January 20

This Day in History

Old West

Jan 20, 1981:

Ronald Reagan becomes president

Ronald Reagan, former Western movie actor and host of television's popular "Death Valley Days" is sworn in as the 40th president of the United States.

More than any president since the Texas-born Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan's public image was closely tied to the American West, although he was raised in the solidly Midwestern state of Illinois. In the 1930s, Reagan moved to California, where he became a moderately successful Hollywood actor. Thereafter, he always considered himself a true westerner in spirit.

Reagan's image as a westerner was reinforced by his acting career. Although he acted in other genres as well, many of Reagan's movies were B-grade Westerns like "Law and Order," in which he played a sheriff who was the only law "from Dodge City to Tombstone!" When his movie career waned, Reagan made the transition to television as a host of the hugely popular showcase for western stories, "Death Valley Days."

Reagan's film and TV career not only won him public-name recognition but also helped establish his enduring "good-guy" reputation. A few of Reagan's roles in non-western movies included men of questionable character, but in Westerns he usually played the brave and wholesome sheriff or cowboy who killed the outlaws, saved the school marm, and brought justice to the Wild West. Though it is difficult to estimate exactly how important such positive roles were for his subsequent political career, surely Reagan's "white hat" movie image helped win him some confidence and votes.

Reagan's politics also increasingly reflected the mythic western image of rugged independence and self-reliance. Although he had been a liberal New Deal Democrat as a young man, by the 1950s, Reagan had become a hard-line conservative. As president of the Screen Actor's Guild (1947-52, 1959-60), he won national attention as an outspoken anticommunist, and he began to view even the mild federal socialism of the New Deal as destructive to individual initiative and freedom. Switching his allegiance to the Republican Party, Reagan won two terms as governor of California (1967-75), where he gained a devoted national following that helped him win the presidency.

During his eight years as president of the United States (1981-89), Reagan redefined the center in American politics, moving it away from the liberal Democrats and towards the conservative Republicans. Though his days as a western movie star were long past by then, Reagan continued to celebrate the mythic independence of the western pioneer as a parallel to modern conservatism. To drive home the point, Reagan made frequent and highly visible retreats to his California ranch, where he rode horses, fixed fences, and cut firewood for the TV cameras. This president, Reagan's actions seemed to say, was a self-reliant cowboy at heart and only a reluctant politician.

After a long struggle with Alzheimer s disease, Ronald Reagan died on June 5, 2004. He was buried at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

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