Flashback Friday – Ronald Reagan
This coming Sunday, Ronald Reagan would have celebrated his 100th birthday. As such, there has been a myriad of new books, documents and celebrations honouring the late president. His sons have competing books coming out this month, and it has sparked a war of words between the two. If you missed the previous post about that topic, you can read it here. But regardless of whether his sons are speaking, it is still his birthday this Sunday, and as such today’s Flashback Friday is dedicated to Ronald Reagan.
Reagan has one of the most positive legacies of any former U.S. president. The former actor was a master of communication, which aided him greatly during his two terms in office. It is difficult to dislike the man who had cowboy roots, and a smile that could win over just about anyone. His life after leaving the White House was heavily guarded by his wife Nancy, who shielded him from the public following his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s. When he died in 2004, his funeral was a national event, and nobody expected it to be anything less.
Born in Tampico, Illinois in 1911, Reagan was nicknamed “Dutch” by his father at a young age. He grew up in nearby Dixon, where he attended school. Upon graduation, he attended Eureka College, where he studied economics and sociology. All throughout his adolescent life, he was very active. He participated in swimming, football and track. He also was involved in theatre and campus politics. During college, he earned money by working as lifeguard in summers. After leaving Eureka, Reagan took a job as a radio announcer. His charisma and golden voice earned him respect in the job. He was noticed in 1937, when he took a screen test in Hollywood. He was immediately signed to a contract with Warner Brothers and began his movie career.
While acting, Reagan appeared in over 50 films. He was a well known face in Hollywood. He was then elected the president of the Screen Actors Guild, which he presided over for seven years. Prior to this he had been registered as a Democrat. During his time as SAG president, he slowly moved to the right. There was a period where many actors were blacklisted for fear that they were communists. Reagan became ardently anti-communist and bought into the hype, real or not. By the early 1950’s Reagan moved over to TV, becoming the host of the General Electric Theatre. In this position, Reagan travelled the country and made numerous speeches. This is when his conservative leanings began to really emerge. He wrote almost all of his own speeches, and was very comfortable in front of an audience. His natural charm and time as an actor made him connect well with people.
It is fair to say that by 1965, Reagan was a BIG DEAL in California. He had earned the respect of Republicans with his small government, big business approach and in 1966 he accepted the party’s nomination as candidate for governor. In the general election, he defeated incumbent governor Pat Brown, the father of current California governor Jerry Brown. As would be a trend with many of Reagan’s elections, he won easily. During his tenure as governor, he had a desire to see Californians go back to work, get off welfare and rely less on the government. He is well remembered for his response to student protests, where he ordered the National Guard to step in, and things turned bloody. But he remained true to his conservative base, and it was enough to get him reelected in 1970.
While he was in Sacramento, Reagan made no qualms about the fact that he had presidential aspirations. He considered a bid in 1968, as the part of an attempt to stop Richard Nixon, but it was farfetched. His next serious attempt at the White House came in 1976, when he challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford. For those that remember Ford’s Flashback Friday post, he was never elected to the position. During his short tenure in office, he had not been able to handle many of the domestic problems that emerged. Reagan’s strategy was bold, as it is often taboo to challenge an incumbent president. But nevertheless, Reagan decided he was the real conservative candidate and should run in the general election. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the momentum coming into the convention, and Ford narrowly won the nomination. During an impromptu speech at the convention, Reagan highlighted many of the themes that would dominate his presidency four years later.
Reagan remerged in 1980, stronger than ever and once again wished to be the Republican nominee. This time, he had little competition, and with his large financial backing and name recognition, he easily won. In a slightly surprising, but understandable move, he selected former CIA director George H.W. Bush as his running mate. Incumbent President Jimmy Carter was incredibly weak, and it was no surprise that Reagan won in a landslide in 1980. The young lifeguard from Illinois had reached the peak of American political power.
The Reagan Revolution, as it became known, is well remembered by those who lived through it. Reagan had very simple, but lofty goals for the country. He wanted to restore the confidence of the American people, reduce the size of government, stop the Soviet Union and become a legend himself. His supporters would argue he did all of that. He effectively ended the Cold War with the USSR, by bankrupting them with a bizarre Star Wars inspired space race. He saved the American public from the threat of nuclear war. His “teflon” exterior meant that any scandal or negative press never stuck, and he enjoyed high public approval ratings throughout his time in office.
When he took office, he was nearing his 70’s. He had a couple of health scares while president, including a failed assassination attempt in 1981. After the assassination attempt, his wife Nancy heavily restricted and controlled his travel and public exposure. Reagan had married Nancy in 1952. Both actors, they met while doing films and immediately fell in love. Reagan had previously been married before, but later divorced. From his first marriage he had two children, then two more with Nancy.
Reelection in 1984 was a piece of cake, and Reagan completed four more inspiring terms. When he left office in 1989, he was loved by Republicans and Democrats, who had switched teams to vote for Reagan. He died at his home in California in 2004, at the age of 93. In recent months, Reagan’s name has emerged more than usual. The Tea Party movement often cites much of his philosophies as the foundation for their ideals. Whether Reagan himself would be flattered or outraged is difficult to know, but there is no question he is well loved in that party. The story is quite similar amongst ordinary Americans. Many can not deny that Reagan made them feel good about their government again, regardless of whether he was sometimes absentminded and out of touch.
What are your thoughts on Ronald Reagan? Does he have an overly inflated legacy, or does he deserve the praise?