Actor, Governor, President, Icon
By Lou Cannon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page A01
A movie actor who became one of the most popular presidents of the 20th century, Ronald Wilson Reagan redefined the nation's political agenda and dramatically reshaped U.S.-Soviet relations while serving as president from 1981 to 1989.
After leaving office, Reagan suffered in his final years from the mind-destroying illness of Alzheimer's disease. He announced his condition Nov. 5, 1994, in a poignant letter to the American people in which he thanked them "for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president."
Often called the Great Communicator, the Republican president was an icon to American conservatives, whom he led out of the political wilderness. But his legacy eluded easy ideological classification. Former Senate Republican leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (Tenn.), who served as White House chief of staff during a key period in the Reagan presidency, observed that Reagan, despite a proclaimed constancy of values, also displayed "a capacity to surprise."
This capacity was especially evident in Reagan's dealings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Although Reagan was an outspoken anti-communist who described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," he forged a constructive relationship with the reform-minded Gorbachev, who ascended to power midway through the Reagan presidency.
The two leaders held five summits, beginning with a 1985 meeting in Geneva. At a 1987 summit in Washington, they signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the first pact to reduce U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals. After a follow-up Moscow summit in 1988, Reagan proclaimed a "new era" in U.S.-Soviet relations.
The thaw that melted the Cold War followed a prolonged period of heightened tensions between the two countries during Reagan's first term. The relationship reached a low point Sept. 1, 1983, when a Soviet fighter shot down a Korean Air Lines passenger jet that had strayed over Russian air space, killing all 269 people aboard, including 61 U.S. citizens. In the wake of this incident, military forces on both sides were placed on alert.
Administration critics contended that Reagan had contributed to the crisis with anti-Soviet rhetoric and by conducting a massive U.S. arms buildup that he had promised during his 1980 campaign. On June 18, 1980, Reagan told The Washington Post that it "would be of great benefit to the United States if we started a buildup" because the Soviets were too weak economically to compete in an expanded arms race and would come to the bargaining table instead. He predicted the demise of the Soviet Union, most notably in a speech to British members of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster on June 8, 1982, in which he said the Soviets faced "a great revolutionary crisis" and would wind up on "the ash heap of history." In another historic speech, on June 12, 1987, in front of the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall, Reagan urged: "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
Ten months after Reagan left office, the German people dismantled the notorious wall that marked the division of their country. On Christmas 1991, Gorbachev stepped down and the Soviet Union and the Cold War passed into history. Some historians credit Reagan for these events -- or at least for accelerating them. Others say the Soviet Union collapsed largely because of internal weaknesses, while still others cite a confluence of internal events and external pressures.
There is general agreement, however, that the meetings between Gorbachev and Reagan and later between Gorbachev and President George H.W. Bush eased the transition from Cold War to peace. Alexander Bessmertnykh, deputy Soviet foreign minister during the Gorbachev-Reagan summits, said at a 1993 conference at Princeton that both Reagan and Gorbachev were more farsighted than their advisers in their idealistic determination to reduce nuclear arsenals.
Reagan's economic policies also departed from the mainstream. In his 1980 campaign, he pledged to cut taxes, increase military spending and balance the budget. He carried out the first two promises at the expense of the third.
While the nation prospered after emerging from a 1981-82 recession, the Reagan budgets produced record deficits and a near tripling of the national debt. Toward the end of his term, Reagan called the federal budget deficit "one of my greatest disappointments" and blamed it on congressional reluctance to cut domestic spending, even though the budget proposals he submitted to Congress had not been balanced.
But the deficits appeared less harmful in hindsight. Conservative analyst David Frum has described them as "wartime deficits" and a small price to pay for ending the Cold War. After the Cold War, military spending declined rapidly as a percentage of federal spending, making it easier for Reagan's successors and Congress to balance the budget. Midway through President Bill Clinton's second term, the federal budget was in surplus. Reagan also left an economic legacy of low inflation that was maintained by his successors.
