Year
1981
Month Day
January 20

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 Alzheimers disease, Reagan died on June 5, 2004. He was buried at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Marvin Gaye's hit single "What's Going On?" released

January 20, 1971, sees the release of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" In addition to being a massive hit, the song marked a turning point in Gaye's career and in the trajectory of Motown. Gaye achieved popularity in the 1960s with songs like "How Sweet it Is (To Be Loved by ...read more

President Carter calls for Olympics to be moved from Moscow

On January 20, 1980, in a letter to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and a television interview, U.S. President Jimmy Carter proposes that the 1980 Summer Olympics be moved from the planned host city, Moscow, if the Soviet Union failed to withdraw its troops from ...read more

Donald Trump is inaugurated

In the culmination of his extraordinary rise to power over a tumultuous election year, Donald John Trump is inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States in Washington, D.C. From the time he kicked off his presidential campaign in June 2015 at his namesake Trump Tower in ...read more

Barack Obama is inaugurated

On a freezing day in Washington, D.C., Barack Hussein Obama is sworn in as the 44th U.S. president. The son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, Obama had become the first African American to win election to the nation’s highest office the previous ...read more

FDR inaugurated to fourth term

On January 20, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only president to be elected to three terms in office, is inaugurated to his fourth—and final—term. At the height of the Great Depression, Roosevelt, then governor of New York, was elected the 32nd president of the United ...read more

John F. Kennedy inaugurated

On January 20, 1961, on the newly renovated east front of the United States Capitol, John Fitzgerald Kennedy is inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States. It was a cold and clear day, and the nation’s capital was covered with a snowfall from the previous night. The ...read more

Hong Kong ceded to the British

During the First Opium War, China cedes the island of Hong Kong to the British with the signing of the Chuenpi Convention, an agreement seeking an end to the first Anglo-Chinese conflict. In 1839, Britain invaded China to crush opposition to its interference in the country’s ...read more

Yasser Arafat elected leader of Palestine

Yasser Arafat is elected president of the Palestinian National Council with 88.1 percent of the popular vote, becoming the first democratically elected leader of the Palestinian people in history. Arafat, the founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), originally ...read more

Iran Hostage Crisis ends

Minutes after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as the 40th president of the United States, the 52 U.S. captives held at the U.S. embassy in Teheran, Iran, are released, ending the 444-day Iran Hostage Crisis. On November 4, 1979, the crisis began when militant Iranian students, ...read more

Nazi officials discuss “Final Solution” at the Wannsee Conference

Nazi officials meet to discuss the details of the “Final Solution” of the “Jewish question.” In July 1941, Hermann Goering, writing under instructions from Hitler, had ordered Reinhard Heydrich, SS general and Heinrich Himmler’s number-two man, to submit “as soon as possible a ...read more

Richard Nixon takes office

Richard Nixon is inaugurated as president of the United States and says, “After a period of confrontation [in Vietnam], we are entering an era of negotiation.” Eight years after losing to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election, Nixon had defeated Hubert H. Humphrey for the ...read more

FDR inaugurated to second term

On January 20, 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt is inaugurated for the second time as president, beginning the second of four terms in the office. His first inauguration, in 1933, had been held in March, but the 20th Amendment, passed later that year, made January 20 the ...read more

Country star Jerry Lee Lewis rocks the Grand Ole Opry

Years after he was known as “The Killer,”, a rock pioneer who released such rock standards as “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless,” Jerry Lee Lewis made a name for himself in a very different musical genre: country. And on January 20, 1973, he capped off his road to country ...read more

Actress Audrey Hepburn dies

One of America’s most beloved actresses, Audrey Hepburn, dies on January 20, 1993, near her home in Lausanne, Switzerland. The 63-year-old Hepburn had undergone surgery for colon cancer the previous November. The daughter of an aristocratic Dutch mother and an English businessman ...read more

Bullfight spectators die when bleachers collapse

On January 20, 1980, bleachers at a bullring in Sincelejo, Colombia, collapse, resulting in the deaths of 222 people. The collapse at Sincelejo, the deadliest tragedy at a sporting event in Colombia’s history, was the result of overcrowding and poor construction. In addition to ...read more

Football player-turned-murderer born

Rae Carruth, the pro football player convicted of hiring someone to kill his pregnant girlfriend, was born on January 20, 1974, in Sacramento, California. On the night of November 15, 1999, Carruth, a receiver for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, and his girlfriend, Cherica Adams, ...read more

Mud March begins

On January 20, 1863, Union General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac begins an offensive against General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia that quickly bogs down as several days of heavy rain turn the roads of Virginia into a muddy quagmire. The campaign was ...read more