The 40th President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan, was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. He was the second of two sons to John (Jack), and Nelle Reagan. The family lived in an apartment on main street that lacked indoor plumbing and running water. Ronald’s father nicknamed him Dutch as a baby because he reminded him of “a fat little Dutchman.” His family lived in a series of towns until they settled in Dixon, Illinois, where Ronald’s father opened a shoe store.
Ronald attended Dixon’s Northside High School and worked as a lifeguard in Lowell Park, a 200-acre woodland along the Rock River. On August 3, 1928 the “Dixon Daily Telegraph” headline read,“Ronald Reagan saves drowning man,” Ronald pulled a total of 77 people from the water over the seven summers he was a lifeguard.
He went to Eureka College, a small Christian college near Peoria, Illinois. He studied economics and sociology, he also played football, was the captain of the swim team, served as student council president, and acted in school plays. He focused more on sports and acting and less on his studies, he graduated with a “C” average.
After graduating in 1932, Ronald found work as a radio sports announcer at WOC radio in Davenport, Iowa. He moved to WHO radio in Des Moines as an announcer for Chicago Cubs baseball games. His specialty was to create play-by-play accounts of games, even though he only received basic information of the game in progress by wire.
While traveling with the Cubs in California a movie studio agent discovered Ronald and in 1937 he signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers. Over the next three decades, he appeared in over 50 films, his best-known role was in the 1940 film, “Knute Rockne, All American,” which gave him the lifelong nickname, “the Gipper,” for his role as the Notre Dame football star, George Gipp. His other popular movie was in “Kings Row,” and he played an accident victim who wakes up to discover his legs have been amputated and cries out, “Where’s the rest of me?”
Ronald married actress Jane Wyman on January 26, 1940 and they had two biological children, Maureen, who passed away in 2001, and Christine (who was born in 1947 but lived only one day), they adopted Michael, who was born in 1945.
In December 1941 the United States went to war and Ronald was drafted into the army. His poor eyesight made him ineligible for combat so he was assigned to the Motion Picture Army Unit in Culver City and made training and propaganda films.
In 1947 he was elected as the president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) for the first of five consecutive terms. As the SAG President he was requested to testify before the United States House Committee on Un-American Activities. The hearings resulted in“the Hollywood Ten” being imprisoned and many writers and directors being blacklisted due to allegedly having ties to the Communist Party.
In June 1948 Ronald’s wife filed for divorce claiming, “mental cruelty.” Ronald had become obsessed with politics, but his wife was also having an affair with Lew Ayres, her co-star in the movie“Johnny Belinda.” Ronald is the first U.S. president to have been divorced.
Although Ronald was mainly a B-movie actor, he dated a number of A-list actresses, including Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Doris Day, Betty Grable and even Marilyn Monroe. But his womanizing days ended when he met actress Nancy Davis, who came to him for help because she was mistakenly listed as a possible communist sympathizer. They were immediately attracted to each other, she was reported saying, “I don’t know if it was exactly love at first sight, but it was pretty close.” Ronald was still skeptical of marriage after his painful divorce, but over time Nancy became his kindred spirit and they married on March 4, 1952. They had two children, Patti and Ronald “Ron” Jr..
In late 1952 Ronald led a movement of Democrats for Eisenhower during Eisenhower’s 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns. His movie career wasn’t going anywhere and he became financially strapped and took a job as an emcee in Las Vegas introducing the singing quartet, “The Continentals.”
Ronald was hired by General Electric in January 1954 and for the next eight years hosted “G.E. Theater” on television every Sundayevening. He also toured the United States as a public relations representative, giving pro-business talks, speaking out against too much government control and wasteful spending. He changed the way he viewed government and his speeches discussed government’s encroachment on individual freedom.
As a “Democrat for Nixon,” Ronald delivered more than 200 speeches supporting Nixon’s candidacy in the 1960 presidential campaign. Ronald continued to be outspoken and took on the Tennessee Valley Authority, as an example of “big government.” General Electric was forced to fire him in 1962 because he became a political liability.
Ronald’s mother Nelle passed away on July 25, 1962 from a condition that had the same symptoms of a disease that would later be called Alzheimer’s, the same disease Ronald would be diagnosed with in 1993.
As co-chair of California Republicans for Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for President, Ronald gave a speech on October 27, 1964 called, “A Time for Choosing.” The speech attacked “big government” and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. When Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson he stepped away from politics and Ronald became the leader of the conservative movement.