Building the Image
Even Reagan's critics acknowledge that he was a masterful political performer. Theodore Roosevelt termed the presidency a "bully pulpit," and Franklin D. Roosevelt gave this pulpit a new dimension in the radio age with folksy "fireside chats." Reagan, a former Democrat who had voted three times for FDR and admired him, adapted the bully pulpit to television. He sometimes borrowed directly from FDR. A refrain that became a frequent punch line of Reagan's 1980 campaign speeches -- "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" -- was a variant of an FDR comment in a 1934 fireside chat.
Reagan gave weekly Saturday radio speeches to the American people, a practice continued by his successors. He was particularly effective in prepared television speeches delivered from the Oval Office. Drawing upon skills forged in his earlier careers in radio, films and television, Reagan set the standard in using television to promote his presidency.
Reagan was nearly 78 when he completed his second term, eight years older than the next-oldest president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was when he left office in 1961. But until he was stricken by Alzheimer's, Reagan's trim, athletic build made him appear younger than his years, and his amiability and self-deprecating humor softened the hard edge of his ideological advocacies. Reagan poked fun at his age, his work habits and his supposed simple-mindedness. He once said that he knew that hard work never killed anyone, "but I figure, why take the chance?" Much of his humor was spontaneous. Asked while visiting astronauts in Houston before the successful launch of the space shuttle Discovery in 1988 whether he would like to go into space, Reagan quipped, "I've been in space for several years."
Reagan maintained high public approval ratings during most of his presidency after the 1981-82 recession. But his popularity plummeted in November 1986 after disclosures that he had secretly approved U.S. arms sales to Iran in an attempt to win release of American hostages held in Lebanon. Reagan was criticized for violating a promise never to negotiate with terrorists; his defense was that he had dealt with Iranian middlemen, not the terrorists themselves. But the arms sales were a diplomatic embarrassment that undercut U.S. efforts to persuade allies to stem the supply of arms to Iran, which was involved in a prolonged war with Iraq.
The Iran arms deal and follow-up revelations that proceeds from the sales had been diverted to the contras fighting the Marxist government of Nicaragua provoked the seminal crisis of the Reagan administration and led to the dismissal of the president's national security adviser, John M. Poindexter, and Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, the National Security Council staff aide accused of masterminding the diversion.
Prodded by first lady Nancy Reagan and other advisers, Reagan reluctantly accepted responsibility for the arms sales but denied knowledge of the diversion, which Poindexter claimed he had approved without telling the president. Neither a joint congressional inquiry nor independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh was able to prove otherwise. Walsh, who conducted a seven-year investigation of the Iran-contra affair, found that Reagan had "knowingly participated or acquiesced in covering up the scandal," but he concluded that there was "no credible evidence that the president authorized or was aware of the diversion of the profits from the Iran arms sale to assist the contras."
The Iran-contra affair, coming on the heels of 1986 midterm elections in which Democrats regained control of the Senate they had lost when Reagan was first elected, led to a shake-up of the National Security Council staff under veteran bureaucrat Frank Carlucci and the forced resignation of White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan. Baker, the Senate majority leader during the halcyon days of Reagan's first term, was brought in to replace Regan and mollify Congress.
Foreign Policy Work
Under Baker and his successor, Kenneth M. Duberstein, the administration recovered its momentum during the final two years of the presidency, and Reagan regained much of the public approval squandered by the Iran-contra affair. This twilight period was marked by foreign policy successes, including the INF Treaty, the beginning of Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and a long-sought settlement in southern Africa to remove foreign troops from Namibia. A few weeks before he left office, Reagan also reversed long-standing U.S. policy and approved a "substantive dialogue" with the Palestine Liberation Organization after its leadership renounced terrorism and recognized the legitimacy of Israel.
