strength of the U.S. economy was validated in 1983 with the beginning of an almost unprecedented economic boom. The gross national product increased by 3.6 percent in 1983 and by 6.8 percent in 1984; by comparison, the GNP had shrunk in 1982 by 2.5 percent. Unemployment sank from 9.5 percent in 1983 to 7.4 percent in 1984. Inflation, tamed by the end of 1981, remained under control through 1984, helping to generate lower interest rates. The stock market boomed in the early 1980s, with the Dow Jones industrial average rising nearly 33 percent in Reagan's first term.
What explains this turn-around in the American economy? There are conflicting views. Reagan's supporters point to the 1981 tax cuts. Other Reagan admirers trace the economic boom to the administration's 1982 tax increases to counter the growing budget deficits. The Federal Reserve, blamed by some for the recession because of its tight-money policy, was praised by others for deciding in 1982 to relax its controls over the money supply. On the margins, Reagan's massive defense spending added to the economic boom, which was also propelled by larger macroeconomic trends in business, industry, technology, and the workforce.
The Reagan boom raised more people out of poverty than any similar boom since World War II, but the economic revival of the mid-1980s did not touch all Americans equally. One study revealed that while annual income for American families grew by 3.5 percent during Reagan's first term, middle-class families saw only a 1-percent gain, compared to affluent Americans (those in the top quintile of the income bracket) who saw their incomes rise by 9 percent. In contrast, American families with incomes in the bottom quintile saw their average incomes decline by 8 percent; black families and households headed by women were particularly hard hit by declining incomes. Finally, child poverty increased to levels exceeding those of the mid-1960s.
While the economy expanded, so did the federal government's budget deficits and the national debt. Despite Reagan's tax increases in 1982 and 1984 (and eventually 1986) and the limited cuts in spending, Reagan never sent Congress a balanced budget, even if Congress had approved it exactly as it came from the budget office. In fact, Congress added many pet spending programs that made the deficit worse. Between 1983 and 1989, the budget deficit was always at least $153 billion; in 1986, the federal budget deficit climbed to more than $221 billion. Likewise, the national debt increased during the Reagan years from $914 billion to $2.6 trillion; the annual service (interest) paid on the debt by the government more than doubled—from $71 billion to $150 billion—while Reagan was in office. Subsequently, however, when the budget was balanced in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, conservatives made the point that the deficits of the Reagan years were "wartime deficits" caused largely by the sharp increase in the defense budget. The United States has always run deficits during wartime and the Cold War, although not usually a shooting war, was expensive. In this view, the deficits accomplished something far more important than adding to the nation's debt, contributing to the end the Cold War and eventually the disappearance of the Soviet Union.
Reagan's Second Term
Reagan's impressive victory in the 1984 presidential election was followed by White House staff changes that had important consequences during the second term of his administration. The triumvirate of Counsellor Ed Meese, Chief of Staff James Baker, and Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, integral to the administration's first-term success, left the White House. This trio understood Reagan's strengths and weaknesses and also—Baker in particular—understood the political currents on Capitol Hill. But Baker was burned out from the rigors of his job and from the in-fighting with administration conservatives, to whom Meese was a hero. After Reagan's 1985 inauguration, Attorney General William French Smith resigned and returned to California; he was replaced by Meese. Shortly thereafter, Deaver departed for the private sector. In the most important change, Baker swapped jobs with Treasury Secretary Don Regan, in a move they had worked out together that the President almost casually approved. Reagan afterward regretted this switch but believed at the time that the alternative was to lose both men to private careers. In addition to wanting to escape the stresses of the White House, Baker hoped the experience of Treasury would help his political career. Regan, for his part, had become bored with Treasury and longed for a more powerful role at the center of government.
These staff and cabinet changes on balance proved detrimental. While Baker performed well at Treasury, Meese had a mixed record as attorney general and was often engulfed in controversies. Regan floundered in his new position—Nancy Reagan would say later that he "liked the sound of 'chief" but not of 'staff'"—and lacked his predecessor's political skills. Regan saw himself as a chief executive and the President as chairman of the board and took it upon himself to make decisions that Baker and Deaver would not have made without consulting the President. Regan failed to engage Reagan on several crucial matters, adding to the President's detachment from day-to-day decision-making.
During Reagan's second term, the economic boom that had begun in 1983 expanded vigorously. The Gross National Product grew annually between 1985 and 1989 by at least 2.7 percent; in 1988, that growth reached 4.5 percent. Unemployment, meanwhile, fell from 7.1 percent in 1985 to 5.2 percent in 1989. Inflation stabilized, and interest rates remained low as well. The stock market reached new heights. Even a corrective crash in 1987—in which the market plummeted 500 points in a single day—amounted only to a minor setback. As a consequence of the boom, real estate, high-tech, financial, and retail industries grew rapidly. Growth was also encouraged by Reagan's tax policy; the marginal tax rate that was 70 percent when he took office had been reduced to 28 percent by the time he left.
The economic outlook was not completely rosy, however. When John F. Kennedy was President, he had supported tax cuts on the theory that "a rising tide lifts all boats." The validity—and limitation—of this belief was demonstrated in Reagan's second term, when millions of poor people, many of them Latino or African American, saw their incomes rise above the poverty line. At the same time, however, wealthiest Americans and corporations benefited most from the economic expansion, and the gap widened between the richest Americans and the middle class. The federal budget deficit also continued to balloon. Between 1985 and 1989, the federal government never ran a budget deficit smaller than $149 billion; in 1986, the deficit was more than $220 billion. When Reagan left office in 1989, the national debt totaled $2.6 trillion, nearly three times larger than when he began his tenure in 1981.
Increased government spending contributed to the increase of the deficits and the mounting national debt. After failing to win significant spending cuts from the Democratic-controlled Houses in his first term, Reagan largely abandoned the effort in his second. So domestic spending continued to grow, while the lower tax rates failed to provide enough revenue to compensate. The defense buildup also contributed to the deficits. The cost of financing the debt absorbed funds that the government might have used to modernize the nation's infrastructure, especially its transportation system. The ballooning national debt made the American government and economy more dependent on foreign investment. Foreign imports helped American consumers by lowering the cost of goods and keeping inflation down; the other side of this coin was a massive trade imbalance.
The 1986 Tax Law
The Reagan administration's most celebrated domestic achievement during its second term was the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Faced with ever-larger budget deficits and a growing national debt, the administration had raised taxes in 1982 and 1984 and won legislation in 1983 that restored financial solvency to the Social Security program. The federal budget still was not balanced, however, and Reagan's advisers contemplated other measures to increase revenues. In 1984, the Treasury Department began pulling together a proposal that would lower corporate and individual tax rates but broaden the federal government's tax base—and enlarge its revenues despite rate reductions—by closing loopholes that allowed individuals and corporations to avoid taxes and eliminating deductions that the government considered tax shelters.
