Long before his passing last week in Bel Air, Calif., from pneumonia complicated by Alzheimer’s disease, Ronald Reagan had become a legend.
He was the public speaker — the Great Communicator — to whom all others were compared. He was the steadfast pursuer of clear goals that his supporters longed for after he left office. He was the catalyst for bringing the Cold War to an end. (Margaret Thatcher said of him, “Ronald Reagan won the Cold War single-handed, without firing a shot!”)
He was the leader of the nation’s longest sustained peacetime economic expansion. He was the man who gave gallantry a new definition, not once, but three times (when he caught a would-be assassin’s bullet; when he was operated on for cancer; and when he announced to the world that he had Alzheimer’s disease). He was the scourge of liberals, leftists, statists and socialists who realized that he had unleashed an unstoppable force to take power away from Washington and put it in the hands of the states, counties, communities, families and individuals.
Once, in the ’70s, passing by the White House, he was asked by a companion what he thought of living there. “It would be okay,” he replied. “When I was a kid we lived above the store.” And so he did.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill., the second son of Jack and Nelle Reagan. A blizzard had just dumped 10 inches of snow on the small town where Jack worked at a general store.
The family lived in a flat above a bakery on Main Street. Jack called his little son “the fat little Dutchman” because of his robust appearance–and “Dutch” became the nickname by which many of Ronald Reagan’s friends from his youthful years knew him. While he was still a toddler, the family began a series of moves–all in Illinois–as Jack changed jobs: Chicago, Galesburg, Monmouth, back to Tampico (where they lived above the general store where Jack had worked before), and finally to Dixon in December 1920. Warren Harding had just been elected President. Ronald Reagan finished elementary and high school in Dixon. Football became a passion and, in his high school summers, he was also lifeguard on the nearby Rock River.
It was in Dixon where he was baptized, along with his brother, Neil, in a ceremony that included total immersion (symbolizing the death, burial and resurrection of Christ). As Nelle’s denomination, the Disciples of Christ, or Christian Church (an offshoot of Presbyterianism), did not believe in infant baptism, this ceremony for the 11-year-old Ronald represented a conscious commitment. Throughout his life he believed that God had a plan for each person. His deep and abiding faith came from his devout mother. His father, though never a success in business and often struggling with a drinking problem, had a resiliency in times of adversity and a sunny disposition that became part of his younger son’s personality as he grew.
In 1928 he entered Eureka College, 100 miles from Dixon, a small (220-student) liberal arts school connected with the Christian Church. He received a modest athletic scholarship and earned money by washing dishes. He won letters in track and was a lifeguard in summers, but his passion was football. Added to this was his activity in the drama club and student government.
When he graduated in June 1932, the country was deep into the Great Depression. Deciding to become a radio announcer, “Dutch” Reagan tried to find a job at every radio station in Chicago, without luck. Then he set out to canvass the countryside around Dixon. He got his first job at WOC in Davenport, lowa, across the Mississippi River from Rock Island, Ill., after recreating–before the microphone–the fourth quarter of a Eureka College game of the previous season. His audition won him the chance to broadcast a game from lowa City the next Saturday for “$5 and bus fare.” He so impressed the station’s crusty manager that he was hired to do the next three games for double the amount.
That fall, Dutch Reagan cast his first presidential vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Reagan’s father was a staunch Democrat, the New Deal had great appeal and, as Reagan noted later, FDR promised “to reduce the size of the federal government and cut the budget by 25%.” Meanwhile, his sportscasting stints turned into a regular job as staff announcer and, the following spring, a transfer to the owner’s other station, powerful clear-channel WHO in Des Moines, the state capital. There, he earned a reputation and following for his colorful recreation of Chicago Cubs baseball games (the information came in by wire, without description, so the “color” had to be imagined by the announcer).
In later years, Reagan regaled listeners with stories from his radio days, one of his favorites being the time the wire transmission broke down with the batter’s having just fouled and with two strikes against him. Reagan filled the void the only way possible, not knowing the outcome: He had the batter foul another 19 times before the ticker resumed sending information! (“And, oh yes,” he would add, “he struck out.”)
His student-days’ interest in acting had never left him. By the winter of 1936-37 he was actively thinking about the possibility of working in films.
A trip to California’s Santa Catalina Island the next spring to cover the Cubs’ spring training gave him the opportunity to look into it. A friend arranged a screen test at Warner Brothers (he did a scene from the Philip Barry play, Holiday). The following morning he left for Des Moines and, on his first day back at the radio station, received a telegram with Warner’s offer of a seven-year contract at $200 a week, starting June 1, 1937.
Fifty-three feature-length films later, Ronald Reagan had a well-established reputation as a solid player (though rarely the one that got the girl). He gained another of his nicknames, “The Gipper” from his role in Knute Rockne–All American, in which he played the courageous, dying George Gipp. He considered his role as Drake McHugh in King’s Row (1942) his best. Ann Sheridan was his co-star. The McHugh character has both legs amputated by an evil doctor and when he awakes asks, “Where’s the rest of me?” (That line became the title of a Reagan autobiography in the early ’60s.)
