President Reagan, both hailed and vilified as one of the preeminent
leaders of the conservative movement in the 20th century, died
on June 5, 2004, at his home in California at the age of 93 from
complications related to Alzheimer's disease.
By the time
Reagan became the United States' 40th president, he had journeyed
a long way from his birthplace in the small Illinois town of Tampico.
Reagan was born Feb. 6, 1911, to Nelle and John "Jack"
Edward Reagan. An older brother, John Neil Reagan, had been born
Sept. 16, 1908. Weighing in at 10 pounds at birth, Reagan's father
bragged about his fat little "Dutchman." The nickname
"Dutch" would stick with Reagan for the rest of his
Jack, a shoe
salesman who dreamed of owning his own store, and Nelle, a devout
Christian who wanted to be an actress, raised their sons as liberal
Democrats like themselves.
first nine years of Reagan's life, the family moved ten times
as Jack Reagan, well-known as a great story teller and binge drinker,
searched for better jobs. Finally, the family settled in the small
Illinois town of Dixon, where Reagan completed high school and
worked seven summers as a lifeguard to help pay for college.
College, Reagan earned mediocre grades as an economics and sociology
major, but excelled as an actor, class president and football
player. As class president, Reagan was inspired by the populist
rhetoric of newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose
oratory style would later influence Reagan's speeches.
several stints as a radio sports announcer in Iowa, in 1937 Reagan
won an acting contract with Warner Bros. in Hollywood; over the
next three decades, Reagan appeared in 53 films and several TV
Though Reagan's acting career never ascended to star status, he
became a leader in political organizations in Hollywood. He was
elected president of the Screen Actor's Guild, serving from 1947
until 1952 and again in 1959. As SAG president, he led the McCarthy-era
crusade against the suspected Communist infiltration of the film
industry and brokered residual rights for actors.
In 1954, with
his film career waning, Reagan became the host and a spokesman
for General Electric Theatre, a popular Sunday evening television
series -- a role he would fill for the next eight years. Additionally,
as General Electric's spokesman, Reagan traveled throughout America,
making celebrity appearances, speaking to executives and plugging
company products. The position enabled Reagan to hone his nascent
conservative and federalist political views while gaining experience
speaking to a wide range of people.
as a Democrat for Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower
in 1952 and 1956, and for Richard Nixon's presidential run in
In 1962, GE,
concerned that Reagan's conservative politics made him a liability,
fired him for criticizing the Tennessee Valley Authority as an
example of "big government." That year, Reagan officially
changed his voter registration to the Republican Party.
moment in Reagan's life occurred Oct. 27, 1964, with his nationally
televised speech on behalf of conservative Republican presidential
hopeful Barry Goldwater. In his speech, entitled "A Time
for Choosing," Reagan lambasted what he considered government
waste in then-President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs.
raised over $1 million for Goldwater -- more money than any other
speech in history had raised, according to The New York Times.
Washington Post political correspondent David Broder called it
"the most successful political debut since William Jennings
Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic convention with his 'Cross
of Gold' speech."
went down to defeat that fall, Reagan had established himself
as a political force and soon capitalized on it. In 1966, Reagan
was elected governor of California with a margin of 1 million
votes, ousting incumbent Democratic Gov. Edmund "Pat"
Brown with a pledge to reduce government spending and "clean
up that mess in Berkeley."
Reagan's most controversial action was his hard-line tactics against
student uprisings at Berkeley and other California colleges. Reagan
also signed the California Welfare Reform Act, dramatically cutting
government spending on welfare programs.
In 1970, Reagan
handily won reelection. His tenure as governor ended after his
second term in 1974, as the California constitution mandates.
several failed attempts to run for president, Reagan in 1979 won
the GOP nomination and went on to challenge incumbent Democratic
President Jimmy Carter. Reagan chose George H.W. Bush as his running
mate, and campaigned with promises to "balance the budget,
reduce tax rates and strengthen our defenses." Reagan criticized
Carter's foreign policy, warning Americans that the Soviet Union
was "on a roll" in the Third World.
defeated Carter in the 1980 election, winning 489 electoral votes
to Carter's 49.