This plan emerged as the essence of Reagan's tax reform proposal, which he made public in May 1985 by calling for "fairness, growth, and simplicity" in the tax code. Unsurprisingly, individuals and corporations facing the loss of their loopholes—many of them Republican allies of the President—complained loudly about the initiative. But several factors favored its passage. First, Reagan's political advisers believed that tax reform could serve as the second term's domestic policy centerpiece. Second, the Baker-Regan job switch actually sped reform along. Regan, the originator of the plan, was now in the White House where he made sure the President stayed focused and supportive of tax reform. At the same time, Baker, from his perch at Treasury, used his political skills to sell the program to Congress. Finally, the tax reform proposal won public support, largely because dissatisfaction with inequities in the tax code had grown considerably since Reagan had come into office.
Reagan toured the country throughout 1985 and 1986 to build support for tax reform, which he touted as tax justice. Because of its complexity, the legislation moved slowly through Congress. But Capitol Hill's tax policy experts—Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR) and Representative Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL)—supported and helped shape the Reagan proposals. The President signed the Tax Reform Act in October 1986. Because the highest tax cuts were in the top bracket, some critics of the law saw it as weakening the concept of progressive taxation in which the wealthiest bear the heaviest burden. While the Tax Reform Act did introduce more equity by closing some loopholes in the tax code, savvy lawyers and tax experts soon found others. The impacts of the law did not fall equally on all industries: real estate investment, for instance, was subject to heavier taxation, which in turn contributed to the problems of the savings-and-loan industry. Nor did the tax bill produce sufficient new revenue to make much of a dent in the federal budget deficit.
Reagan's Mixed Record on Deregulation
Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 promising to curb the growth of government regulations, especially those that affected private industry and businesses. He believed that a web of regulation was strangling private enterprise in the United States and harming the nation's economy. Reagan was not the only politician to address the explosion of federal regulation and the public discontent it produced. In the late 1970s, liberals and conservatives in Congress worked with President Jimmy Carter to deregulate the airline, trucking, railroad, and financial industries, mainly by eliminating government regulations that restricted competition.
Despite Reagan's anti-regulatory rhetoric, the administration's success in eliminating and simplifying regulations was mixed. His success varied from agency to agency; in some of them, Reagan appointees managed to slow the promulgation of new regulations, while in others the bureaucracy held sway. One issue on which Reagan's action matched his rhetoric was the end of price controls on oil, which he ordered upon entering office. Prices fell immediately. Reagan also ordered the relaxation of regulations guiding corporate mergers, setting off a flurry of both hostile and friendly takeovers.
These actions had public support. But Reagan's decision to reverse regulations designed to limit air pollution, to protect the public from carcinogens and hazardous waste, and to oversee nuclear power plants generated a political backlash. Labor unions, consumer advocacy groups, and concerned citizens—with congressional support—launched counter-attacks in the courts that forced the administration to retreat from many of its deregulatory efforts. As a result, most of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter-era regulations designed to protect the environment and American workers remain in place.
Reagan and the AIDS Epidemic
In the mid-1980s, a new public health epidemic—Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)—struck the United States. AIDS was a virus, transmitted through sexual contact, intravenous drug use, and blood transfusions that destroyed the human body's immune system and left its victims defenseless against other diseases or viruses. Its main victims in the mid-1980s were drug users and gay men. Medical doctors had no cure for AIDS, which at the time was a virtual death sentence. By 1985, nearly 4,000 persons had died because of the virus; four years later, the Center for Disease Control reported more than 46,000 AIDS deaths and estimated that nearly 800,000 Americans were infected.
The initial public reaction to the epidemic was marked by fear and ignorance. People knew so little about the disease—one widespread misconception held that AIDS could be transmitted via contact with toilet seats—that victims were apt to be shunned rather than treated with compassion. Societal prejudices against homosexuals also colored the reaction to the epidemic. AIDS became known as a "gay disease," which led many Americans to conclude it afflicted a minority of the population. A smaller number of Americans who equated homosexuality with deviancy saw AIDS as a form of divine or natural retribution. This view was expressed in 1983 by columnist Patrick J. Buchanan: "The poor homosexuals. They have declared war on nature and now nature is exacting an awful retribution."
President Reagan did not recognize the magnitude of the AIDS crisis; he thought of the disease, as his White House physician put it, "as if it were measles and would go away." Reagan's attitude began to change on July 24, 1985, when he telephoned his friend, the actor Rock Hudson, in a Paris hospital to offer him his condolences. Reagan had been told that Hudson had inoperable cancer; later that day, as he noted in his diary, he learned from a television report that Hudson had AIDS. The Reagans invited Hudson to a White House dinner in August; he came but died less than two months later. In September 1985, Reagan called fighting AIDS one of the administration's "top priorities." On February 5, 1986, he paid a surprise visit to the Health and Human Services department (HHS) to speak out against AIDS, calling it "one of our highest public-health priorities," and ordered his Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Koop, to prepare a report that focused on prevention. In October 1986, Koop issued his report, which starkly outlined the gravity of the epidemic and three steps for prevention: abstinence, monogamy, and condoms.
The Reagan administration found it difficult to speak with one voice on AIDS. Social and religious conservatives within the administration and outside it objected to Koop's explicit endorsement of condoms and what they saw as his implicit acceptance of pre-marital sex. But Reagan's HHS secretary, Margaret Heckler, was in the forefront of those who sought aggressive government action. As early as 1983, she called AIDS her "number one priority" and with Reagan's backing won congressional authority to transfer funds within HHS from other programs to use on AIDS research. Spending for AIDS became a contentious priority during the rest of Reagan's presidency; by 1989, the federal government was spending $2.3 billion a year on research and AIDS prevention.
While Reagan spent more on AIDS and spoke out against the disease earlier than his critics generally acknowledge, he is still faulted for not using the full power of the presidential "bully pulpit" to rouse the nation about the dangers and causes of the disease. At the urging of Nancy Reagan, he did so on May 31, 1987, saying, "There's no reason for those who carry the AIDS virus to wear a scarlet A." Reagan's critics on the left said that the speech was too little, too late. Some social conservatives criticized Reagan for giving the speech at all.
In his last debate with President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan asked the American public: "Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that . . . we're as strong as we were four years ago?" Throughout the campaign, Reagan made clear his belief that America's international prestige and power had declined precipitously over, not just the last four years, but the entire preceding decade.
