Ronald Reagan: Life Before the Presidency

Ronald Reagan: Life Before the Presidency

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 Eureka, Illinois. 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 more than 50 films. 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.)