The Reagan Revolution

Ronald Wilson Reagan started out his career as an actor, but ended it as one of the most respected United States politicians of the Twentieth Century. After becoming a household name in the movies, Reagan served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. By 1966, he won the California governorship and used that as a stepping stone to become the 40th President of the United States in 1981.

Reagan was born on February 6, 1911. After graduating from Dixon High School in Illinois, Reagan graduated from Eureka College in 1932. He headed to Los Angeles and signed a seven year contract with Warner Brothers in 1937. Within two years, Reagan had appeared in 19 films. His appearance in 1942’s Kings Row is considered by many to be his best performance, but he is usually remembered for his small role as George “The Gipper” Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American. In 1938, he co-starred with Jane Wyman, who would become his first wife. The two had two children, Maureen and Christine, before divorcing nine years later.

Reagan joined the Army Enlisted Reserve as a Private in 1937. While in the military, his unit produced approximately 400 training films. He left the military on December 9, 1945 at the rank of Captain.

Reagan became active on the Board of Directors in the Screen Actors Guild in 1941. He was elected president of the Guild in 1946 and would serve as such until 1952 then was re-elected in 1959. In 1949, Reagan met actress Nancy Davis. She had contacted him to ask for assistance when her name appeared on a communist blacklist in Hollywood. The two married in 1952 and would remain married until his death. The couple had two children, Patti and Ron. Reagan remains the only U.S. president to be divorced.  He ended his career as an actor in 1965 when he hosted the television series “Death Valley Days.”

Originally registered as a Democrat, Reagan switched to the Republican Party in 1962. In 1964, he delivered his “Time for Choosing” speech in support of presidential contender Barry Goldwater. Many saw this speech as the beginning of his political career.

In 1966, Reagan successfully ran for Governor of California. While in office, he dealt with issues of the time, including protests, welfare reform, taxation, and the debate on abortion. He was re-elected to the office in 1970, but chose not to run a third time.

Reagan hoped to win the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 1976, gaining support as a conservative. He was barely defeated by Gerald Ford, who would lose the presidency to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Reagan would win both the nomination and presidency in 1980, defeating incumbent Jimmy Carter. To date, he is the oldest man elected to that office.

Shortly after taking office, Reagan was shot by John Hinckley Jr. in an assassination attempt. The bullet barely missed Reagan’s heart and pierced his left lung. He suffered a collapsed lung and underwent emergency surgery, but recovered relatively quickly for his age. Reagan would be elected to a second term in 1985. 

As president, Reagan had many explosive issues with which to deal. Not long after taking office, the federal air traffic controller went on strike. Taking a hard stance, Reagan said they must return to work within 48 hours or be fired. He ended up firing, and banning from federal service for life, 11,345 controllers who refused this order.

As drugs became more prevalent in America, Reagan and wife Nancy started the War on Drugs with a new, stricter, drug enforcement bill in 1986. Also in 1986, the U.S. launched air strike on Libya when U.S. officials suspected the country of a Berlin bombing in which military personnel were hurt and killed. Reagan also signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act while in office. This act made it illegal to hire illegal immigrants, but also granted amnesty to about 3 million illegal immigrants who entered the country before 1982.

The Iran-Contra affair, in which Contras in Nicaragua were funded by arm sales to Iran, also occurred during Reagan’s second term. Reagan received criticism for his support of the Contras. The U.S. was eventually found guilty of violating the law in Nicaragua by the International Court of Justice.

On a more positive note, the Soviet Union began it's downfall under Reagan’s reign. He held four summits with then Soviet leader Gorbachev to end Communism in the country. Reagan became known for his words “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” speaking of the infamous Berlin Wall that separated the German city. The wall was torn down in 1989. The war would end two years later in January 1991.

When Reagan first took office, the country had a high inflation and unemployment rate. Through the use of what became known as Reaganomics, Reagan was able to reduce both. He was able to stimulate the economy through the use of tax cuts. He also reduced the budget by cutting funds to such programs as Medicaid, food stamps, and the EPA.

Reagan was also the first president to elect a woman as a justice of the Supreme Court. Sandra Day O’Connor became an Associate Justice on July 7, 1981.

After the assassination attempt, Reagan’s approval rating was at its highest – 73%. It dropped a bit after that, with the lowest rating being 44%, right after the Iran-Contra scandal. By the end of his presidency, the rating had jumped back up to 64%, with that being his overall average.

Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994 at the age of 83. Although he remained physically active, his mental capacity diminished so that he recognized few people outside of his wife Nancy. Reagan died on June 5, 2004 at the age of 93. He was laid to rest at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. 

Many feel that Reagan, known as “The Great Communicator,” was the most significant president of the Twentieth Century after Franklin D. Roosevelt. His administration saw many important changes, such as the end of the Cold War, for which many credited him with making the world a safer place. The ‘80s are often remembered as a prosperous time, due largely to his Reaganomics. 

Ronald Reagan’s Official White House Biography

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library

Ronald Reagan’s Internet Movie Database Listing

The American Experience – Ronald Reagan

Time 100: Ronald Reagan