Reagan particularly wanted to redefine national policy toward the Soviet Union. Along with most other national leaders, he had supported the fundamental policy of containing the Soviet Union that President Harry Truman adopted in 1947 and was subsequently followed by all Presidents of both parties. But Reagan believed that the Soviets had taken advantage of détente, as practiced by Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter. As an example, Reagan contended that the SALT II nuclear treaty, negotiated by Carter but never ratified by the Senate, imposed greater limits on the United States than on the Soviet Union. At the same time, Reagan was convinced that the Soviets were weaker economically than the intelligence community believed. As early as June 18, 1980, Reagan told reporters and editors at The Washington Post, that "it would be of great benefit to the United States if we started a buildup" because the Soviets would be unable to compete and would come to the bargaining table.
In the decades before his presidency, Reagan had read and thought deeply about American foreign policy and brought with him to the White House a number of strong convictions. He regarded Communism as an immoral and destructive ideology and believed that the Soviet Union was bent on world domination. In a famous speech on March 8, 1983, the one in which he referred to the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," he also called the Soviets "the focus of evil in the modern world."
At the same time, Reagan was deeply worried about the accepted national policy that had prevailed since the Soviets acquired atomic weapons of "mutual assured destruction." This assumed that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States would ever attack each other out of mutual fear that both nations would be effectively destroyed in a nuclear exchange. This, said Reagan, was "a truly mad policy." He believed that it was immoral to destroy the civilian population of another country in a retaliatory attack. He also worried that the two sides might blunder into nuclear war—in fact, that almost happened on September 26, 1983, when a defective Soviet satellite system mistakenly reported a supposed U.S. missile attack. Reagan's vision, not well understood when he took office and sometimes misrepresented even today, was of a world free of nuclear weapons and the terror they posed to all mankind.
Reagan's Foreign Policy Team
Reagan believed in cabinet government and assigned a higher role to his secretary of state than to his national security adviser—this made his choice for this position especially critical. His first secretary of state was Alexander Haig, a career military and government man, who had impressed Reagan in a private meeting and also came with the endorsement of former President Nixon. Haig, who called himself the "vicar" of U.S. foreign policy, lasted only eighteen months; he had continual run-ins with the White House staff, which did not consider him a team player, and with Nancy Reagan. Reagan said in his diary that Haig did not want "the President to be involved in setting foreign policy—he regarded it as his turf." Haig was replaced by George Shultz, a Stanford economist who had an even longer background in government. When Shultz took over in June 1982, he proclaimed that he was following Reagan's agenda, not the other way around. Shultz combined bureaucratic skills with diplomatic vision and over time became the most influential member of the cabinet. He gave priority, as did his boss, to U.S.-Soviet relations.
Two other key appointees in the Reagan administration were Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and Director of Central Intelligence William Casey. Weinberger presided over massive increases in the Pentagon's budget that were crucial to Reagan's strategy of dealing with the Soviets. He also boosted the build-up beyond the level Reagan had promised by calculating the spending increases from President Carter's last budget, which itself included significant arms increases. Weinberger retired in late 1987 after questions arose about whether he had covered up the administration's arms sales to Iran. Ironically, he had been an outspoken internal opponent of the sales. Casey, chief of staff in Reagan's 1980 campaign, was a zealous anti-Communist with an intelligence background dating back to World War II. He died of a brain tumor shortly after leaving office in 1987, at which point he was under investigation for whatever role he may have had in the Iran-Contra affair, a mystery to this day.
The biggest revolving door in the Reagan foreign policy team was at the National Security Council, where six different men served as national security adviser, beginning with Richard Allen and ending with Colin Powell. This turnover in part attests to Reagan's belief that the NSC should be subordinate to the State Department. Nonetheless, national security advisers and their staff played important roles. In the first term, national security adviser Robert (Bud) McFarlane served as midwife of the innovative Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a missile-defense system. In Reagan's second term, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, an NSC staff member, helped lead the administration into the murky depths of the Iran-Contra scandal.
The Reagan Military Buildup
The Reagan defense buildup was predicated on an analysis that the Soviet Union had not abided by the limitations of the SALT II treaty intended to maintain nuclear parity between the superpowers. Instead, Reagan believed, the Soviets had continued its drive to nuclear dominance. Since the Soviets had a huge edge in conventional warfare because of the immense size of the Red Army, Reagan and his team were concerned that they would press their own advantage throughout the world and put pressure on Western Europe to disarm. Reagan believed the buildup would show America's traditional allies that he meant business and stiffen the spines of European anti-Communists, an objective in which he received stalwart support from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. So the buildup had three objectives: strengthening the military in case of war, persuading European allies that the United States would not abandon them, and encouraging the Soviets to come to the bargaining table. Reagan gave military spending priority over his promise of a balanced budget, telling his advisers, "Defense is not a budget issue. You spend what you need."
And spend they did. While the Carter administration and the Democratic Congress greatly increased the defense budget in the late 1970s, Reagan on Weinberger's advice in March 1981 set the price tag at $220 billion—the largest peacetime military budget in history. Moreover, Reagan's budget planners called for 7-percent increases in defense spending between 1981 and 1985, totaling nearly $1 trillion. These funds were allocated for a wide array of new weapons systems, research and development, and improvements in combat readiness and troop mobility.
This surge in military spending reaped a number of benefits. First, the military upgraded and modernized its forces and equipment. Second, the money invested in military-related research and development proved a spur to certain segments of the economy, especially the high-tech sector. Finally, the increases in defense spending, coupled with promises that the American military would again be unsurpassed, boosted the confidence of the public. These outlays, however, greatly contributed to the federal government's ever-larger budget deficits and national debt. The growing defense budget, in concert with Reagan's tax cuts and his reluctance to cut costly domestic entitlement programs, ended any possibility of a balanced budget during the Reagan years.
Confronting the Soviets, 1981-1983
Reagan paired these increases in military spending with more aggressive anti-Soviet rhetoric. He backed away from the language of détente that stressed superpower cooperation and made clear his distrust of the Soviet system and Marxist ideology. At his first press conference, Reagan stated that Soviet leaders reserved "unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat" in order to gain an advantage in U.S.-Soviet relations. Later that year, he promised that "the West won't contain Communism, it will transcend Communism." In a speech before the British Parliament in 1982, in a paraphrase of a famous declaration of Karl Marx, Reagan said "the march of freedom and democracy . . . will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history."
During Reagan's first years in office, U.S.-Soviet relations were unstable. On the Soviet side, a succession of changes in the nation's geriatric leadership—three different leaders during the first Reagan term—produced a foreign policy that oscillated between militancy and conciliation. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration was dogged by its own internal conflicts. One of these conflicts came to the fore soon after Reagan became President when he reversed Carter's decision to embargo American grain sales to the Soviet Union as punishment for the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Carter's grain embargo was favored by the Pentagon but strongly opposed by the Agriculture Department and many American farmers. Likewise, Reagan delayed repudiating SALT II after he learned that the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that renouncing the treaty before the United States had completed its buildup would be advantageous to the Soviets. Responding to a clamor from Democrats at home and allies abroad, Reagan restarted arms talks with the Soviets in 1982, declaring that his goal was not to limit the arms race—as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of the 1970s had sought—but to reduce the superpowers' stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Reagan dubbed this new round of negotiations START, for the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.
