who became America’s 40th President.
When Ronald Reagan was named president of the Screen Actors Guild, in 1947, he was a die-hard Democrat and self-described “near hopeless hemophiliac liberal.” At the time, Hollywood was in ideological turmoil, with the House Un-American Activities Committee chaired by Sen. Joseph McCarthy investigating claims of communist infiltration of the studio system. Reagan decided that McCarthy was right: The labor movement, Reagan found, was lousy with communists who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union and openly contemptuous of the small-town American ideals he still cherished. Reagan refused to “name names” publicly, but secretly provided HUAC with the names of suspected communist sympathizers.
In this era, Reagan felt his “first stirrings of conservatism,” said the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” he would later say. “The Democratic Party left me.”
Reagan was born on Feb. 6, 1911, in a five-room flat over the Pitney General Store in Tampico, Ill. Reagan’s father Jack, a shoe salesman and an alcoholic, remarked that his newborn son looked “a little bit like a fat Dutchman.” The nickname stuck, and for the rest of his life, Reagan was known as “Dutch.” In Reagan’s childhood home, money was short and the family frequently moved. “Sports gave Reagan a chance to get an education,” said TIME. After winning a scholarship to Eureka College near Peoria, Ill., he immersed himself in football, swimming, and theater. Later he found work as a radio announcer in Davenport and Des Moines, Iowa. In 1937, at the suggestion of a friend, he took a screen test in Hollywood and was signed up for $200 a week. Though many of his early films “were forgettable,” (his own words) he found stardom in Knute Rockne—All American. As Rockne’s star half-back, George Gipp, Reagan immortalized Gipp’s heroic deathbed scene, when he urged his Notre Dame teammates, “Win one for the Gipper.” Reagan later frequently quoted the line to inspire his political supporters.
Reagan’s first marriage, to actress Jane Wyman, foundered when he became heavily involved in the Screen Actors Guild. When they got divorced, in 1948, Wyman told the court she could not bear to watch one more home screening of Kings Row. In that film, made in 1942, Reagan was cast as a small-town playboy whose legs are needlessly amputated by a sadistic father surgeon of one of the girls. His most celebrated line, (from the movie) “Where’s the rest of me?” would become the title of his autobiography. In 1952, he married actress, Nancy Davis, who was already pregnant when they took their vows, said the London Daily Telegraph. Davis, whose father was a prominent Chicago neurosurgeon, was a stern conservative and moralist. She and Reagan became inseparable, and “her influence on his political career was both powerful and enduring.”
In 1962, disenchanted with liberalism, rising taxes, and a rapidly expanding federal government, Reagan became a Republican. By now he was the goodwill ambass-ador for General Electric, giving speeches to civic groups and GE employees that warned of the growing tide of government control in business. He also appeared on television as host of General Electric Theater, and later of Death Valley Days.
Two years later, Reagan “burst onto the national political scene in a fund-raising appearance for Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate,” said The New York Times. Reagan’s nationally televised speech was filled with emotional denunciations of communism and a celebration of individual freedom. Many of the best lines were borrowed from Franklin Roosevelt, one of his heroes. Goldwater’s defeat was virtually a foregone conclusion, hot in the ashes of the Democrats’ 1964 landslide victory, Reagan discovered he had inherited the leader-ship of the Republican Party’s conservative wing. A group of wealthy Californians formed Friends of Ronald Reagan “to initiate his 1966 candidacy for governor.
Reagan’s folksy style and familiarity from his years on television enabled him to easily defeat incumbent Gov. Edmund G. Brown. “Unlike Goldwater, he could sell conservatism with a smile,” said the Los Angeles Times. Reagan’s stewardship during his eight years as governor foreshadowed his presidency, as he “portrayed himself as a citizen politician’ determined” to get the government off people’s hacks. He enraged environmentalists when he remarked, You know, a tree is a tree.” Yet he also signed the biggest state tax increase in history.
In March 1981, two months after the start of his presidency, Reagan and three other men were shot by John W. Hinckley, a troubled college dropout, said The Wash-ngton Post. A bullet penetrated Reagan’s left lung. But he quickly recovered, and the good cheer he demonstrated during the ordeal won him many new admirers.
Tough he “maintained high public approval ratings” during most of his two terms, his popularity plummeted in November 1986, “after disclosure that he hd secretly approved U.S. arms sales to Iran in an attempt to win release of American hostages held in Lebanon.” Previously, he had vowed never to negotiate with terrorists. The administration’s “seminal crisis” came after it was revealed that proceeds from the sale had been diverted to contras fighting the Marxist government of Nicaragua. “Prodded by first lady Nancy Reagan and other advisors, Reagan reluctantly accepted responsibility for the arms sales hut denied knowledge of the diversion.” Both his national security advisor John M. Poindexter, and Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, a National Security Council staff aide who had masterminded the diversion, were fired.
Reagan’s anti-communist rhetoric was “extremely controversial in its time,” said David E. Hoffman in the Post”, but historical events have shown he was prescient and probing about the depth of Soviet internal weaknesses. Early in his first term he took part in “a secret exercise” that simulated a nuclear attack. “Reagan watched a screen in the White House situation room showing red dots where Soviet missiles would strike. The first one annihilated Washington. In 1983, Reagan “announced his dream of a defensive shield against ballistic missiles”—the so-called Star Wars defense. Denouncing the Soviet Union as “the evil empire,” Reagan presided over a massive U.S. military buildup, even as he privately developed warm relations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Less than a year after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union was dissolved, and the Cold War ended.
In retirement, the Reagans lived in a spacious ranch house in Bel Air, a Los Angeles suburb. In 1994 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and spent the remainder of his life in seclusion, nursed by Nancy. He’d had distant, often acrimo nious relationships with his children, but when Reagan died, they and Nancy were all at his side.
THE WEEK, June 18, 2004
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