40th president - 1981-1989
Thursday 22 January 2009
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."
"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."
"A madman, an imbecile and a bum." Fidel Castro
"A triumph of the embalmer's art." Gore Vidal
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.
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