Despite these pragmatic moves, Soviet-American relations during the first three years of the Reagan administration were marked by tension and confrontation. The Soviets were rapidly deploying intermediate nuclear missiles, the SS-20, in Eastern Europe. In 1981, in the face of opposition from the Soviets and the anti-nuclear movement, Reagan agreed with European allies to deploy U.S. nuclear missiles in Germany, Britain, and Italy. Although U.S. and Soviet negotiators held arms control talks in Geneva, Switzerland, beginning in 1981, neither side made a realistic effort to resolve the nuclear deployments.
By 1983, superpower relations reached a nadir. In March, Reagan memorably described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," and—more worrisome to the Soviets—unveiled his plan for a missile-defense system called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which critics derided as "Star Wars," after the name of the popular movie. The SDI project envisioned a shield in outer space to protect the United States from incoming missiles. While the scientific feasibility of a space shield was at best problematic, even a rudimentary missile defense plan would have forced the Soviets to compete in a range of technologies that was beyond its economic capability. Reagan offered to share the fruits of SDI research with the Soviets, an idea that frightened the U.S. intelligence community, but the Soviets did not take the offer seriously and asserted that Reagan really intended to develop "space weapons."
In late 1983, a series of incidents brought American-Soviet relations near the breaking point. On September 1, a Korean Airlines passenger airplane (KAL 007) strayed off course and flew into Soviet territory. The Soviets shot down the jet, killing 269 people. Reagan denounced the act as a crime against humanity but sided with Secretary of State Shultz against Defense Secretary Weinberger in deciding to continue U.S.-Soviet negotiations. "The world will react to this," Reagan told his advisers. "It's important that we not do anything that jeopardizes the long-term relationship with the Soviet Union." With tensions high in November 1983, an American military exercise meant to simulate procedures for a nuclear exchange, code-named "Able Archer," prompted the Soviets to put their military on high alert in expectation of a surprise nuclear attack. Although historians disagree on whether nuclear war was actually imminent, it was without doubt a dangerous time in which miscalculation might have led to accidental nuclear war. Meanwhile, in Europe, the West German Bundestag voted to accept deployment of U.S. Pershing II and cruise intermediate-range missiles to counter the deployment of the Soviet SS-20s. The Soviets promptly walked out of the arms talks in Geneva.
The Reagan Doctrine
Reagan believed that it was necessary for the United States to combat the spread of Soviet-backed Marxist and leftist regimes throughout the globe. He was particularly concerned about Afghanistan, where the brutal Soviet invasion and occupation killed an estimated one million people and made another five million refugees. Central America was also a focus: Reagan continued the Carter administration's support of El Salvador's efforts to wipe out Marxist rebels in a cruel civil war, and he viewed the Marxist government of Nicaragua as a menace to hemispheric stability. Reagan blamed much of the trouble on Cuba, which supported both Nicaraguan government and the Salvadoran rebels. Cuban leader Fidel Castro never missed a chance to tweak the United States; how much material aid he actually provided to his Marxist allies in the Hemisphere remains a matter of historical dispute.
To Reagan, the soldiers and insurgents struggling against Communism on battlefields throughout the world were "freedom fighters," a description he particularly applied to the Contras opposing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. In his February 6, 1985, State of the Union message, Reagan called for support of anti-Communist forces "from Afghanistan to Nicaragua" and proclaimed that "support for freedom fighters is self-defense." Seizing on this passage, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer announced what came to be known as "the Reagan Doctrine." In Krauthammer's words, this was a policy of "democratic militance" that "proclaims overt and unabashed support for anti-Communist revolution." But Reagan pursued this doctrine selectively. Apart from Afghanistan, which was a bipartisan affair, Reagan tried to roll back Communism only in Nicaragua, and to a limited degree in Angola, where Cuban troops were trying to impose Marxist rule. Apart from these examples, Reagan usually followed State Department guidance in dealing with most world trouble spots and continued policies that were already in place.
Within the United States, most of the controversy about the Reagan Doctrine centered on Nicaragua. Beginning in 1981, and at the behest of Director of Central Intelligence William Casey, Reagan authorized secret aid to the Contras, who grew from a force of a few hundred to an army of 9,000 three years later. Even so, as national security adviser Colin Powell observed, the Contras never amounted to more than a "highland fighting force" capable of putting pressure on the Sandinista government but not of overthrowing it. Reagan was mindful that the United States was resented in much of Latin America because of past military interventions. He often told advisers that the United States was seen as the "colossus of the North" in Mexico and Central America. For this reason, Reagan refused to send U.S. military forces to Panama to oust the corrupt dictator Manuel Noriega. (This would happen under Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush.)
The sole U.S. military intervention in the region during the Reagan presidency came in October 1983 in Grenada, where Maurice Bishop, the Marxist leader of this tiny Caribbean nation, was murdered by a renegade faction of his own party. Reagan wanted to intervene because hundreds of Americans, many of them medical students, lived on the island. He was also asked to intervene by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, a group of six former British colonies that felt threatened by the events in Grenada. Reagan welcomed the opportunity to act because he saw Grenada, on which Cuban laborers were building a new airport with a 10,000-foot runway, as a Soviet and Cuban beachhead in the region. The U.S. military forces subdued the small detachment of Cuban forces on the island within a few days, took Bishop's killers into custody, and freed the American medical students with minimal casualties.
Although the American people and Congress supported the Grenada invasion, Democrats led by House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, questioned the wisdom and morality of U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and, especially, Nicaragua. In 1982, Congress passed the Boland Amendment, prohibiting direct Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. The amendment, however, imposed no penalties for violation, which encouraged the administration to ignore it. Two years later, revelations that the CIA had aided in the mining of Nicaraguan ports and provided the Contras with an instructional manual that condoned terrorism and assassination caused an uproar on Capitol Hill. The Senate passed a resolution 84-12 condemning the mining. After much debate, Congress prohibited White House-supported funding for the Contras in the fall of 1984.
Involvement in Lebanon
In the summer of 1982, the Reagan administration was drawn into military involvement in Lebanon, a precarious democracy in the Middle East and a cauldron of conflict among competing military and confessional groups, as the various religious and ethnic factions are known. Reagan and his policymakers, including both his secretaries of state, believed that the United States had national security interests in the region to combat the Soviet influence. The United States also had an historic alliance with Israel, supported by every U.S. President since the Jewish state was created in 1948. Reagan himself had been committed to Israel from its inception, which did little to endear him to Arab nations—or to Israel's chief adversary, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). At the same time, Reagan's relations with Israeli leader Menachim Begin were less than harmonious and worsened considerably early in the President's first term when Reagan watched in horror on White House television as Israeli bombers leveled Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon, killing many civilians. Reagan became so angry that on August 12, 1982, he telephoned Begin and told him the bombing had gone too far. "You must stop it," Reagan said. Begin did, but the United States had moved a step closer toward involvement in Lebanon.
