Ronald Reagan

Film actor who became one of the most successful Presidents of the United States of the 20th century

Monday 07 June 2004 00:00

Ronald Wilson Reagan, actor and politician: born Tampico, Illinois 6 February 1911; President, Screen Actors' Guild 1947-52, 1959-60; Governor, State of California 1967-74; President of the United States 1981-89; Honorary GCB 1989; married 1940 Jane Wyman (one adopted son, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1948), 1952 Nancy Davis (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 5 June 2004.

Ronald Wilson Reagan was one of the most original and in some respects one of the most successful Presidents of the United States of the 20th century.

Few politicians have climbed to the top of the pole who turned to politics so late in life. After a youthful career as a radio sports commentator and a career in Hollywood as an actor close to but never in the highest magnitude of stardom, Reagan became active in the politics of the film industry as president of the Screen Actors' Guild. When his acting career was nearing eclipse, he become the host of a drama series hosted by the General Electric Company, and began to tour America preaching the virtues of free enterprise.

It was not, however, until 1959, when he was 47, that he abandoned his loyalty to the Democrats, whose New Deal had helped his father in the Depression, and registered as a Republican. His surge to prominence came when he recorded a speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater, the unsuccessful and very conservative Republican candidate in the 1964 presidential election.

Goldwater was annihilated by President Lyndon Johnson. But a group of wealthy Republicans in Southern California saw Reagan's potential as an heir to the conservative tradition in Republican politics. In 1966, they persuaded Reagan to run for Governor of California, where he delighted conservatives and infuriated liberals in a highly polarised political climate by his sharp attacks on radical students at the University of California at Berkeley.

By 1966, he had emerged as a national figure, and in fact he made a brief, belated run for the Republican nomination at Miami Beach that year. He was not a candidate in 1972, but four years later in Kansas City he came within a whisker of defeating the Republican president, Gerald Ford, for his own party's nomination, and by 1980 he was the all but inevitable nominee. He was the standard-bearer for a wave of impatient conservatism, pent up by frustration over expensive and ineffectual democratic domestic policies and by national frustration at oil shortages, foreign policy setbacks and the taking as hostages of the US embassy staff in Tehran by Islamic fundamentalists.

As President, Reagan presided over a sort of cultural revolution as conservative and "neo-conservative" activists and intellectuals, backed by conservative "think-tanks" and massive fund-raising from wealthy individuals and corporations swarmed into Washington with new ideas about everything. At first the capital was taken aback by free-spending Californians and other unfamiliar types, led by the First Lady, Nancy Reagan, who introduced the style of the film capital to the cave-dwelling citizens of the political capital.

Then, in March 1981, Reagan was shot, ironically by a filmstruck youth of good Republican stock who wished to draw attention to his unrequited passion for the actress (later director) Jodie Foster. "Honey," the President was quoted as having said to his wife as soon as he recovered, "I forgot to duck." It was, of course, a line from one of the films they had enjoyed in Hollywood. The shooting, and the debonair courage with which Reagan reacted, fixed his popularity firmly with most of the public for the rest of his two terms.

Even some of those who detested his conservative policies and thought him intellectually lightweight found him personally likeable and admirable. And the shooting guaranteed him a prolonged honeymoon in his relations with Congress. This enabled him to pass legislation, in particular massive tax cuts, which, in conjunction with the steep increase he ordered in defence expenditure, saddled the country with a heavy burden of deficit and debt.

Later the stalemate settled in again on Capitol Hill, and Reagan was able to pass fewer of his radical conservative domestic legislative proposals. In foreign policy, he took a hard line on the Soviet Union, which he described as an "evil empire", and showed little interest in disarmament negotiations in his first term. After he was re-elected in 1984, however, he showed greater openness in his dealings with the Soviet Union.

