Ronald Reagan (1911-2004)
Ronald Wilson Reagan rode to the presidency in 1980 on a tide of resurgent
right-wing sentiment among an electorate longing for a distant, simpler era.
Reagan, an actor turned politician, a New Dealer turned conservative, came to
films and politics from a thoroughly Middle-American background-middle class,
Middle West, and small town. He was born in Tampico, Ill., Feb. 6, 1911. His
father was a shop clerk and merchant with Democratic sympathies. It was an
impoverished family; young Ronald sold homemade popcorn at high school games and
worked as a lifeguard to earn money for his college tuition.
His career as a film and TV actor stretched from 1937 to 1966. As a World War II
captain in army film studios, Reagan recoiled from what he saw as the laziness
of civil service workers, and moved to the Right. As president of the Screen
Actors Guild, he resisted what he considered a Communist plot to subvert the
film industry. With oratorical skill as his trademark, Reagan became an active
Republican. In 1966
he ran for governor of California and was elected
by almost a million votes over the political veteran, Democratic governor Edmund
G. Brown. Reelected to a second term, he served as governor until 1975. In the
1980 election battle against Jimmy Carter, Reagan broadened his appeal by
espousing moderate policies, gaining much of his support from disaffected
Democrats and blue-collar workers. The incoming administration immediately set
out to "turn the government around" with a new economic program. However, in
1982, as the economy declined into the worst recession in 40 years, the
president's popularity slipped and support for supply-side economics faded. Internationally, Reagan confronted numerous problems in his first term.
In an effort to establish order on the Caribbean island of Grenada and eliminate
the Cuban military presence there, Reagan ordered an invasion of the tiny nation
on Oct. 25, 1983. The troops met strong resistance from Cuban military personnel
on the island but soon occupied it. Another military effort, in Lebanon, ended
in failure, however. U.S. Marines engaged as part of a multinational
peacekeeping force in Beirut were forced to withdraw in 1984 after a disastrous
terrorist attack left 241 marines dead. With the economy improving and inflation
under control, the popular president won reelection in a landslide in 1984.
Domestically, a tax reform bill that Reagan backed became law. But the
constantly growing budget deficit remained an irritant, with the president and
Congress persistently at odds over priorities in spending for defense and
domestic programs. Congress was also increasingly reluctant to increase spending
for the Nicaraguan "Contras." The attack on Libya in April 1986
galvanized the nation, although it drew scathing disapproval from the NATO
alliance. Reagan's popularity with the public dipped sharply in 1986 when the
Iran-Contra scandal broke, shortly after the Democrats gained control of the
Reagan's place in history will rest, perhaps, on the short- and
intermediate-range missile treaty consummated on a cordial visit to the Soviet
Union that he had once reviled as an "evil empire."
Reagan married his wife, Nancy, four years after his divorce from the screen
actress Jane Wyman. Reagan suffered from Alzheimer's disease, which he developed
around 1994, and died in Los Angeles on June 5, 2004.