Ronald published his autobiography, “Where’s the Rest of Me?” in 1965, and ran for his first public office in 1966. He defeated Edmund “Pat” Brown Sr. by almost 1 million votes and became the Governor of California, inheriting a $200 million deficit problem. In order to balance the budget, Ronald proposed needed cuts and unpopular cuts to the University of California and in the mental health system, the state budget increased during his first term as governor.
In the spring of 1969 Ronald sent the National Guard to the University of California at Berkeley to break up a student strike. With guns armed with bayonets and tear gas, the National Guard occupied Berkeley for 17 days. Ronald was viewed as a peace-restoring hero by some people and a trigger-happy extremist by others.
Ronald was re-elected as governor in 1970 and during his second term focused on welfare reform. In January 1973 he submitted a $9.258 billion budget with a $1.1 billion surplus, and gave taxpayers a rebate. During his second term, Watergate was impacting his friend, President Richard Nixon, and on August 6, 1974 he admitted that Nixon deceived the country.
Jerry Brown was elected governor of California on November 5, 1974, allowing Ronald to start his presidential campaign against now President Gerald Ford. Ford wins the Hampshire primary and the Republican National Committee endorsed Ford. The National Republican Conference of Mayors and the Republican governors called for Ronald to withdraw. His campaign ran out of funds but he refused to quit and won the North Carolina primary.
Ronald lost at the Republican Convention in Kansas City and Gerald Ford was the Republican Parties selection for President. In November 1975, Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated Ford by a narrow margin to become president. Ronald spent the next four years working on his ranch, giving speeches and writing a weekly column before running for President again in 1980.
Ronald and his running mate George H.W. Bush, campaigned against President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale in the 1980 presidential campaign. Ronald won the election by an electoral margin of 489-49 and captured almost 51 percent of the popular vote. His vision for his Presidency was, “We must balance the budget, reduce tax rates and strengthen our defenses.”
Ronald is sworn in as the 40th President of the United States on January 20, 1981, he made the presidential oath of office with a family bible he received from his mother. In his inaugural address, Ronald famously said of America’s troubled economy, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” On that same day, Iran released 52 hostages who had been held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days. Ronald, who had a sweet tooth, also received 3.5 tons of red, white and blue Jelly Belly brand jelly beans on his inauguration.
Ronald and Nancy brought in an era of glamour to the nation’s capital, the first lady wore designer fashions, and hosted numerous state dinners. Nancy called him ‘Ronnie’ and he called her‘Mommy’, and would write her notes such as, ‘Whatever I treasure and enjoy . . . all would be without meaning if I didn’t have you.’
Ronald’s first steps in office was to call for $41.4 billion in cuts from the Carter budget, mostly from “Great Society” programs that benefited the poor. He also called for a 30% tax cut over three years and an increase in defense spending, he rejected the bi-partisan proposal for Social Security cuts.
On March 30, 1981 Ronald was outside a Washington hotel and was shot by John Hinckley, Jr., who said he was trying to attract the attention of actress Jodie Foster. A bullet pierced one of Ronald’s lungs and narrowly missed his heart. Ronald later told Nancy,“Honey, I forgot to duck.” Hinckley also shot three other people, the most serious was Press Secretary James Brady who was hit in the head and suffered brain damage. Hinckley was determined not guilty by reason of insanity and committed indefinitely to a mental hospital. Within several weeks of the shooting, Ronald was back at work.
The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike in August 1981 after union negotiations collapsed. Thousands of flights were canceled and Ronald ordered the controllers back to work, 11,345 workers refused and were fired and PATCO lost its union certification.
On September 1981 Ronald appointed the first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. She stepped down from her position in 2006 and recently made headlines for urging President Barack Obama to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.
In late 1981 unemployment reached a six-year high and Ronald stated that a balanced budget in 1984 is “not probable” and redefines a balanced budget as “a goal.”
In the fall of 1982 the nation sunk into its worst recession since the Great Depression. Ronald fears budget deficits as high as $200 billion and by January 1983 the unemployment rate reached 11.5 million. In Milwaukee, 20,000 people waited in 20 degree weather to apply for 200 jobs at auto-frame factory. Ronald’s approval rating dropped to 35%.
In foreign affairs, Ronald sent 800 U.S. Marines to Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping force after Israel invaded that nation in June 1982. The following year, on October 23, 1983, suicide bombers attacked the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans. In addition to the problems in Lebanon, Ronald had to deal with an ongoing contentious relationship with Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi who was supporting terrorist operations.
Walter Mondale accepted the presidential nomination at the 1984 Democratic convention. Ronald’s popularity rebounded due to a booming economy and a resurgence of patriotic pride. In the first Reagan-Mondale debate, Ronald’s performance was so bad that the press questioned his ability to continue serving as the president, raising the “age issue.” During the second debate he answered a question about age as, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
On November 4, 1984, Ronald and George Bush defeated Walter Mondale and his running mate Geraldine Ferraro by a landslide, he carried 49 states, 525 electoral votes to Mondale’s 10, with 59% of the popular vote. One fourth of registered Democrats voted for Ronald.
He is sworn in for a second term on January 20, 1985, he is the oldest president ever to be sworn in at the age of 73, his approval rating was at 62%.
On June 14, 1985 TWA Flight 847 from Athens is hijacked by terrorists. There are 153 passengers aboard, including 135 Americans. The pilot is forced to fly to Beirut, where hijackers beat and kill Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem, then dump his body on the tarmac. The plane is flown back to Algiers then back to Beirut again. Most passengers are released; 39 are held captive in Lebanon. Four days later at a press conference Ronald vows that the U.S. will never give in to terrorists’ demands. The 39 hostages who were aboard the hijacked TWA jet are freed on June 30, 1985.
Ronald was involved in the Iran-Contra affair and claimed on national television that the U.S. did send some defensive weapons and spare parts to Iran, but denies it was part of an arms for hostages deal. “Our government has a firm policy not to capitulate to terrorist demands…. We did not — repeat, did not — trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we.” Polls showed that the American people didn’t believe Ronald and his approval ratings dropped from 67% to 46% in one month and to 42% a month later. He later testified to the Tower Board about his knowledge of a shipment of anti-tank missiles. When asked for an explanation, Ronald picked up a briefing memo he had been provided and read aloud: “If the question comes up at the Tower Board meeting, you might want to say that you were surprised.”
He did eventually acknowledge mistakes in the Iran-Contra ordeal and said, “There are reasons why it happened, but no excuses. It was a mistake.” Ronald’s approval rating rebounded to 51%.
Ronald gave a speech on June 12, 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany and said, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”Twenty-nine months later, Gorbachev allowed the people of Berlin to dismantle the wall.
On November 8, 1988, Vice President George Bush defeated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis for President. George Bush is inaugurated on January 20, 1989, Ronald leaves office with the highest approval rating of any president since Franklin Roosevelt.
In November 1989 The Berlin Wall separating East Germany from West Germany is opened and Ronald is awarded honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II. He also publishes his life story,“An American Life.”
The Reagan Library and Museum, located in Simi Valley, California, is dedicated on November 4, 1991. It is the only presidential library in California, and is one of the first ten in the country. Among the items on display is a 6,000-pound graffiti-covered section of the Berlin Wall, given to him by the people of Berlin.
On July 24, 1992 Ronald is questioned in the ongoing Iran-Contra trial and is unable to recall facts and figures, and even struggled to remember the name of his Secretary of State. The following year he goes to Mayo Clinic for tests and doctors diagnose him as having Alzheimer’s disease. In November 1994 Ronald informed the American people that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and made no more public appearances.
Almost ten years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan, died at his Los Angeles home on June 5, 2004, he was 93 years young. Ronald was given a state funeral in Washington, D.C., and later buried at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs.
After Ronald’s death, Nancy continued in the political arena supporting embryonic stem cell research as a possible cure for Alzheimer’s disease. She died of heart failure in 2016 at the age of 94 and is buried with her husband at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs.
Ronald and Nancy’s two children, Patricia Ann and Ronald Prescott, are still alive today. Patricia changed her last name to her mother’s maiden name, Davis, in an effort to have an independent career. She lived with Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon in the 1970s and co-wrote the Eagles song “I Wish You Peace.” She was active in the anti-nuclear movement before her father was elected president, which caused controversy and created strife in the family. In 2011, she launched “Beyond Alzheimer’s” at UCLA, which she still runs today.
Ron Reagan stated in a 2004 New York Times interview, that he did not claim any religion, but that he practiced Buddhism. When Larry King asked him why he would not run for political office, Ron replied “I’m an atheist. I can’t be elected to anything because polls all say that people won’t elect an atheist.” In 2011, he published“My Father at 100:” A Memoir, and came under scrutiny when he stated that his father may have had signs of Alzheimer’s when he was President.