His second term was shadowed by the Iran-Contra affair, in which it emerged that members of the White House national security council staff were attempting to sell and in some cases actually selling weapons to revolutionary Iran in breach of US law, in order to raise money to send - again in breach of laws passed by Congress and signed by the President - to the right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

The scandal threatened to explode in the manner of the Watergate affair, which had forced President Richard Nixon to resign a dozen years earlier. Instead, while his aides were investigated and prosecuted, none of the dirt stuck to their leader, thus justifying the nickname he had been given earlier by his enemies: he was the "Teflon president" they complained, because dirt never stuck to him any more than it did to a plastic frying pan.

Unlike such frenzied workers as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon or his immediate predecessor Jimmy Carter, Reagan imposed a leisurely pace on the presidency. He appeared lazy and ignorant and many jests circulated illustrating his vagueness about such matters as the name of the prime minister of the country he happened to be visiting.

He had, however, a firm grip on the essential elements of his job. Relatively inexperienced in politics until he jumped straight to the governorship of the most important state of the Union, Reagan had nevertheless had a professional training to the highest standards in certain skills which - although not conventionally reckoned among the prerequisites of statesmanship - nevertheless played a vital part in the politics of the late 20th century.

He could read a speech superbly. He could, if necessary, write or at least rewrite one. He knew how to work to cameras, to work a room or a carefully scripted television event or photo-opportunity. He looked fit, which indeed he was, thanks to his passion for riding and for rough work on his ranch on the California coast, the Rancho el Cielo. He wore clothes beautifully and he had, as a former girlfriend, the film star Olivia de Havilland, once said, "the manners of an archduke".

His equipment for the presidency, in fact, might be likened to an inverted sandwich with two slices of the finest beef separated by a wodge of soggy bread. At the bottom level, he was superbly qualified for the technique of politics in the media age. In the middle, he was distinctly soggy in his knowledge of politics, economics, and other such matters of some importance to the President of the United States. On the other hand, while he acknowledged he was not well informed, he insisted, with much justification, that he was well served by people who knew the things of which he was ignorant.

At the top level, again, he had a surprisingly shrewd grasp of the great tidal movements of public opinion in the US and, of international politics. He sensed, for example, that the American people were becoming disenchanted with government, and his promise to get government off their backs was a powerful political talisman. He sensed, too, that the US did not need to strive too officiously to bargain arms control with the Soviet Union, but that if Washington pressed ahead with the development of ever more sophisticated and expensive systems, Moscow would sooner or later crack. He was right.

When Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader, who moved swiftly to improve relations with the US, Reagan was sufficiently unprejudiced to seize the opportunity and open a brilliant diplomatic campaign which ended, after Reagan's retirement from office, in the collapse of the evil empire. Unsophisticated his perceptions and his methods might have been in international politics. Yet it can be argued that he contributed as much as any man, and far more than many incomparably more sophisticated than he, to the ending of the Cold War.

Ronald Reagan was born in 1911 in an apartment over his father's shoe store in the tiny town of Tampico, Illinois. His upbringing and to a great extent his life were marked by the sharply contrasting characters of his parents. His father, Jack Reagan, was a charmer, a Democrat, a drinker, and a ne'er-do-well who lost job after job. As a result the family moved constantly, until it settled in Dixon, Illinois, where Ronald attended high school. He was a strong swimmer and saved a record number of lives as a lifeguard at a neighbouring park. His father got a job as an official in a local New Deal relief agency and his son remained a grateful admirer of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the architect of the New Deal, for many years.

His mother, Nelle, was a Protestant and a woman of strong beliefs who instilled her ambition and something of her self-discipline, into her son. She worked in a dress shop, but she also gave dramatic recitations and her son inherited her love of the theatre as well as his father's interest in sports. His mother was able to help him find a place at Eureka College, a small institution run by her church, the Disciples of Christ.

After graduation, in the depths of the Depression, he was lucky to get a job as a sports announcer at radio stations, first in Davenport, then in Des Moines, Iowa, run by the founder of chiropractic healing. He became something of a celebrity as an announcer, and in 1937, when he was reporting for spring training for the Chicago Cubs, a friend arranged a screen test for him at Warner Bros.

