Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) – Hollywood Actor, American President
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911 in an apartment in Tampico, Illinois. His father, Jack Reagan, was a shoe salesman and was of Irish descent while his mother, Nelle Clyde Reagan, was of English, and Scottish lineage. He had an elder brother, Neil Reagan, who later became an advertising executive. Ronald was fondly called “Dutch,” a name which stuck due to his father calling him “the fat, little Dutchman.” It was a name that stayed with throughout his growing years.
Reagan came from a middle-class family which regularly kept on move depending on where his father was working, looking for apartments that they could afford. Since the family wasn’t exactly financially stable, Reagan had to do a variety of summer jobs from construction labor to being a lifeguard. Ronald on his 75th birthday joked that,
75 years ago, I was born in an apartment building above a bank. We didn’t have any other connection with the bank by the way…!
A young Ronald went to Dixon High School where he developed his passion for arts. He graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Sociology at Eureka College and it was at this time that his leadership skills were cultivated. As the President of his freshmen class, he cooperated with the student council in striking against the reduction in the curriculum leading to the college president’s resignation. It was easy for him to gain a following as he had a captivating and kind personality. Despite being near-sighted, Reagan was athletic and usually captained the football, swimming, and track teams. On top of this, he developed an interest in acting and theater, and needless to say, excelled in an environment where he was constantly in the spotlight.
After college, Reagan went on to work in Davenport, Iowa with World of Chiropractic (WOC) Broadcasting Station in February 1933. He was immediately fired when he failed to acknowledge one of their biggest sponsors, but was immediately hired by WHO, an AM broadcasting station and an NBC affiliate based in Des Moines, where he worked as the radio sportscaster for the Chicago Cubs baseball games. It was in here that Reagan reached the heights of stardom. In 1937 when the Chicago Cubs were on spring training in Catalina Island, California, he convinced WHO to send him to Hollywood to follow them and send back reports. While there, Reagan appeared at a screen test at Warner Brothers and was interviewed by the casting director who asked him to report for work in June the same year, and suggested a few minor changes in his appearance like getting rid of his glasses. At that time, Reagan struggled to read the scripts as he had trouble with his eyesight but was still able to memorize all his lines promptly.
Reagan met his first wife, Jane Wyman, at Warner Brothers, who was also an actress. They co-starred in Brother Rat in 1938, which gave Reagan his first famous big break and its sequel, Brother Rat and a Baby in 1940. The couple got engaged at the Chicago Theatre and wed on January 26, 1940, in Glendale, California. They had three children: Maureen Elizabeth, born on January 4, 1941; an adopted son, Michael Edward, born on March 18, 1945; and Christine, who was born prematurely on June 26, 1947, and died on the same day.
In the late 1930s, Reagan had enlisted in the 14th Cavalry Regiment of the Army Reserves. Due to his poor eyesight, he was transferred to a motion picture unit in Culver City, California, where he made and narrated training films. He was relieved of his duties in 1945 in the capacity of a Captain.
While he was still in the Army Corps, he became an active member of the board of Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and was later elected President in 1947. At that time, Hollywood was in a very precarious situation because Congress was bent on finding people with possible ties with the Communist regimes. Reagan aired out his thoughts to the House of Committee on un-American activities being carried out, and suggested that banning his fellow actors is entirely unreasonable. Nevertheless, he still cooperated with the law enforcement agencies as a witness to acts of treason regarding this issue.
As President of the guild, he contributed a lot to the movie industry, including a petition for better wages for the actors and other associated workers, sanctioning improvements in working conditions, and new tax procedures for the industry. While Reagan achieved much, his marriage was already suffering, which led to a divorce in 1949. According to his wife, the reason for the divorce was because of their political disagreements; she being a Republican, while Reagan was still a Democrat.
As president of SAG, he was sought by Nancy Davis, an actress, who had discovered that her name was included in the Hollywood blacklist. It turned out to be the case of a mistaken identity and, thus, began their romance. The two started dating and decided to get married on March 4, 1952, in Los Angeles. They had two children together; Patricia Ann, born on October 21, 1952, and Ronald Prescott, born on May 20, 1958. Nancy Reagan also became the stepmother of Ronald Reagan’s children from his first marriage. He continued starring in other movies which included Knute Rockne – All American, King’s Row, Love is in the Air, Dark Victory, The Killers, and Hellcats of the Navy, the only film he co-starred in with Nancy Davis.
In 1954, he was made a host and an all-around motivational speaker of General Electric Theater, a weekly television drama series. He regularly visited and communicated with the employees and spoke with a fierce conviction against unionism, while advocating American conservationism. He eventually left the job and formally registered himself as a Republican.
Come 1964, he became the campaign spokesperson for his fellow Republican, Barry Goldwater, which paved the way for him to enter national politics. Reagan ran for the governorship of California in 1966, and won the local election by a landslide. He held the position for two terms, from 1967 to 1975. Reagan vetoed all but one of the 994 bills passed by the state legislature, which was the Civil Rights Restoration Act. He also doubled the aid to schools and quadrupled the government cost for mental health. Reagan was also successful in limiting the eligibility of the people receiving benefits, adding it up to those who needed it the most.