Two months earlier, in June 1982, Israel had invaded neighboring Lebanon in the hope of depriving the PLO of a base of operations. The invasion, and particularly the bombing and shelling of Beirut, was globally condemned. Within the Reagan administration, the invasion touched off latent conflicts between the diplomats and the warriors. Secretary of State Haig and Secretary of State Shultz after him believed that the United States should become involved in working out a peace process in Lebanon. Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, influenced by the legacy of Vietnam, were reluctant to put U.S. troops in harm's way. Reagan followed a middle course and in August 1982 sent 800 U.S. Marines to Lebanon as part of a multinational peacekeeping force that also included French and Italian contingents. Their mission was to maintain a cease fire during which PLO fighters in Lebanon would be allowed passage to neighboring Syria. Once the PLO had departed, Israel would withdraw from Lebanon.
After the PLO fighters left, Weinberger withdrew the U.S. troops. But with the international force withdrawn, violence broke out again. Lebanese militia with ties to Israel massacred 700 refugees at two camps in mid-September 1982, including at least three dozen women and children. President Reagan, appalled by the massacre, ordered the U.S. forces back ashore.
The Americans found themselves in the midst of a full-fledged civil war, one in which they unwittingly became targets as Israeli troops withdrew. In April 1983, Lebanese terrorists from a group called Hezbollah—which received financial and logistical support from Iran and Syria—detonated a truck bomb in front of the American Embassy in Beirut; seventeen Americans died, including eight employees of the CIA. American forces continued to come under attack sporadically throughout the summer of 1983. In response to the deaths of six soldiers, Reagan ordered U.S. warships to shell the camps of anti-American militias.
The most deadly attack against the United States occurred on October 23, 1983, when terrorists blew up the Marines' barracks at the Beirut airport, killing 241 U.S. servicemen, most of them Marines. More than 100 others were wounded in the attack, many of whom suffered permanent injuries. Reagan subsequently called it, "the saddest day of my presidency…the saddest day of my life." Suspecting that Hezbollah was responsible for the attack, Reagan ordered air strikes against Hezbollah's leadership. The destruction of the Marine barracks forced Reagan to reassess his Lebanon policy. The small remaining U.S. force had no hope of influencing events in Lebanon unless it was substantially reinforced. Against the opposition of the diplomats, Secretary Weinberger and the Joint Chief pushed for withdrawal of all U.S. military forces. So did White House Chief of Staff James Baker, who feared that Lebanon would become an issue in Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign. In February 1984, the surviving Marines were withdrawn to U.S. vessels waiting offshore. Reagan described the withdrawal as "redeployment," but he would not again send ground troops into Lebanon or any other place in the Middle East.
Middle Eastern Terrorism
Reagan's problems in the Middle East did not end with the withdrawal of U.S. troops, however. Beginning in late 1983, anti-American terrorist groups stepped up their attacks on the United States. In December of that year, a terrorist group bombed the U.S. embassy in Kuwait. One year later, hijackers commandeered a Kuwaiti airliner and killed two American passengers. In June 1985, Hezbollah terrorists hijacked another airliner, forced it to land in Beirut, and killed a U.S. Navy diver who was among the passengers.
Shiite terrorists in 1984 and 1985 took hostage seven Americans living in Lebanon, hoping to force a shift in U.S. policy towards the Middle East, which the terrorists considered anti-Arab and pro-Israel. Reagan desperately wanted to free the hostages, but he and his advisers were publicly adamant that they would not negotiate with terrorists. The longer the hostages remained captive, however, the more Reagan longed for their release.
In 1985, terrorists with connections to Libya also began a series of audacious attacks against Americans. Relations between the two countries had deteriorated severely after Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi had threatened Americans in 1981, prompting a military encounter in which U.S. Navy jets downed two Libyan warplanes. The conflict flared anew in 1985 and 1986. The U.S. government suspected but at first could not prove that Libya was behind a series of terrorist attacks that included a cruise-ship hijacking, bombings of airports in Rome and Austria, and the bombing of a disco in West Germany. After U.S. and European intelligence agencies traced the latter attack to Libya, Reagan ordered Operation El Dorado Canyon, in which 200 U.S. aircraft dropped more than sixty tons of bombs on Libyan targets. Thirty-seven people died, but Qaddafi escaped.
The air strike restrained Libya for a time but did not bring an end to the terror. Two days after the bombings, a pro-Libyan Palestinian group in Lebanon killed three hostages (one American and two Britons) in retaliation. In December 1988, terrorists with ties to Libya blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.
The Iran-Contra Affair
"Iran-Contra," short-handed in history to a single scandal, actually involved two separate initiatives. The first was the clandestine sale of a small amount of U.S. military equipment—primarily anti-tank missiles—to Iran in contradiction of the Reagan administration's public policy of remaining neutral in the Iran-Iraq War. The Contra part of the affair was the attempt by a small group of National Security Council staff members and former military men to funnel proceeds from the sale of these weapons to the Contra rebels opposing the Nicaraguan government. Reagan said in his diary and later acknowledged to the American people that he authorized the Iran arms sales, but he insisted he had no knowledge of the diversion of funds to the Contras.
The Iran arms sale, which had the support of the Israeli government, was first proposed to Reagan by his national security adviser Bud McFarlane. Reagan was told that U.S. representatives would be dealing with Iranian moderates rather than that nation's radical Islamic rulers. McFarlane presented the initiative to Reagan as an opportunity to make useful contacts with reformist forces in Iran and also counter Soviet influence in the region. The initiative was also backed by Director of Central Intelligence William Casey, who wanted to free William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut who had been kidnapped on March 6, 1984, by terrorists with links to Iran. Casey feared that Buckley, who later died of medical neglect while in captivity, was being tortured to reveal the names of agents. Reagan was moved by this appeal, and he also wanted to free other Americans held captive by terrorists in Lebanon. Reagan had often said he would not negotiate with terrorists, but insisted after the arms sales became public that he had not done so because he was dealing with middlemen, not the kidnappers themselves.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the second Boland amendment which prohibited third-party and U.S.-government funding of the Contras, Reagan made it clear to his foreign policy team that he wanted to keep the Nicaraguan Contras together "body and soul" so they would continue to be a thorn in the side of the Sandinista government. McFarlane and NSC staff member Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North arranged for donations to the Contras from foreign governments (including Saudi Arabia and South Africa) and private citizens. Between 1984 and 1986, the Saudis alone contributed $32 million to the Contras in this way.
