On this day in 1911, President Ronald Wilson Reagan is born in Tampico, Illinois.
Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, served for two terms from 1981 to 1989. Known as The Great Communicator, he was the first actor to be elected president after two centuries of mainly lawyers and soldiers.
Born and raised in Illinois, Reagan took his first media job as a radio sports announcer in the Midwest. Buoyed by his on-air success, he journeyed to Hollywood and began acting in feature films in the 1930s. During World War II, he served as a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, appearing in training and propaganda films. After the war, Reagan served as president of the Screen Actor’s Guild from 1947 to 1952. At that time, he was a proponent of New Deal Democratic policies. He switched to the Republican Party in 1960.
Reagan delivered a rousing speech in support of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater at the Republican National Convention in 1964, which in effect launched his political career. After two terms as governor of California, he made a bid for the Republican presidential ticket in 1976, losing to President Gerald Ford. In 1980, he gained the nomination and beat out embattled Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter to become president, ushering in a new era of conservatism in American politics.
As a result of his actor’s training, Reagan possessed an uncanny ability to simultaneously project toughness, humility and affability. He survived an assassination attempt just weeks into his first term and bounced back with vigor, retaining his sense of humor. The Great Communicator’s public statements ranged from the profound (There are no great limits to growth because there are no limits to human intelligence, imagination and wonder) to the irreverent (Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first).
An immensely popular and influential leader, Reagan’s administration was notable for freeing American hostages taken captive in Iran during Carter’s term and for resurrecting a no-nonsense image of American strength abroad. Perhaps most notably, his increase in military spending and bold anti-communist rhetoric contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Shortly after publicly denouncing the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire he cultivated a successful diplomatic and personal relationship with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
While supporters found him charming, his detractors claimed Reagan could not separate film from reality, a charge bolstered by some alarming public gaffes. His comment that trees cause pollution appalled those already infuriated by his policy of industrial deregulation. Once while receiving Israeli dignitaries, Reagan claimed to have accompanied World War II film crews to liberated Nazi death camps, when in reality he spent the war in California. When pushing for the experimental Star Wars defense plan, he compared the system to a weapon used by his character in a film called Murder in the Air.
His popular appeal, which resulted in a landslide second-term election, could not save his second term from scandal. In 1986, many Americans were angered when evidence surfaced that his administration had struck a covert deal to sell Iran arms and used proceeds from the sale to finance anti-Communist guerrillas in Nicaragua. Reagan’s advisors successfully kept Reagan uninformed of the dirty details and he was able to plead plausible deniability, for which he was dubbed the Teflon President.
Despite the scandal, Reagan’s image as the embodiment of traditional American values endured with many. Americans were also captivated by his seemingly picture-perfect marriage. He and his wife Nancy were often photographed together on their ranch in California, dancing in each other’s arms at state functions or holding hands. Nancy placed her husband at the center of her life. My life really began when I married my husband,” she once reminisced.
In 2004, Ronald Reagan died at age 93 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.