Overall, the "Reagan Doctrine" foreign policy of aiding anti-communist insurrections had mixed results. It succeeded in Afghanistan with bipartisan congressional support and had partial successes in southern Africa and Cambodia, then occupied by Vietnamese troops. But Reagan failed to mobilize public support in behalf of his favorite anti-communist insurgents, the Nicaraguan contras he called "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers." Time and again, the Democrat-controlled House resisted his appeals for military aid to the contras. This was a bitter disappointment to Reagan that was salved after he left office when a combination of U.S. sanctions and pressure from the contras prompted the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua to hold free elections, which ousted it from power.
Reagan was more successful, after a shaky start, in rallying traditional allies behind his vision of a world committed to Western values of political and economic freedom. His staunch friend and ally in this effort was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose support for the Reagan administration was demonstrated most directly in 1986 when she permitted use of British air bases in a bombing attack on Libya conducted in retaliation for the terror bombing of a West German disco frequented by U.S. servicemen.
"President Reagan has achieved the most difficult of all political tasks: changing attitudes and perceptions about what is possible," Thatcher said in a tribute to Reagan shortly before he left office. "From the strong fortress of his convictions, he set out to enlarge freedom the world over at a time when freedom was in retreat -- and he succeeded."
Reagan's commitment to freedom was matched by an abhorrence of nuclear weapons. This view has been traced variously to his longtime interest in science fiction, his acceptance of the biblical prophecy of Armageddon and a tour he took July 31, 1979, at North American Aerospace Defense Command headquarters at Cheyenne Mountain, Colo., where he learned that the American people were defenseless in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.
Even before this tour, Reagan was skeptical about the conventional Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction, in which peace was maintained through a balance of terror. This concern led in time to the Strategic Defense Initiative proposed by Reagan on March 23, 1983, and soon dubbed "Star Wars," after the popular George Lucas movie.
SDI sought to develop an effective antimissile defense, which Reagan offered to share with the Soviet Union. The Soviets did not believe him. They denounced SDI, in part because they feared that antimissile research might lead to breakthroughs in other military technologies.
The issue came to a head at a 1986 summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland, where the Soviet leader insisted on restricting SDI to laboratory research. Although SDI was then no more than a laboratory program, Reagan reacted, as special assistant Jack F. Matlock Jr. wrote later, "as if he had been asked to toss his favorite child into an erupting volcano" and walked out of the meeting. Because of its abrupt collapse, the Reykjavik summit was seen as a failure; later, Gorbachev and Reagan agreed that their discussions at the Iceland summit had laid the groundwork for the INF Treaty.
SDI remains a controversial legacy of the Reagan presidency. Reagan's admirers have called it visionary; his detractors have denounced SDI as dubious science. But there is little doubt that SDI, whatever its feasibility, was a factor in prodding the Soviets to negotiate.
Big Picture, Ordinary Man
Reagan never made a pretense of scientific knowledge or of grasping policy details. He saw himself as a big-picture president who focused his attention on national defense, world peace and economic growth. In a 1982 speech, he said that the United States remained, as always, "a beacon of hope to all the oppressed and impoverished nations of the world."
Reagan often credited his political success to an empathy with ordinary Americans. Asked by a reporter on the eve of his election in 1980 what Americans saw in him, Reagan replied: "Would you laugh if I told you that I think, maybe, they see themselves, and that I'm one of them? I've never been able to detach myself or think that I, somehow, am apart from them."
Even after two terms as president, Reagan called himself a "citizen-politician," the phrase he often used to describe himself in 1966 when he was elected governor of California in his first race for public office. Reagan said he wanted to become part of government in order to reduce its influence.
"This view was not a pose," said his friend Paul Laxalt, an easygoing Republican conservative who served as governor of neighboring Nevada during Reagan's first term as governor and who became his Senate sounding board during the Reagan presidency. "Much of life is psychological, and it is Reagan's genius that he convinced himself and others that he was not really a politician, which inspired unbelievable trust in him," Laxalt said.
