Ronald Reagan

40th president - 1981-1989

 

Derided by the intelligentsia while he was in office, Ronald Reagan has subsequently come to be seen, by many, as one of the greater presidents – although opinion remains divided. A former Hollywood actor, he seemed at times to symbolise the worst of modern American politics: as a plausible mouthpiece whose most solid asset was his on-screen charm. But it turned out that he also possessed other, more traditional presidential virtues, applying a plain man's common sense to the intractable problems of the day.

Born and raised in Illinois, he studied economics and sociology; worked briefly as a radio sports announcer; moved to California (in 1937); and forged a successful acting career. He appeared in 53 films in 20 years – mostly B-movies but including some that were well-reviewed. Initially a liberal, he was active in (and later became president of) the Screen Actors Guild, crossed swords with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and by the early Sixties had become a supporter of the Republican Party. He had also divorced (in 1949) and (in 1952) remarried, to the actress Nancy Davis.

He campaigned for presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964 and made such a name for himself in doing so that he was urged to stand for the governorship of California. He did, and served as Governor from 1967 to 1975. He narrowly failed to win the Republican nomination for the 1976 presidential election and finally made his successful challenge for the presidency in 1980.

In power, he moved quickly to focus on his declared objective of reducing the influence of the state in everyday life. Dealing skilfully with Congress, he obtained legislation to stimulate economic growth, curb inflation and increase employment. He also embarked upon a course of cutting taxes, especially for the middle classes, while spending heavily to strengthen the military. This led to a large deficit.

An assassination attempt just 69 days into his presidency – which he reacted to with grace and courage – provided a huge boost to his popularity, and probably reduced opposition to his "Reagan revolution". He recovered quickly, although the bullet had passed less than an inch from the 70-year-old's heart.

His supply-side "Reaganomics" led to recession and high unemployment in 1982, followed by a marked and sustained recovery. Inflation, unemployment and federal taxes all fell, and a sense of prosperity returned to the nation. Critics pointed to the growing deficit as the flaw in Reagan's "miracle", but in the short-term the electorate were happy to ignore that. (In the long-term, the US went during the Reagan years from being the largest creditor nation to being the largest debtor nation.) Even when he controversially dismissed striking air traffic controllers who were federal employees, he seemed immune to any lasting political backlash.

It helped that he was perceived to be standing up for America on the international stage. Although he eventually withdrew US Marines from Lebanon, he did authorise the shooting down of "threatening" Libyan fighter planes off the coast of Libya in 1981; sent troops to "liberate" Grenada from its left-wing regime in 1983; offered moral support to the anti-Communist Solidarity movement in Poland; ordered naval escorts into the Persian Gulf to protect the flow of oil during the Iran-Iraq War; upped the stakes in the arms race by introducing the Strategic Defense Initiative; and adopted increasingly strident anti-Soviet rhetoric.

Easily re-elected in 1984, he continued these themes in his second term, authorising the bombing of Libya in 1986, supporting the Contra Resistance in Nicaragua, and describing the Soviet Union as an "evil empire". His interest in Nicaragua backfired, as the Iran-Contra scandal revealed that, with Reagan's approval, US officials had been selling arms to Iran to encourage the release of US hostages in Lebanon. Some of the proceeds were diverted to anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua. Characteristically, however, Reagan was able to shrug off the scandal.

Meanwhile, his robust approach to détente yielded dividends. After a series of dramatic meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a treaty was negotiated that would eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Perhaps no less importantly, the personal relationship he established with Gorbachev made the mutual incomprehension and mistrust of, for example, Khrushchev and Kennedy seem a distant memory. Reagan increased US defence spending by 35 per cent during his two terms, in pursuit of "peace through strength". Many liberals were horrified by this approach, but it seems, in the end, to have worked.

Other features of the Reagan presidency included a reduction in non-military spending on such projects as Medicaid, food stamps and federal education; a tightening of the rules on social security for the disabled; and an overhaul of the income tax code which eliminated many deductions and exempted millions of people with low incomes. Reagan also poured billions of dollars – to no obvious effect – into the war on drugs that Richard M Nixon had initiated in 1971.

By the end of his administration, Reagan's popularity ratings were still high, and the US was enjoying – by conventional measures – its longest recorded period of peacetime prosperity. He was the first president since Dwight D Eisenhower to serve two full terms in office, and the election of his vice-president as his successor may be taken as the electorate's expression of approval.

He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1994 and died at home in Bel-Air, California, 10 years later. His body was taken to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where over a three-day period more than 100,000 people came to see his coffin; a further 100,000 viewed it when it was taken to Washington. His state funeral – the first for a US president for more than 30 years – was packed with world leaders. Rightly or wrongly, he was seen as an American hero.

In his words

"The defence policy of the United States is based on a simple premise: the United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor."

"Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realise that it bears a very close resemblance to the first."

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction."

"I am not worried about the deficit. It is big enough to take care of itself."

"Honey, I forgot to duck." (After being shot)

"My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

(Joking during a microphone check)

"It's true hard work never killed anyone, but I figure, why take the chance?"

"What I'd really like to do is go down in history as the president who made Americans believe in themselves again."

"I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing."

"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalisation: come here to this gate. Mr Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

"As soon as I get home to California, I plan to lean back, kick up my feet and take a long nap. Come to think of it, things won't be that different at all."

In others' words

"Let us above all thank President Reagan for ending the West's retreat from world responsibility, for restoring the pride and leadership of the United States, and for giving the West back its confidence. He has left America stronger, prouder, greater than ever before."

Margaret Thatcher

"Reaganites say that Reagan has lifted our 'spirits' – correct if they mean he led the nation in a drunken world-record spending binge while leaving millions of American workers, consumers and pollution victims defenceless."

Ralph Nader

"A madman, an imbecile and a bum." Fidel Castro

"A triumph of the embalmer's art." Gore Vidal

Minutiae

He and his wife, Nancy, appeared in the 1957 film, Hellcats of the Navy.

He was the only president to be divorced, the only president to be knighted (he received an honorary knighthood from the Queen in 1989), and the only president to have appeared in a shirt advertisement or worked as a stand-up comic. He did the latter briefly in Las Vegas in 1954.

He was the oldest man to be elected president, taking office at the age of 69. He was also the first president to die in the 21st century, and the first president elected in a year ending in zero not to die in office.

In 1940 he was voted "Most Nearly Perfect Male Figure" by the University of California.

He submitted the first trillion dollar budget to Congress.

After the assassination attempt of 1981, Nancy Reagan hired an astrologer, Joan Quigley, to help her to plan her husband's schedule.

He used to call Nancy "Mommy".

Poor eyesight prevented him from fighting in the Second World War, so he made Army films instead. One of these can be seen in the 1999 film, American Beauty, being watched by the Fitts family.

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
newsChester Zoo have revealed their newest members
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
News
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Hydrographic Survey Manager

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Structural Engineer

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Structural Engineer Job...

Learning & Development Advisor - North & Scotland - £26,000

£26000 - £27000 per annum + car, pension: Ashdown Group: Learning & Developmen...

Generalist HR Administrator, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - £28,000.

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Administrator - Tunbri...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape