Ronald Reagan burst onto the national political scene in 1964 with a televised address on behalf of conservative Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. This was not a good time for conservative Republicans. Polls showed Goldwater trailing incumbent Lyndon Johnson by a huge margin. The nation was awash in nostalgia for Kennedy's New Frontier and enthusiasm for Johnson's Great Society. When the election was over the Republican party was in shambles. Johnson won by a landslide. Ronald Reagan, however, not only survived the debacle, but emerged as an established, conservative leader. Time magazine called Reagan's televised address on behalf of Goldwater "the one bright spot in a dismal campaign."
Reagan was no stranger to seemingly dismal situations. His childhood was marked by poverty, an alcoholic father and a long-suffering, "do-gooder" mother. Despite this, Reagan early on embraced an optimistic outlook that often defied the reality around him. In time, his rosy perspective and faith in better days ahead would win over legions.
The youngest of John and Nelle Reagan's two sons, Ronald Reagan was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. When Ronald -- his family called him "Dutch" -- was nine, the Reagans moved to nearby Dixon. What little money John Reagan earned as a shoe salesman was often squandered on his drinking binges. As an adult, Reagan would say of his boyhood, "We didn't live on the wrong side of the tracks, but we lived so close to them we could hear the whistle real loud." But the future president appeared to gain wisdom from his meager beginnings, later reporting, "...I learned the real riches of rags."
Reagan's mother, Nelle, instilled in her son her belief in the essential goodness of all people and the importance of religious devotion. She encouraged Ron to participate in Disciples of Christ church activities and doctrine. Young Ron was especially drawn to the sect's strict abhorrence to alcohol. Not yet a teenager, Reagan honed his public speaking skills drumming up support for Prohibition.
From an early age, it was clear that Ronald Reagan loved to perform. As a young boy he participated in church skits. In high school he studied drama (along with playing football) and starred in several well-received school plays. His love of the stage developed further at nearby Eureka College. Reagan was particularly drawn to moralistic dramas featuring heroes who, against great odds, prevail by being true to their core values. In Reagan's view of the world, heroes were important and necessary.
During his teenage years, Reagan's summer months were spent as a lifeguard on the banks of the Rock River. It was a role that allowed him to shine. All day, seven days a week, Reagan -- lean, tall, and tan -- would command center stage at Lowell Park. From 1927 through 1932, Reagan pulled 77 people from the perils of the swift Rock River current.
Following college graduation, Reagan landed a job as a radio announcer at WOC in Davenport, Iowa and later at WHO in Des Moines. He quickly realized he was in a position "...of getting into a new industry and riding it to the top." An often repeated tale of Reagan's radio days recounts how he delivered "play-by-play broadcasts" of Chicago Cubs baseball games he had never seen. His flawless recitations were based solely on telegraph accounts of games in progress.
On a 1937 trip to California to cover baseball spring training, Reagan took a screen test for Warner Brothers film studios. It led to his first part in a Hollywood movie. The role seemed tailor-made for Reagan -- he played a radio announcer in Love Is on the Air. From then on, Reagan carved a niche for himself in grade-B movies. The characters he played tended to be upstanding, wholesome Americans, much like himself. Upon seeing her son on screen for the first time, Nelle Reagan proclaimed, "That's my boy...that's my Dutch. That's the way he is at home."
Of the more than 50 films Reagan appeared in, two stand apart. In Knute Rockne -- All American, he was cast as George Gipp, who implored Knute Rockne to "win just one for the Gipper." Reagan delivered what he considered to be his finest performance as Drake McHugh in the 1941 film, King's Row. Shocked to discover he has had his legs amputated by a vengeful surgeon, Reagan, as McHugh, exclaims, "Where's the rest of me?" Reagan later used that line as the title of his autobiography, perhaps indicating ambitions beyond the silver screen.
Raised on the doctrines of the New Deal, Ronald Reagan underwent a political metamorphosis during the 1940s and 50s. Spurred on by his fear of "communist infiltration in American society," Reagan began to adopt a conservative outlook. Appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, Reagan cited factions within Hollywood that were "more or less following the tactics we associate with the Communist Party." Elected that year as president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan successfully negotiated union contracts and endeavored to keep communists from gaining influence in the film industry. As he gained prominence for his skillful execution of the S.G.A. presidency, his personal life suffered. His nine-year marriage to actress Jane Wyman came to an end over her reported displeasure with his increased political activism.
The divorce greatly disturbed Reagan, and ushered in a period of professional and personal searching. Disappointed with the caliber of roles Hollywood was offering him, Reagan looked outside of show business for opportunities. His second wife, Nancy Davis, whom he married in 1952, encouraged him to speak out in defense of the American values dear to him.
In 1954, the General Electric Corporation asked Reagan to host their weekly television series. In addition to his hosting duties, Reagan traveled to GE plants across the country seeking out the opinions of workers and boosting their morale. He grew increasingly sympathetic toward "overburdened" taxpayers and innovative corporations hamstrung by excessive government regulation. Reagan's extensive travel on behalf of G.E. gave him ample opportunity to hone his skills as a public speaker and conservative spokesperson.
With his 1964 speech in support of Barry Goldwater, Reagan minced no words in portraying "big government" as an impediment to individual freedom:
"This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."
Reagan's rallying cry grabbed the attention of middle-class voters in California who saw costly Great Society programs as a threat to their standard of living. Reagan's genial demeanor helped make voters more comfortable with what he was saying. In 1966, political novice Reagan beat out five experienced candidates to win the Republican nomination for governor with 65 percent of the vote. Months later, he unseated incumbent Edmund "Pat" Brown to become governor of California. Brown, whom Reagan beat by more than one million votes, later surmised he had made the mistake of regarding Reagan as little more than a B-level actor.
Reagan's tenure as governor got off to a rocky start. He and his staff of admitted "novice amateurs" knew little about the intricacies of state government. In an effort to reign in state spending, Reagan instituted an across-the-board 10 percent budget cut. When it failed to produce the desired results, Reagan was actually forced to raise taxes by $1 billion. Claiming his hand was forced by exploding welfare costs and mistakes made by his predecessor, Reagan remained popular with voters who re-elected him in 1970.
Reagan impressed voters who had grown impatient with the protests and demonstrations that marked the late '60s and early '70s. Early in his first term as governor, he stood up to protesters within the "free speech movement" at the University of California at Berkeley with the slogan, "Observe the rules or get out." During his second term as governor, Reagan increased his national stature by pursuing an aggressive policy of welfare reform. Although California state spending had increased -- from $4.6 billion to $10.2 billion annually on his watch -- more than 300,000 names were removed from the welfare rolls.
In 1976, Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination. Beaten soundly in the early primaries, Reagan was determined to take his message, touting a return to "American values" and a reduced federal government, to the people. His effort to gain the nomination fell short by only 60 delegates. But 1976 would prove to be just a dress rehearsal for Reagan's impressive performance in 1980 when he soundly defeated Jimmy Carter to capture the White House.
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?