Reagan formally (and secretly) approved the Iran initiative on December 7, 1985, over the objections of both Secretary of State Shultz and Secretary of Defense Weinberger. The initiative was in fact under way before Reagan acted; in August and September, Israel had sent more than 500 American antitank missiles to Iran, which produced the release of one American hostage.
Throughout 1986, another 1,000 American missiles were sent to Iran via Israel; North and McFarlane, who had resigned as national security adviser in late 1985 and been replaced by his deputy, Admiral John Poindexter, accompanied one of the shipments and met with Iranian officials. As a result of the arms sales, a few more American hostages were released. But since the arms sales had in effect transformed the hostages into valuable currency, others were kidnapped to replace those who had been released. In April 1986, North went to Poindexter with a plan to divert the proceeds from the arms sales—more than $12 million—to the Nicaraguan Contras. Poindexter approved North's proposal. Poindexter said afterward—in sworn statements to Congress and in court during his criminal trial—that he never informed the President of the diversion.
In November 1986, news of the arms shipments to Iran broke in a Lebanese magazine and quickly became a sensation in the United States. Poindexter and North destroyed a number of documents relating to the initiative, but others were unknowingly preserved on the main frame of an NSC computer and made available to the Tower Board, a commission Reagan appointed to investigate the affair. Reagan, on the basis of a briefing by Poindexter, made several inaccurate statements about the arms shipments in a November 13 speech to the nation. Polls showed this to be one of the few times that the public did not find Reagan credible. In late November, a Justice Department investigation of the arms deal uncovered North's diversion of proceeds to the Contras. Reagan asked for Poindexter's resignation and fired North, while also telling this decorated soldier that he was a "national hero."
A federal court appointed Lawrence E. Walsh, a distinguished Wall Street attorney and former prosecutor, as independent counsel to investigate Iran-Contra. Congress appointed its own joint special committee to investigate and gave North and Poindexter immunity as witnesses despite Walsh's warning that this could have a "destructive impact" on criminal prosecutions. Walsh was prescient: Poindexter was convicted on five felony counts, but an appeals court set aside the convictions because it found that witnesses may have been tainted by their exposure to his immunized testimony before Congress. North was convicted of three felonies; these also were set aside.
For the public, and subsequently for historians, the overriding question was the nature of President Reagan's role. Nancy Reagan believed strongly that Reagan needed to recover his credibility to be effective during the remainder of his presidency, and she brought outsiders into the White House, including the Democratic kingmaker Robert Strauss, in an effort to convince her husband to apologize to the American people for authorizing the arms sales. Eventually, Reagan did. On March 4, 1987, in a speech to the nation, Reagan took "full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration." He went on to say, "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."
Reagan insisted in this speech that he did not know that funds had been diverted to the Contras. Privately, he was incensed that retired Air Force General Richard Secord, one of the masterminds of the diversion scheme, had pocketed some of the money. As a political issue, Iran-Contra dogged Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, as the investigation dragged on for more than six years. Conservatives assailed Walsh for taking so long but when he finally completed his report on August 5, 1993, during the Clinton presidency, he concluded that there was no credible evidence that Reagan knew of the diversion.
Reagan was nevertheless tainted by the scandal. Even if one accepts the validity of Walsh's conclusion—and it is the most authoritative word on the subject—the various inquiries revealed lax management and enormous detachment on Reagan's part and appalling conduct by members of the National Security Council staff. But the public, judging from Reagan's rising poll ratings after his March 4, 1987, speech treated Iran-Contra as a blunder and largely forgave him. This reflected their general trust of Reagan, and their acceptance of his motivations in wanting to free the Americans held hostage in Lebanon. Diplomatically, the Iran initiative embarrassed the United States. Since Secretary of State Shultz had urged allies not to supply the combatants in the Iran-Iraq War with arms, the U.S. shipments of missiles to Iran seemed an act of hypocrisy even though they had no impact on the war's outcome. On the other hand, the discredited Contras did achieve a measure of success, as Reagan hoped: they put pressure on the Nicaraguan government to hold free elections, in which the Sandinista President was defeated.
Reagan and Gorbachev
Time magazine put Reagan and Soviet leader Yuri Andropov on its year-end cover in 1983, designating them both as "men of the year." The two leaders were shown stern-visaged and back-to-back; the accompanying story raised the spectre of nuclear war. Meanwhile in Moscow, the chief of staff of the Soviet armed forces claimed that the United States "would still like to launch a decapitating first strike." But at this low point of relationships between the nuclear superpowers, diplomats on both sides were planting the seeds of a new relationship that would take root in the contentious ground of the Geneva summit in 1985 and blossom into the arms-control treaties that presaged the end of the Cold War.
Many accounts of this turn in the U.S-Soviet relationship would assert that Reagan changed his approach to the Soviet Union during his second presidential term. Reagan did not see it that way. He believed his policies were of a piece and was convinced that the U.S. military buildup would inevitably lead to negotiations in which the Soviets would see that nuclear arms reductions were to the mutual benefit of both sides. Reagan acknowledged to his diary that not everyone in his administration shared his optimism. "Some of the NSC staff are hard line and don't think any approach should be made to the Soviets," Reagan said in his diary entry for April 6, 1983. He concluded it by saying that he wanted to show the Soviets "there is a better world if they'll show by deed that they want to get along with the free world." In January 1984, with U.S.-Soviet relations apparently at a toxic stage, Secretary of State Shultz met with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to see if a path could be found to what Shultz called "realistic engagement" between Moscow and Washington.
The main impediment to that reengagement was instability in the Soviet leadership. Andropov, a former head of the KGB, had become the Soviet leader after the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982. He was potentially a creative leader but suffered from kidney failure during most of his short reign in power. Andropov died on February 9, 1984, and was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko, who was suffering from pulmonary emphysema and other ailments. Chernenko, who had been Brezhnev's intimate aide, was the last of the reactionary old-guard Soviet leaders. He rarely appeared in public or, as Reagan observed, said anything without a script, but did abandon the confrontational approach of his predecessors to the United States. Chernenko died on March 10, 1985, He was succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev, a vigorous 54-year-old Andropov protégé with an innovative mind who recognized that the Soviet economy could not survive without serious reforms. He also hoped for better superpower relations. By 1986 and 1987, Gorbachev had determined that a more radical approach was needed in both domestic and foreign affairs. He believed that the restructuring of the Soviet economy ("perestroika") could only occur if accompanied by political liberalization ("glasnost"). Political and economic reforms, in turn, were possible only with better superpower relations. A less antagonistic Soviet-American relationship, Gorbachev believed, would permit a shift of money and resources away from the Soviet military toward the suffering economy.