For five years he enjoyed a successful career as the pleasant young man in a series of forgettable thrillers, romantic comedies and an occasional western, a genre for which he was well qualified because of his lifelong passion for riding. Only in a few roles - in Knute Rockne, All American (1940), which provided one of his most famous lines, "Win just one for the Gipper"; in King's Row (1942), which came up with another, "Where's the rest of me?", delivered by the Reagan character when he woke up in hospital to find his legs had been amputated by a sadistic doctor - hinted that it was more or less a matter of chance that he did not achieve the acting success earned by other pleasant-looking, All-American actors of his generation.

In 1942 he joined the United States Army Air Corps, but, although later he sometimes suggested that he had been in the South Pacific, his military career was spent in Hollywood, making training and propaganda films for the Air Corps. After the Second World War, his acting career fell to pieces. His marriage to Jane Wyman, who won an Oscar for Johnny Belinda in 1948, ended in divorce the same year, and Reagan was reduced first to roles in feeble vehicles like Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), where he was upstaged by a chimpanzee, and then to MCing on the night-club circuit.

By contrast, however, he was developing a second career in those years as a member of the board and later president of the Screen Actors' Guild. He led a long strike for better medical benefits and pensions. He was, however, from the start strongly on the anti-Communist side in the bitter disputes which divided Hollywood in the 1940s and testified as a friendly witness to the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee.

During his period as president of SAG, Reagan's political philosophy changed noticeably. He began as a Cold War liberal, strongly anti- Communist, but a defender of the New Deal liberal policies, which entailed substantial government intervention in many areas of national life, including business. Gradually his views shifted to the point where they were indistinguishable from those of the southern California conservative businessmen who were the launching pad of his political career.

In 1952, after a period as one of Hollywood's more eligible bachelors, Reagan married Nancy Davis, a young actress who had sought him out for help in his capacity as SAG president. She was the daughter of an actress who married a wealthy and extremely conservative surgeon from Chicago, Loyal Davis, who adopted his wife's daughter from an earlier marriage. Nancy and Ronald Reagan's marriage was an unusually happy one and it lasted for more than 46 years. Reagan had two children by his previous marriage, Maureen, born in 1941, and Michael, adopted in 1945, and two children by Nancy Davis, Patti, born in 1952, and Ronald Jnr, born in 1958.

After working as a radio announcer, an actor and a union official, in 1954 Reagan began a fourth career of an unusual kind. He went to work as the host of the General Electric Theater show on television. But he also travelled round the country making speeches extolling the capitalist economy and the American way of life to General Electric executives and workers. It was, whether or not he realised it at the time, an ideal training for politics as they were to develop in the United States in his later lifetime, since it equipped him to master the arts of communicating on television, in formal speeches and in small groups. He also became familiar with the beliefs and instincts of businessmen and learnt to communicate with factory workers, as well as to travel the length and breadth of the US.

It was not, however, until 1964 that he made the leap into formal politics. That was the year of the unsuccessful candidacy of the western conservative Senator Barry Goldwater, of Arizona, for the Republican presidential nomination. In a generally disastrous campaign - Goldwater was annihilated by the sitting President, Lyndon B. Johnson - one of the few pleasurable memories for conservatives was the fund-raising speech made for Goldwater by Ronald Reagan. It raised over $1m in contributions but, more to the point, it articulated conservative feelings in a way that made Reagan, virtually overnight, the hottest conservative prospect in California, if not in the country.

A group of businessmen from southern California offered to back him financially and, with some difficulty, persuaded him to run for Governor of California in 1966. He defeated the mayor of San Francisco, George Christopher, in the Republican primary and went on to beat the incumbent governor, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, whose son "Jerry" Brown was governor in his turn, in the general election.