In 1981, he
was sworn in as the 40th president of the United States. The same
day, Iran released the 52 remaining hostages who had been held
at the U.S. embassy in Tehran for more than a year. Reagan's approval
Just 69 days
into his presidency, assailant John Hinckley, Jr. shot Reagan
in Washington, D.C. The president returned to work quickly, downplaying
his near-fatal injuries.
With the nation mired in the worst recession in 40 years and with
unemployment rates reaching a six-year high, Reagan received overwhelming
support from Congress for his budget-tightening economic program.
side" economic package sought to stimulate growth and control
inflation through tax cuts and reductions in government spending,
primarily on social programs, with the big exception to the defense
budget. At the same time, Reagan and his administration considered
major increases in military spending necessary to bolster national
defenses and to repel the Communist threat.
On the international
front, the Reagan administration broke from predecessors' anti-Communist
containment policies and employed the "Reagan Doctrine":
confronting the Soviet Union and Communist-friendly states through
economic pressure, military buildup or anti-Communist insurgent
In a March
1983 speech, Reagan unveiled his plan to create the Space Defense
Initiative, known as Star Wars, which envisioned near-perfect
interception of large missile attacks. Reagan called the Soviet
Union the "evil empire," asserting that the SDI was
the only defense against the Soviet nuclear threat.
In 1984, with
the economy growing rapidly and inflation under control, Reagan
and Bush won a second term with an unprecedented number of electoral
On Jan. 20,
1985, Reagan became the oldest president to be sworn in at the
age of 73.
In his State
of the Union address, Reagan announced his administration was
backing indigenous insurgencies against Soviet-backed governments
in the developing world, notably Central America, Africa and Asia.
During the early 1980s, the new, devastating illness of AIDS was
ravaging the world and U.S. populations. Though the disease was
first identified in 1983, Reagan's detractors say he completely
overlooked the severity of the growing epidemic.
Reagan's old friend, Rock Hudson, a movie star, died of AIDS in
October 1985, the president called AIDS research a "top priority"
for his administration. However, he proposed spending levels that
would actually cut these research funds. Reagan's apparent denial
of the disease's grave implications prompted national protests
and demonstrations for greater AIDS awareness and research.
In an effort
to resolve the threat of nuclear war, Reagan and Russian leader
Mikhail Gorbachev entered negotiations to end the Cold War, holding
four summits between 1983 and 1988.
the Geneva Summit in November 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev disagreed
over SDI, but agreed to seek a reduction of nuclear arms by 50
percent and jointly recognized that "a nuclear war cannot
be won and must not be fought."
1987, Gorbachev and Reagan met in Washington, D.C., to sign the
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a pact to eliminate
4 percent of their nuclear arsenals and the first U.S.-Soviet
agreement on the mutual destruction of nuclear weapons.
end of his final term, Reagan succeeded in negotiating with Russia
over nuclear arms reduction and helping to end the arms race emblematic
of the Cold War.
not his policies ended the Cold War, Reagan's arms race and ballistic
missile defense programs -- including SDI -- demanded huge increases
in defense spending, sometimes at the expense of social programs
and the national debt.
defense spending by 35 percent over his two terms -- an increasingly
unpopular move with many Americans and members of Congress, already
struggling with a high budget deficit and a growing national debt.
Congress and the Reagan administration would remain at odds over
government spending on defense or domestic programs through Reagan's
second term. In 1986, the White House submitted a 1987 budget
request of $144 billion, causing the cumulative U.S. deficit to
hit $1 trillion.
plummeted in 1986 with revelations of the Iran-Contra scandal
that shook the nation and the White House. Reagan denied he approved
sending arms to Iran to help with hostage release.
Commission that was investigating the Iran-Contra case concluded
that Reagan could not be directly implicated, thereby removing
the possibility of impeachment. Reagan's national security adviser,
John Poindexter, resigned under pressure and Col. Oliver North,
who worked in the national security office, was fired.
But the immense
popularity of the "Teflon President," who was praised
worldwide for the INF treaty, was largely unscathed. In 1989,
when George H.W. Bush succeeded him as president, Reagan left
office with the highest approval rating of any U.S. president
since Franklin Roosevelt.
In 1993, Reagan
was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and his 83rd birthday
celebration in 1994 was his last official public appearance. That
November, Reagan disclosed his illness in a national letter, and
after that, he and Nancy Reagan maintained a private life in California.