Some decisions surprised a lot of people, though. He signed the “Therapeutic Abortion Act,” where abortions were legalized to protect the well-being of the mother. When Reagan saw the overwhelming amount of abortions right after the bill was signed, he expressed his regret, emphasizing that he was still pro-life. Another order which, according to Reagan, was the biggest regret of his governorship was, when he signed Family Act Law. It stated that a no-fault divorce could be filed by a married couple, with no blame whatsoever placed on either party.
Reagan announced his candidacy for the presidency in 1968 and 1976 but lost to Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford respectively. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan convinced Bush to be his running mate against the incumbent Democratic President, Jimmy Carter. Carter’s reputation was at risk when he started his campaign due to a number of factors which included, but were not limited to: inflation having doubled since his first year in office, high unemployment and interest rates, and the failed rescue of the U.S. prisoners held in Iran for 14 months. Though both were tied in the earlier polls, in the end, Reagan won the public support. He was already 69 years old when he was inaugurated as the 40th President of the United States on January 20, 1981.
Right from the start, Reagan firmly stated that the federal government should have its limits in handling people’s affairs. During his inaugural address, the news of the release of the U.S hostages in Iran prompted speculations that there might have been a covert deal between Reagan and the Iranian government. The term October surprise was used during this time, wherein the Iranians might have held back the release just in time for Reagan’s victory, but he denied all these allegations.
Critics also expressed their reservations of Nancy’s manner as First Lady for living a lavish lifestyle and having an expensive taste in fashion. Famous and glamorous Hollywood celebrities were invited to parties at the White House and she sparked several reactions with people accusing Nancy of being inconsiderate when the nation was experiencing economic turmoil. As a response, Nancy started the anti-drug campaign, Just Say No, which continued under the Nancy Reagan Foundation, as she also started appearing in public events dressed modestly.
On March 30, 1981, John W. Hinckley, Jr., an insane American, attempted to assassinate Reagan, who was leaving Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. Hinckley fired six rounds with one ricocheted bullet successfully wounding Reagan, hitting him in the chest, also injuring a police officer, a secret service agent, and a press secretary in the process. While in the operating room, Reagan jokingly told the hospital staff that he was hoping that “they are all Republicans.” Dr. Joseph Giordano, a Democrat, replied, “Today, Mr. President, we all are.” He made an effort to appear in public two weeks after being released from the hospital for people to see that he was doing well, even though he was suffering from complications by fever after his operation.
On the economic side of things, Reagan believed in a theory called the “supply-side economics.” He proposed limited spending on social welfare programs while increased military expenses. This philosophy only lasted a year because there was severe backlash, including high unemployment rates, large trade deficits, and countless bankruptcies. He made a law reversal to rectify these, and by the end of 1983, all areas of the economy became stable. In 1986, the news of Reagan’s authorization of trading weapons with Iran for help in releasing the U.S. Hostages held in Lebanon, broke. This act violated the American ‘no-negotiation with terrorist elements’ policy. The scandal became even more damaging when another news came out, where the profits from the arms deal with Iran was embezzled to the Contras in Nicaragua. The incident was headed by a couple of military officials who Reagan fired immediately. He, however, admitted to being accountable for the arms-for-hostages deal but denied having any knowledge about the Contras agreement.
Reagan was firmly against the Soviet Union’s theoretical terms, even calling them an ‘evil empire’ at one instance. Although, in Reagan’s second term in the office, the two countries managed to improve their political connections. President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) on December 8, 1987.
After his term ended in 1982, he and Nancy moved to Los Angeles and he was occasionally seen in Republican Party events. He continued to carry out his civic duties and established the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award in 1992. The award was given to those who made significant contributions to freedom worldwide. In August 1994, Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He died of pneumonia on June 5, 2004, at their Los Angeles home. He was 93 years old at the time of his death.
Ronald Reagan was one of the most influential Presidents and led America through a tough period. His conservative principles made him an icon in the Republican Party. He held a high approval rating when his term ended, which led to his tenure being called the Reagan Era.
- Autobiography of Ronald Reagan – An American Life, Threshold Editions, 2011
- Reagan: The Life by H. W. Brands, Anchor, 2016
Images on this page
- ronald-reagan-dutch-haircut: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration | public domain
- ronald-reagan-radio-announcer: Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library
- ronald-reagan-with-Nancy: US National Archives | public domain
- ronald-regan-governor-victory: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library | public domain
- ronald-reagan-addresses-congress-1981: Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library
- ronald-reagan-portrait: U.S. Government office | public domain
- ronald_reagan_meets_with_aides_on_iran_contra: White House Photo Office | public domain
- ronald-reagan-addresses-party-goers: Smithsonian Institution Archives | public domain