As governor of the biggest and richest and in many ways the most complex state in the Union, Reagan was both more successful and less outrageous than many Californians had expected him to be. He cut back the growth of the state government by imposing a freeze on hiring and balanced its budget by increasing taxes. When he had got the budget back into surplus, he returned money to the taxpayer through tax rebates. He began by lambasting radical students and cutting funding for the University of California, but later increased funding for higher education. He reached a compromise with the Democratic legislature on welfare, cutting the number eligible, but increasing benefits.

After leaving the presidency in 1989, the Reagans retired to their home near Malibu, Rancho El Cielo, in the hills overlooking the Pacific. Reagan enjoyed riding his horses and energetic work on the property such as clearing brushwood. Before long, however, he was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.

He remains one of the best-loved of recent American presidents. He was not forgotten in Washington, where he is commemorated in the name of the Reagan building in the Federal Triangle off Constitution Avenue, second in size in the capital only to the Pentagon; and by the national airport, renamed the Ronald W. Reagan Airport.

Reagan tempered his conservative faith with common sense and a humanity which endeared him even to people who did not share his beliefs. His faith in his own upbeat version of the American Dream was infectious, all the more so because of his sense of humour and apparently genuine pleasure at meeting people of every kind.

After his withdrawal from the political scene, the conservative movement was consumed with internal bickering. It also fell into the hands of leaders like Speaker Newt Gingrich and Congressman Tom DeLay of Texas who mistook the fanaticism of the converted for the triumph of their ideas, and led their followers into an ill-judged vendetta against President Bill Clinton, the man who had ended Republican domination of the White House. Ronald Reagan's work, however, had been well done. He shifted the centre of gravity of American politics to the right for a generation, and he did it not with a snarl but with a smile.

Godfrey Hodgson

It is an American dream, writes David Shipman. It could only happen in America. Movie Star Becomes President. You can see the lights flashing in the news bulletin which winds around the New York Times's building in Times Square. "Movie Star Becomes President". Clark Gable or Gary Cooper, the obvious candidates? No. Ronald Reagan, that's who. Who?

And there's another odd thing, he was a collectable, at least in the US. He was not as sought-after in the souvenir shops as Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, but you could buy postcards of him as you quickly thought of another hundred actors more deserving.

"Life is so ironic," said Bette Davis. "Back in our Warners days, who would have thought that little Ronnie Reagan would end up as President and would be presenting me with a medal at the White House? Never in a million years!"

When Reagan became President one or two revival houses in the US tried Ronald Reagan festivals, in double-bills, only to find that no one came. That was a joke. Then he once played in a movie, Bedtime for Bonzo, with a chimp as co-star. Another joke. Then he was a has-been star of B-movie westerns. Another joke, but not fair and not true. He was not, let us admit it, one of Hollywood's glories, but for almost 10 years he was one of the leading stars at Warner Bros, though whether he really deserved to be is another matter. His acting style went from modest to inoffensive; there was a certain charm, a geniality, a crooked smile, a quizzical expression, a tentative integrity. He was an amiable enough piece of screen furniture, but people seldom went to a Reagan film because he was in it, and even less often did they leave it discussing his contribution.

Nineteen thirty-seven. Warners were remaking an old film of theirs - it was a habit at the studio - Hi, Nellie, about a journalist who unmasks a crooked politician. They had changed the milieu to a radio station and the title to Lobe is on the Air. Reagan was at that time a sports broadcaster, and someone thought he would fit nicely into the picture. He did, and was given a long-term contract, followed by some undemanding roles in some unmemorable films.

He first came into prominence in Brother Rat (1938), based on a popular Broadway play, some high jinks about three cadets at military school. His role was perhaps less important than those of Wayne Morris and Eddie Albert, but they were a cheery trio, reunited for a sequel, Brother Rat and a Baby (1940). Jane Wyman was featured in both films, and in 1940 she and Reagan were married. The only film of Reagan's from this period much seen today is Dark Victory (1939), in which he was Bette Davis's high-society boyfriend, selflessly giving her up when he discovers that she loves another.