Long a cavalry reservist (where he learned to ride), Reagan was called to active duty as a second lieutenant in April 1942 at Fort Mason, in San Francisco. His near-sightedness was to keep him from going overseas, but he was soon transferred to the Army Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit in Southern California which produced training films at the old Hal Roach studios (dubbed “Fort Roach”). He took up his civilian career following his Army discharge in 1945.
In 1946, he was elected vice president of the Screen Actors Guild, and became president the following year. He held that office for the next four years (and again in 1959-60), a time of turmoil in Hollywood, as Communists sought to take over several unions. The fight to keep them from so doing occupied much of Reagan’s time, as did SAG contract negotiations with the studios. In later years he credited his SAG experience with honing the negotiating skills he used so deftly in elective politics and summit meetings.
In March 1952, Ronald Reagan–who by then was divorced from his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, whom he had married in 1940–married Nancy Davis, a young actress, beginning a union that would last until his death 64 years later. She gave up her promising film career to be a wife and mother.
In 1954, he signed a contract with General Electric to become host of a new weekly half-hour television anthology, “General-Electric Theater.” Broadcast live over the next eight years, it featured many of Hollywood’s top stars. Reagan himself starred from time to time, and he and Nancy played opposite one another in several segments. His contract called for him to visit GE factories around the country. There he met with workers on the factory floor and addressed them at shift changes. It was in that setting that he developed his technique of giving brief opening remarks about values and the country’s problems, then shifting to taking questions (“a dialogue, not a monologue,” as he put it).
Politically, his views were moving from New Deal liberal to conservative. His father-in-law, Dr. Loyal Davis, a prominent Chicago neurosurgeon, was an important influence and Earl Dunckel, the GE executive who traveled with Reagan on the plant tours, constantly argued the conservative point of view with him. Increasingly, in his appearances at GE factories and in speeches to civic groups, he focused on the menace of the Communist movement around the world. He made the move to the Republican party in 1962. His friends Justin Dart and Holmes Tuttle and his father-in-law, Dr. Davis, urged him to run for the U.S. Senate that year, but he declined. General Electric Theater had just ended its run and he had become host of Death Valley Days.
On Oct. 27, 1964, Ronald Reagan’s life would change forever. To help the presidential candidacy of his friend Sen. Barry Goldwater (and at the behest of his own brother, Neil, an advertising executive in charge of the Goldwater campaign’s advertising), Reagan filmed an electrifying speech titled “A Time for Choosing” for release on national television that night. The speech raised approximately $1 million for the Goldwater campaign in its final days. More importantly, it brought to the political stage a charismatic new star.
The pressure of friends for Reagan to run for governor of California in 1966 became irresistable. He agreed to travel the state to “test the water.” He faced, and defeated, respected San Francisco Mayor George Christopher in the Republican primary that year and went on to defeat popular two-term Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown by a million votes. At his one-minute-after-midnight inaugural in January 1967 he quipped to former song-and-dance man George Murphy (by then a U.S. senator), “Well, George, here we are on the Late Show again.”
Dedicated to bringing the state’s burgeoning government under control, the new governor embarked on a “cut, squeeze and trim” program, using citizen task forces to identify potential savings. Required by its constitution to have a balanced budget, California had nevertheless been running in the red under Gov. Reagan’s predecessor. He bowed to the necessity of raising taxes to cure the problem, but promised that as soon as surpluses developed and reserves set aside, he would return the rest to the taxpayers. True to his promise, over the course of his eight years as governor he returned some $5 billion to the taxpayers.
The state’s welfare system was galloping out of control until Reagan and his administration devised a massive reform program. He personally negotiated the plan with leaders in the Democratic-controlled state legislature. “Any time I can get 70% of what I want from an otherwise hostile legislature, I’ll take it and go for the other 30% after it’s begun to work,” he said later. His reforms brought the swollen rolls under control.
On the environmental front, he is credited with stopping an all-weather highway from being built across the spectacular Minarets area of the Sierra Nevada mountains and for preventing construction of a huge new federal dam (Dos Rios) that would have flooded Indian burial grounds and farms in Round Valley in the northern part of the state.
In 1968, only his second year in office, Reagan was urged by friends to allow his name to be placed in nomination for the presidency at the Republican convention in Miami, which he did at the last minute. Although the effort did not succeed, it demonstrated that he had the beginnings of a national constituency.
In 1973, he proposed a state constitutional amendment to limit the percentage of the people’s aggregate income the state could take to run its affairs. Although the ballot measure ultimately lost, it drew national attention and triggered the tax revolt that swept the country later in the decade.
In January 1975 he stepped down voluntarily at the end of his second term (there were no term limits on the governship at the time) to return to private life, but a busy one, with a daily radio commentary program, a twice weekly newspaper column and a steady round of speaking tours.
