Ronald Reagan, governor of California for eight years and President of the United States for another eight, never thought of himself as a politician. His journey to the White House was not marked by a burning lust for power or position. Ronald Reagan preferred to see himself as a simple citizen who had been called upon to come to the aid of the nation he so loved. His mission, as he saw it, was to free his fellow citizens from the clutches of an invasive federal government, and to rid the world of the tyranny of Communism.
Reagan believed in the promise of the American Dream. In an era of growing cynicism, he proclaimed America a place where "everyone can rise as high and as far as his ability will take him," and pointed to his own meager beginnings as proof.
Promising to cut taxes and reduce spending, while restoring America's prestige abroad, Reagan soundly defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election. Less than three months into his administration, Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt outside of a Washington, D.C. hotel. Arriving at the emergency room, the 70-year-old president confessed to his wife, "I forgot to duck." Such poise and good humor in the face of a life-threatening wound went far in securing public goodwill.
His approval ratings soared even higher as the economy rebounded strongly from the recession of 1981-82. More Americans were working than ever before. New businesses were being started up and Wall Street was robust with activity. Still, worried voices pointed to a ballooning federal deficit as a sign that tax cuts, coupled with increased defense spending was a recipe for disaster. And while "Reaganomics" was helping to produce more and more millionaires, the disparity between rich and poor grew greater and greater. Reagan challenged his fellow citizens to "dream heroic dreams," but made no mention of making sacrifices for the benefit of future generations.
Known as the Great Communicator, Reagan modestly explained, "I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things." In the style of Theodore Roosevelt, Reagan never tired of preaching the doctrine of American can-do-ism. In times of tragedy, such as when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, Reagan's soothing words gave comfort to a grieving nation. Even his political adversaries admitted to having an admiration for his personable approach to leadership. House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, with whom Reagan clashed on many issues, surmised, "There's just something about the guy that people like. They want him to be a success."
Reagan's ability to escape accountability for the mistakes and misdeeds of those around him led to his being called the Teflon president -- nothing would stick to him. Time and again polls indicated that while Americans did not always share Reagan's views on any number of issues, and often questioned his aptitude for the job, they nonetheless supported his single-minded determination to achieve the goals he held most dear.
Reagan's world view could not accommodate the existence of international Communism. He minced no words in branding the Soviet Union the "focus of evil in the modern world." Peace through strength, in Reagan's view, was the only effective means of dealing with a system bent on world domination. Such blunt and loaded rhetoric strained relations between the two superpowers. Cold War tensions began to thaw, however, in the mid-1980s as the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as Soviet leader. By 1988, Reagan and Gorbachev had hammered out agreements drastically reducing the nuclear stockpiles of each nation. On his last trip aboard as president, Reagan visited Gorbachev in Moscow, in the land he once declared "an evil empire."
Even Ronald Reagan could not have foreseen how swiftly change would sweep Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Shortly after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall was taken down and Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union.
Historians will never know just how Reagan, once again a private citizen, received news of these events. Indeed, there is real doubt as to whether or not he could even recall the role he played in their coming about. In November 1994, Reagan revealed to the world what his doctors, and those closest to him, had suspected for some time -- he was suffering from the memory-destroying neurological illness known as Alzheimer's disease.
There was a bitter irony in the fact that Reagan, once a brilliant raconteur who so delighted in entertaining friends and aides with stories of his past, had been robbed of the ability to access those tales. The man who left the White House with the highest approval rating of any modern president reportedly had little memory of having lived there.
In a touching epistle to the citizens who twice elected him their leader, Reagan wrote, "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life." Riding off into the sunset -- perhaps just as Ronald Reagan, former actor and sometime cowboy, would have scripted it.
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?