Reagan sensed that Gorbachev was a different sort of Soviet leader and was encouraged in this direction by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had met with Gorbachev before his ascension to power. At a December 22, 1984, meeting at Camp David, Thatcher told Reagan that Gorbachev was "an unusual Russian" who was open to discussion. Reagan fired off a letter to Gorbachev when he assumed power, asking for a meeting. In November 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev met for the first time in Geneva; they held additional summits in each of the succeeding years of the Reagan presidency. The Geneva meeting, while short on specific agreements, laid the foundation for the other three summits. Reagan and Gorbachev argued freely but also developed the symbiotic relationship that served them in good stead. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) emerged at the Geneva summit as a key sticking point in the U.S.-Soviet relationship but also as leverage for a potential arms agreement.
The other sticking point was Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; Gorbachev gave strong signals at this meeting that he wanted to find a way out. The next summit between Reagan and Gorbachev occurred in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986. During the preceding year, Gorbachev had accelerated his political and economic reforms at home, but U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations remained stalled. Two days of high stakes talks, often unscripted, produced a remarkable opportunity as Reagan and Gorbachev galloped ahead of the talking points provided by their advisers and discussed the elimination of all nuclear weapons. As Alexander Besstmertnykh, then the Soviet deputy foreign minister, said in an evaluation of this meeting years later: "Gorbachev believed in [doing away with nuclear weapons]. Reagan believed in that. The experts didn't believe but the leaders did." But the Reykjavik summit collapsed when Gorbachev insisted that any American work on SDI be confined to the laboratory. Reagan refused, telling Gorbachev that he "promised the American people" that he would not give up SDI. When Gorbachev persisted in his position, Reagan abruptly ended the meeting.
Because the leaders reached no agreement, Reykjavik was in its immediate aftermath seen as a failure in both the United States and the Soviet Union. Instead, it proved a breakthrough. Reagan's stand had made it clear to Gorbachev that the President would never yield on SDI, and Gorbachev had other, more pressing problems. The unpopular war in Afghanistan was a bleeding sore, and the Soviets privately told the United States that they intended to remove their troops from Afghanistan before the end of Reagan's term. Gorbachev declared that the "military doctrine of the Warsaw Pact . . . is subordinated to the task of preventing war, nuclear and conventional." Meanwhile, encouraged by the discussions at Reykjavik, American and Soviet negotiators crafted a treaty that removed intermediate nuclear missiles from Europe, the first pact of the Cold War that actually reduced the number of nuclear weapons rather than merely stabilizing them at a higher level. Gorbachev and Reagan signed the INF Treaty in December 1987 while the Soviet leader made a triumphant visit to Washington, D.C. Reagan's desire to lessen the chances of nuclear war and the revolutionary changes in Soviet policy at home and abroad—which by 1987 were beginning to spin out of Gorbachev's control—had resulted in a landmark treaty that called for the destruction of more than 2,600 Soviet and American nuclear weapons.
Superpower relations continued to improve during Reagan's final year in office. While progress toward a strategic nuclear weapons treaty was too slow to bear immediate fruit, it was clear by the end of the Reagan presidency that such a treaty was in the offing. (President George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991.) In December 1988, at the very end of Reagan's presidency, Gorbachev announced in an address to the United Nations in Washington that he would unilaterally reduce Soviet military forces in Eastern Europe by 500,000 soldiers and 10,000 tanks over the next two years.
The capstone of the Reagan-Gorbachev relationship, however, occurred in June 1988 when Reagan visited the Soviet Union. The symbolism of the trip was powerful and undeniable. Reagan, the most outspoken anti-Communist elected to the American presidency, met Soviet citizens in Red Square and spoke to students at Gorbachev's alma mater. When a reporter reminded him of his 1983 description of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," Reagan replied, "I was talking about another time, another era."
By the time Reagan's presidency concluded, the Cold War was not formally over, but its end was in sight. Many people contributed to this achievement, including Secretary of State Shultz and Gorbachev's able foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, but Reagan and Gorbachev deserve the principal credit. In his book, Reagan and Gorbachev: How The Cold War Ended, career diplomat Jack F. Matlock, himself a key player in the U.S-Soviet negotiations, wrote that Reagan and Gorbachev were willing to depart from the position papers that had been written for them and make up their own minds on critical issues. "Both were willing to take political risks, and both were skilled in judging the degree of risk in their respective, very different societies," Matlock wrote. "They didn't always get things right, but on the most critical issues, they finally did."
Ronald Reagan retired from the White House to a home in the wealthy Los Angeles enclave of Bel Air. For the next six years, he spent his time organizing his memoirs and supervising the creation of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. He made headlines for accepting a $2-million fee to speak in Japan, but responded to criticism of this by declining to schedule other foreign speeches. Until he contracted Alzheimer's disease, he enjoyed his retirement, traveling once or twice a week to his suite of offices in a nearby Century City tower complex and riding at his ranch northwest of Santa Barbara whenever possible.
But this happy period in his life was soon over. On November 5, 1994, Reagan addressed a letter to the American people. It read in part: "My Fellow Americans. I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease." (Alzheimer's is a type of dementia in which the parts of the brain that control thought, language, and memory slowly deteriorate.) The letter went on to talk about the heavy burden his condition would place upon his wife, Nancy, and that he only wished for some way to spare her from its pain. He ended with a final note that was pure Reagan: "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. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you. Sincerely, Ronald Reagan."
In the years after his announcement, Reagan largely disappeared from public view as Alzheimer's took its terrible toll. The forthrightness and courage with which he and Nancy Reagan faced this ordeal, however, raised public awareness and inspired a deluge of contributions to organizations dedicated to finding the cause of, and a cure for, the disease.
Ronald Reagan died on June 5, 2004. He was accorded a state funeral in which leaders from around the world, Republicans and Democrats, and thousands of American citizens paid their respects. He was buried on the grounds of the Reagan Presidential Library.
President Reagan's typical day began with his arrival in the Oval Office at 9 a.m. His briefing on national security affairs occurred shortly thereafter, usually lasting fewer than thirty minutes. Reagan usually worked in the office until a little after 5 p.m. and then returned to the residence quarters. During the course of his day, he typically had two hours of "personal staff time" during which he relaxed with aides, napped, and replied to some of his massive correspondence. On several occasions, Reagan responded to letters from people who had fallen on hard economic times by sending a personal check. He often ate dinner with Nancy in front of the television and spent the evening reading fiction or watching television.
Throughout his public life, Reagan believed it was a mistake to equate long work hours with effectiveness. "Show me an executive who works long, hard hours, and I'll show you a bad executive," he said in response to a question about his work habits during the 1980 presidential campaign. As President, Reagan often took Wednesday afternoons off and left the office early on Friday so he could go to Camp David, the presidential retreat. He also spent a total of 345 days of his presidency in California, many of them at his ranch northwest of Santa Barbara. Reagan made light of his work habits—once quipping at a Gridiron Dinner that "it's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure why take the chance?" —but he, his wife, and his aides recognized that he functioned best when he was well rested and not overscheduled.