Shortly after this he had leads in two of the studio's most prestigious pictures. The first of them was Knute Rockne, All American, based on the life of the Notre Dame football coach. He got to say one of his most famous lines, "Win just one for the Gipper", and from the other, King's Row, he took the title of his 1965 autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me? A study of small-town life, it is certainly his best film, though it owes more to superb performances by Ann Sheridan and Betty Field, and the atmospheric direction of Sam Wood.

There is another famous line in Desperate Journey (1942), "Now for Australia and a crack at those Japs", but it is said by Errol Flynn. Reagan was one of his companions in danger in what is withal one of Flynn's worst films, and he was a fellow officer in one of his better ones, Santa Fe Trail (1940). In fact Reagan plays General Custer in his younger days.

This is the Army (1943) was famous then because it was based on Irving Berlin's stage revue in aid of Army Emergency Relief. It is famous now - well, remembered - because his father was played by George Murphy, the other movie right-winger who was to become a professional politician. On the stage the GIs as the "Ladies of the Chorus" appeared in full drag, but the censor stepped in and the film's ladies have deep voices, hairy chests and they're wearing boots and socks and garters, just so that there can't be any doubt. However, they do retain their flowery frocks and picture hats: it would have been a gift for posterity if Reagan and Murphy had been among them instead of watching from the wings.

Reagan himself joined the army, and when he left he was handed some plum roles by the grateful Warner Bros, usually with top billing - in, for example, The Voice of the Turtle (1947) and John Loves Mary (also 1947), both based on light Broadway comedies and in both of which he played a soldier up to his neck in romantic complications. It could not be said, however, that his knowledge of the required skills went much further than looking willing. His co-stars were respectively Eleanor Parker and Patricia Neal, both being groomed by the studio to take the place of the actresses of Bette Davis's generation. In the meantime Wyman had advanced to real stardom, winning an Oscar for Johnny Belinda. It was partly because of her commanding position at the studio that Warners promoted Reagan, but the marriage, though much featured in the fan magazines, came apart at this time.

If Reagan's role in The Hasty Heart (1949) was secondary to Richard Todd (who stole the film), he still had first billing, and in this case played "Yank", the one American at a British military hospital in Burma. Neal was also in the film and recalled that when talking to Reagan off the set they often got on to politics "which meant, not a conversation but a monologue". Reagan began to freelance about this time, but did one more good movie for Warners, Storm Warning (1950), playing a district attorney fighting the Ku Klux Klan in a small Southern town. And Warners gave him one last important role, in The Winning Team (1952), as a famous baseball player, Grover Cleveland Alexander, who takes to drink. But it was too much like every baseball movie that ever was. Doris Day was the patient wife who pleads with his old boss to give him another chance.

When Reagan left Warners soon afterwards, Hollywood turned out to be a very chilly place indeed - though that may be said for many other second-grade stars as the studios offloaded their contract lists when television began to bite into their audiences. He made a mere handful of movies over the next few years, and who now remembers Prisoner of War (1954) or Hellcats of the Navy (1957)? He very sensibly retired into television, where he hosted Death Valley Days for three years and General Electric Theater for 10.

He also acted in that medium, and one of his television appearances became his last movie credit, when Universal decided that The Killers (1964) was too violent for the small screen, and sent it instead to cinemas. A remake of the 1946 film of the same title, it marked a return to form for Don Siegel, who had directed Reagan in Night unto Night in 1949. It was Reagan's first screen villain, Angie Dickinson's rich criminal protector, whom she helps in double-crossing the hapless hero, John Cassavetes. The role was so different from Reagan's "Smiling Johnny" days that it was also doubtless a challenge. He wasn't up to it. He is not so much bad as very dull, which doesn't make for a hissable villain. It's just as well he found another career.

* David Shipman died 22 April 1996

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