“I, in my own mind, have always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land. It was set here and the price of admission was very simple: the means of selection was very simple as to how this land should be populated. Any place in the world and any person from those places; any person with the courage, with the desire to tear up their roots, to strive for freedom, to attempt and dare to live in a strange and foreign place, to travel halfway across the world was welcome here.”
“If all of this seems like a great deal of trouble, think what’s at stake. We are faced with the most evil enemy mankind has known in his long climb from the swamp to the stars. There can be no security anywhere in the free world if there is no fiscal and economic stability within the United States. Those who ask us to trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state are architects of a policy of accommodation.”
“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.”
“A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?”
“Welfare’s purpose should be to eliminate, as far as possible, the need for its own existence.”
“No one who lived through the Great Depression can ever look upon an unemployed person with anything but compassion. To me, there is no greater tragedy than a breadwinner willing to work, with a job skill but unable to find a market for that job skill. Back in those dark depression days I saw my father on a Christmas eve open what he thought was a Christmas greeting from his boss. Instead, it was the blue slip telling him he no longer had a job. The memory of him sitting there holding that slip of paper and then saying in a half whisper, ‘That’s quite a Christmas present,’ it will stay with me as long as I live.”
“A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
“[The Democrats] say that the United States has had its days in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith.… My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view.”
“It is not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work — work with us, not over us; stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it. This Administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy. “
“[N]o arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.”
“We don’t have an option of living with inflation and its attendant tragedy.…We have an alternative, and that is the program for economic recovery. True, it’ll take time for the favorable effects of our program to be felt. So, we must begin now. The people are watching and waiting. They don’t demand miracles. They do expect us to act. Let us act together.”
“Honey, I forgot to duck.”
“I hope you’re all Republicans.”
“The years ahead will be great ones for our country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West will not contain Communism; it will transcend Communism. We will not bother to denounce it, we’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”
“I hope the people on Wall Street will pay attention to the people on Main Street. If they do, they will see there is a rising tide of confidence in the future of America.”
“The size of the federal budget is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience or charitable concern.”
“It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history…. [It is] the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”
“I have a special reason for wanting to solve this [economic] problem in a lasting way. I was 21 and looking for work in 1932, one of the worst years of the Great Depression. And I can remember one bleak night in the thirties when my father learned on Christmas Eve that he’d lost his job. To be young in my generation was to feel that your future had been mortgaged out from under you, and that’s a tragic mistake we must never allow our leaders to make again.”
“Let us beware that while they [Soviet rulers] preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination over all the peoples of the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world…. I urge you to beware the temptation …, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of any evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil.”
“I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering those nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”
“And make no mistake about it, this attack was not just against ourselves or the Republic of Korea. This was the Soviet Union against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere. It was an act of barbarism born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations.”
“We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may always be free.”
“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.”
“The poet called Miss Liberty’s torch ‘the lamp beside the golden door.’ Well, that was the entrance to America, and it still is. And now you really know why we’re here tonight. The glistening hope of that lamp is still ours. Every promise, every opportunity, is still golden in this land. And through that golden door our children can walk into tomorrow with the knowledge that no one can be denied the promise that is America. Her heart is full; her torch is still golden, her future bright. She has arms big enough to comfort and strong enough to support, for the strength in her arms is the strength of her people. She will carry on in the ’80s unafraid, unashamed, and unsurpassed. In this springtime of hope, some lights seem eternal; America’s is.”
“Government growing beyond our consent had become a lumbering giant, slamming shut the gates of opportunity, threatening to crush the very roots of our freedom. What brought America back? The American people brought us back — with quiet courage and common sense; with undying faith that in this nation under God the future will be ours, for the future belongs to the free.”
“[G]overnment’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”
“Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere.”
“In spite of the wildly speculative and false stories of arms for hostages and alleged ransom payments, we did not — repeat did not — trade weapons or anything else for hostages nor will we.”
“A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.”
“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
“How do you tell a Communist? Well, it’s someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And how do you tell an anti-Communist? It’s someone who understands Marx and Lenin.”
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life…. And how stands the city on this winter night? … After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true to the granite ridge, and her glow has held no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
“Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things. It is the continuous revolution of the marketplace. It is the understanding that allows to recognize shortcomings and seek solutions.”
“Our friends in the other party will never forgive us for our success, and are doing everything in their power to rewrite history. Listening to the liberals, you’d think that the 1980s were the worst period since the Great Depression, filled with suffering and despair. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting awfully tired of the whining voices from the White House these days. They’re claiming there was a decade of greed and neglect, but you and I know better than that. We were there.”
“In closing, let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that day may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”