Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), a former actor and California governor, served as the 40th U.S. president from 1981 to 1989. Raised in small-town Illinois, he became a Hollywood actor in his 20s and later served as the Republican governor of California from 1967 to 1975. Dubbed the Great Communicator, the affable Reagan became a popular two-term president. He cut taxes, increased defense spending, negotiated a nuclear arms reduction agreement with the Soviets and is credited with helping to bring a quicker end to the Cold War. Reagan, who survived a 1981 assassination attempt, died at age 93 after battling Alzheimer’s disease.
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Did You Know?
Among the items on display at Ronald Reagan's presidential library in California is a 6,000-pound graffiti-covered section of the Berlin Wall, given to him by the people of Berlin.
- Ronald Reagan's Childhood and Education
- Ronald Reagan's Hollywood Career and Marriages
- Golden State Governorship and Bid for the Presidency
- 1981 Inauguration and Assassination Attempt
- Ronald Reagan's Domestic Agenda
- Ronald Reagan and Foreign Affairs
- 1984 Reelection and Iran-Contra Affair
- Ronald Reagan's Later Years
Ronald Reagan's Childhood and Education
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois, to Edward "Jack" Reagan (1883-1941), a shoe salesman, and Nelle Wilson Reagan (1883-1962). The family, which included older son Neil Reagan (1908-1996), resided in an apartment that lacked indoor plumbing and running water and was located along the small town’s main street. Reagan’s father nicknamed him Dutch as a baby, saying he resembled "a fat little Dutchman."
During Reagan’s early childhood, his family lived in a series of Illinois towns as his father switched sales jobs, then settled in Dixon, Illinois, in 1920. In 1928, Reagan graduated from Dixon High School, where he was an athlete and student body president and performed in school plays. During summer vacations, he worked as a lifeguard in Dixon.
Reagan went on to attend Eureka College in Illinois, where he played football, ran track, captained the swim team, served as student council president and acted in school productions. After graduating in 1932, he found work as a radio sports announcer in Iowa.
Ronald Reagan's Hollywood Career and Marriages
In 1937, while in Southern California to cover the Chicago Cubs’ spring training season, Ronald Reagan did a screen test for the Warner Brothers movie studio. The studio signed him to a contract, and that same year he made his film debut in "Love is on the Air," playing a radio news reporter. Over the next three decades he appeared in more than 50 movies. Among his best-known roles was that of Notre Dame football star George Gipp in the 1940 biographical film "Knute Rockne All American." In the movie, Reagan’s famous line–which he is still rememberd for–was "Win one for the Gipper." Another notable role was in 1942 in "Kings Row," in which Reagan portrayed an accident victim who wakes up to discover his legs have been amputated and cries out, "Where’s the rest of me?" (Reagan used this line as the title of his 1965 autobiography.)
In 1940, Reagan married actress Jane Wyman (1917-2007), with whom he had daughter Maureen (1941-2001) and an adopted son, Michael (1945-). The couple divorced in 1948 (Reagan is the only U.S. president to have been divorced). In 1952, he married actress Nancy Davis (1921-). The pair had two children, Patricia (1952-) and Ronald (1958-).
During World War II (1939-1945), Reagan was disqualified from combat duty due to poor eyesight and spent his time in the Army making training films.
From 1947 to 1952, and from 1959 to 1960, he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), during which time he testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committe (HUAC). From 1954 to 1962, he hosted the weekly television drama series "The General Electric Theater." In this role, he toured the United States as a public relations representative for General Electric, giving pro-business talks in which he spoke out against too much government control and wasteful spending, central themes of his future political career.
Golden State Governorship and Bid for the Presidency
In his younger years, Ronald Reagan was a member of the Democratic Party and campaigned for Democratic candidates; however, his views grew more conservative over time, and in the early 1960s he officially became a Republican.
In 1964, Reagan stepped into the national political spotlight when he gave a well-received televised speech for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (1909-1998), a prominent conservative. Two years later, in his first race for public office, Reagan defeated Democratic incumbent Edmund "Pat" Brown Sr. (1905-1996) by almost 1 million votes to win the governorship of California. Reagan was reelected to a second term in 1970.
After making unsuccessful bids for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and 1976, Reagan received his party’s nod in 1980. In that year’s general election, he and running mate George H.W. Bush (1924-) faced off against President Jimmy Carter (1924-) and Vice President Walter Mondale (1928-). Reagan won the election by an electoral margin of 489-49 and captured almost 51 percent of the popular vote. At age 69, he was the oldest person elected to the U.S. presidency.
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