His popularity on leaving office was high and many were urging him to challenge Gerald Ford for the presidential nomination in 1976. In November 1975 he announced that he would enter the contest. Although he lost the early primaries, he came back strongly in the later ones, putting the nomination up for grabs at the convention in Kansas City. It was eventually decided by a vote on rules; Reagan lost narrowly and President Ford later lost to Jimmy Carter.
Reagan returned to his media activities but, not long after Carter assumed office, found growing support for a 1980 candidacy. This time George Bush was his principal rival, but Reagan swept the early primaries and went to the convention in Detroit a solid winner, inviting Bush to join the ticket as Vice President.
Carter’s people, as had Pat Brown’s years before, assumed that Reagan would be an easy candidate to defeat because they underestimated his ability to connect with the values of large numbers of voters. All Reagan needed to do was to disprove the image his detractors had fashioned for him–that he was a warlike extremist.
When, in one of the campaign debates, Carter went into a litany to conjure up that image, Reagan said simply, “There you go again.” It was a turning point. Reagan won 51% to 41% (with 7% for John Anderson) and the electoral vote 489 to 49. He won all but six states and the District of Columbia.
Reagan had campaigned on three recurring themes: reduce the tax burden; restore the nation’s armed forces; and curb the growth of government. Once in office he set about to accomplish all three with single-mindedness. By July, a sweeping cut in income tax rates had been accomplished (with the help of a number of “Boll Weevil” Democrats in Congress); his Peace Through Strength defense buildup was well underway; and a range of government programs were being challenged as to their size and effectiveness.
Although the nation sustained a recession in 1982–the result of pre-Reagan policies–recovery began late that year with an economic expansion that proved, by the time he left office in January 1989, to be the longest peacetime expansion in the nation’s history. Some 19 million jobs and tens of thousands of new businesses were created. Inflation–which had routinely been 10% or more in the ’70s, was wrestled down to the 3 to 4% range.
Determined to roll back Communism, Reagan, in an early 1982 address to the British parliament, announced what came to be known as The Reagan Doctrine. It was the obverse of the Brezhnev Doctrine which held that, once a nation had gone Communist, it would never change. Instead, Reagan called for a “crusade for freedom” and pledged that the United States would support those who were fighting against communism “wherever we find them.” In his book Speaking My Mind, he wrote: “I am amazed that our national leaders had not philosophically and intellectually taken on the principles of Marxism-Leninism. We were always too worried we would offend the Soviets if we struck at anything so basic. Well, so what? Marxist-Leninist thought is an empty cupboard. Everyone knew it by the 1980s. but no one was saying it. I decided to articulate a few of these things.” His candor was even sharper the following year when, on March 8, he addressed the National Association of Evangelicals and described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” Pundits and critics gasped in horror. He was roundly criticized, but once the Soviet Union disintegrated a few years later and its evil ways were exposed to full view, Reagan was once again vindicated.
Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union was no spur-of-the-moment applause line. Knowing from intelligence reports the shaky character of the Soviet economy, he had decided not only to rebuild the U.S. armed forces, but also to make the case for a strategic defense initiative to deter Soviet long-range missiles. He knew the Soviets could not match the U.S. in such an endeavor without bankrupting themselves. His counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, knew it, too, which is why at their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Gorbachev made U.S. abandonment of SDI his price for an arms reduction agreement. Reagan did not back down. Indeed, his administration persuaded the German government to station cruise missiles in Germany, effectively neutralizing another major category of Soviet missiles that would have been used in any attack on Western Europe.
In 1987 in an address before the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall, he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” It happened a little over two years later. In May 1988, at his final summit, in Moscow, President Reagan slaked the thirst for democracy that glasnost had created among the Russian people when he addressed the students at Moscow State University and invited Soviet dissidents to speak their minds at the U.S. embassy.
There is little doubt now that Ronald Reagan’s calculated plan to challenge and roll back Communism was the catalyst that led to the demise of the Soviet Union and its orchestrated international Marxist movement.
After leaving office in January 1989 he traveled to Germany, Poland and Russia where he was greeted as a hero. Beyond his specific accomplishments on the world stage, Ronald Reagan gave his nation something it badly needed: a restoration of self-confidence and pride.
His civility and good humor combined to defuse many a confrontation and win him enduring popularity as a leader. And, as literally thousands of people can attest, he always had time for the small, kind personal gesture that warms hearts and makes spirits soar.
In addition to his wife Nancy, he leaves four offspring, Maureen and Michael (from his marriage to Jane Wyman), Ronald Prescott and Patti Davis, and two grandchildren. A man of a million smiles and a thousand anecdotes, he left us wanting more of his warmth, his cheer, his optimism. But it was time to go.
He never felt God would give him more than he could handle. And, over 93 years, he had handled a lot. Goodbye Gipper. We’ll miss you mightily.
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