Reagan's children were adults when their father became President in 1981. Reagan and first wife Jane Wyman had one child in 1941, Maureen, and adopted another, Michael, in 1945. With second wife Nancy Davis, Reagan had two children: Patricia Ann, born in 1952, and Ronald Prescott, born in 1958. By most accounts, Reagan loved his children but was an emotionally distant figure in their lives, a characteristic often attributed to Reagan's relationship with his own troubled father. Each of Reagan's children has described him as something of a mystery, which dovetails with Nancy's comment: "There's a wall around him. He lets me come closer than anyone else, but there are times when even I feel that barrier."
Early in his first term, Reagan's oldest daughter, Maureen, a businesswomen, married for the third time, to Dennis Revell, a man twelve years her junior. In 1982, she ran in the California primaries for the U.S. Senate; her father refrained from endorsing her because he said it would an act of nepotism. She polled only 5 percent of the primary vote. By 1986, Maureen had become a prominent leader among Republican women and worked as a special consultant to the Republican National Committee. She was a fiery defender of her father although differing with him on certain issues—most notably the Equal Rights Amendment, which she supported and he opposed. In later years Maureen developed a close friendship with Nancy Reagan. Maureen Reagan died of cancer on August 9, 2001.
Michael Reagan, the President's adopted son, was a powerboat-racing enthusiast who worked as a salesman with an aerospace defense firm and, later, for an insurance company. Shortly after his father's election, Michael sent a letter to potential clients soliciting business and mentioning his relationship to Reagan. When the existence of the letter became public, Michael resigned from the aerospace company in the hope of shielding his father from criticism. During Reagan's second term, Michael tried his hand at acting and as a radio broadcaster. He became a highly successful radio talk show host and was active in conservative politics.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan had a difficult relationship with their daughter Patti Davis, who was opinionated and independent. A 1986 novel by Patti Davis, Home Front, was ostensibly based on her family experience. It told the story of a successful politician who is elected governor of California and then President of the United States. The fictional President and his exceedingly devoted wife are depicted as driven by ambition to the point where they consider their children to be political liabilities. As President, Ronald Reagan tried to reach out to his daughter, inviting her to the White House with a peace activist who made the case against the Reagan military buildup. After Reagan was stricken with Alzheimer's, Patti Davis reconciled with her parents and has often written movingly about her father.
Ronald Prescott Reagan, the youngest son, entered Yale following his graduation from high school but dropped out after one year. Aged twenty-two in 1981, he had been dancing with the Joffrey Ballet Company since 1980. Three weeks after his father's election in 1980, Ron announced his decision to marry a fellow dancer and a graduate of California State University, Northridge. By 1984, he had decided to give up dancing to try his hand at journalism, landing a job with the Dallas Morning News and "The Source," NBC's rock radio network. Proving himself a capable writer and a talented interviewer, he then landed a few spots as the guest host of several television shows, including NBC's Saturday Night Live. Ron made news in 2004 by appearing at the Democratic National Convention and criticizing the Republican administration of President George W. Bush. He often compared the George W. Bush administration unfavorably to his father's administration.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was a transformational President. His leadership and the symbiotic relationship he forged with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during their four summit meetings set the stage for a peaceful resolution of the Cold War. As the Soviet Union disappeared into the mists of history, Reagan's partisans asserted that he had "won" the Cold War. Reagan and Gorbachev more prudently declared that the entire world was a winner. Reagan had reason to believe, however, that the West had emerged victorious in the ideological struggle: as he put it, democracy had prevailed in its long "battle of values" with collectivism. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, his staunch ally, wrote that Reagan had "achieved the most difficult of all political tasks: changing attitudes and perceptions about what is possible. From the strong fortress of his convictions, he set out to enlarge freedom the world over at a time when freedom was in retreat—and he succeeded." This is true as far as it goes—the number of democratic nations as well as the reach of free-market ideology expanded on Reagan's watch. But, as Russia's recent autocratic path suggests, the permanence of these advances remains in doubt.
Scholars offer a variety of explanations for why the Cold War ended as it did and for the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Some historians cite the U.S. military buildup under Reagan and the pressures exerted by his pet program, the Strategic Defense Initiative. Others emphasize the increased restiveness of Eastern European nations, particularly Poland, and Soviet overreach in Afghanistan. Still others point to the implosion of the Soviet economy after 75 years of Communist rule. Although historians have reached no consensus on the weight that should be given to these various factors, it is clear that Reagan and his policies contributed to the outcome.
Reagan's economic legacy is mixed. On the one hand, tax reduction and a tightening of interest rates by the Federal Reserve led to a record period of peacetime economic growth. On the other, this growth was accompanied by record growth in the national debt, the federal budget deficit, and the trade deficit. Defenders of Reagan's economic record point out that a big chunk of the deficit was caused by increased military spending, which declined after the Soviet collapse and created the context for balanced budgets during the Clinton years. Even so, the supply-side tax cuts did not produce the increase in revenues that Reagan had predicted. The economist Robert Samuelson has suggested that Reagan's main achievement in the economic arena was his consistent support of the Federal Reserve, which under Reagan's appointee Alan Greenspan, followed monetary policies that kept inflation low. Reagan also succeeded in a principal goal of reducing the marginal income tax rate, which was 70 percent when he took office and 28 percent when he left.
Reagan also left a monumental political legacy. After he was reelected in a 49-state landslide in 1984, it became clear that Democrats would be unlikely to return to the White House under a traditional liberal banner. This paved the way for Bill Clinton's centrist capture of the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 1992. Reagan had an even greater impact within his own party. He carried Republicans into control of the Senate when he won the presidency in 1980. Although Democrats controlled the House throughout the Reagan presidency, the Republicans won control for the first time in 40 years in 1994 under the banner of Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America," a potpourri of leftover Reagan proposals. Even today, with Democrats back in control, there are more avowed Reagan Republicans in Congress than there ever were during Reagan's lifetime. In the 2008 contest for the Republican presidential nomination, virtually all the candidates proclaimed that they would follow in Reagan's footsteps.
It is an open question whether Reagan's accomplishments occurred because of his philosophy or despite it—or both. Reagan was an effective communicator of conservative ideas, but he was also an enormously practical politician who was committed to success. The welfare bill that was the signal achievement of Reagan's second term as governor of California, the reform that salvaged Social Security for a generation during his first term as President, and the tax overhaul of his second presidential term were bipartisan compromises, defying "liberal" or "conservative" labels. In the tradition of American populists, Reagan ran for office as an outsider who was determined to restore traditional values. In fact, he was a master politician who expanded the reach of his party at home and pursued his vision of a nuclear-free world abroad. He casts a long shadow.