Reagan reinforced the impression that he was not a politician by telling stories at meetings where others were discussing policy. Even during the most trying discussions, Reagan was apt to interject anecdotes from his Hollywood years or his Illinois boyhood, a practice that led critics to accuse him of conducting "government by anecdote." The combination of Reagan's affable personality and his seemingly casual approach to complex problems prompted some adversaries to agree with the assessment of Democrat Clark Clifford that Reagan was "an amiable dunce." But the Soviets who negotiated with him did not share this assessment -- Bessmertnykh, the deputy Soviet foreign minister, said that Reagan handled negotiations "very, very well" and was underestimated by the U.S. media.
Michael K. Deaver, a longtime aide and friend, said the persistent underestimation of Reagan was "his secret weapon." In time, it became recognized that Reagan's pleasant smile and apparent passivity concealed a competitiveness that came to the fore when he was sharply challenged. This competitiveness manifested itself in a desire to succeed, acting as a brake on Reagan's more conservative impulses and inclining him toward compromise. Richard Darman, a moderate Republican and key White House aide during the first term, described Reagan as "simultaneously an ideologue and a pragmatist."
This dualism had been evident in Reagan's two-term governorship of California, where he often sacrificed ideological purity for practical results. As governor, he signed a permissive abortion-rights bill and increased the amount of land set aside for state parks. Brushing off criticisms from a conservative legislator who had accused him of betraying his campaign promises by agreeing to a massive state tax increase, then-Gov. Reagan said in 1968: "I'm willing to take what I can get. You have to take what you can get and go out and get some more next year; that's what the opposition has been doing for years."
Reagan brought this practical approach to his political campaigns. When he ran for governor, the Republican Party was bitterly divided between its conservative and moderate factions. Although Reagan was on the conservative side, he proved a party unifier who campaigned as strenuously for GOP moderates as he did for conservatives.
After he became president, he took the unprecedented step of passing up loyalist Edwin Meese III, who wanted to be White House chief of staff, in favor of the more pragmatic James A. Baker III, who had managed the campaign of George H.W. Bush, Reagan's principal rival in the GOP primaries.
In office, Reagan's willingness to take what he could get led to compromises on welfare and education bills when he was governor and on Social Security and tax reform when he was president. But Reagan usually defined the context in which the compromises occurred. A prominent Democratic critic, Sen. Gary Hart (Colo.), said Reagan was politically successful "not because he is the Great Communicator but because he has values and ideas and acts on them."
This evaluation approximated Reagan's own view. "I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference; it was the content," Reagan said in his farewell address as president. "I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation -- from our experience, our wisdom and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries."
Reagan burst into political prominence in 1964 with a rousing nationally televised speech for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater that stressed anti-government themes and portrayed the election as a choice between individual freedom and "the ant heap of totalitarianism."
The speech raised $1 million, then a staggering sum, for the impoverished Goldwater campaign and made Reagan a conservative hero overnight. Two years later, he was elected governor of California in a landslide, establishing himself as the most successful conservative politician of the age.
He won a second four-year term as governor in 1970. In 1976, he challenged President Gerald R. Ford for the Republican nomination and fell short by 117 delegates. Four years later, Reagan recaptured the White House for the Republicans by defeating the man who had ousted Ford, President Jimmy Carter. Reagan was helped enormously in this campaign by soaring inflation, high interest rates and public frustration over the plight of Americans then held hostage by Iran in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Four years later, Reagan proclaimed that it was "morning again in America" and won reelection by a landslide, winning 49 states in a contest with Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale.
"What I'd really like to do is go down in history as the president who made Americans believe in themselves again," Reagan said early in his presidency.
Beyond the Expected
Like Franklin Roosevelt, his first political hero, Reagan defied many stereotypes about his capabilities. And like Roosevelt's, Reagan's life and presidency frequentlyproved a study in contradictions.
While he was the oldest U.S. president, Reagan often expressed the vision of a young man who believed, as he said, that America should "reach for the stars." Launching his 1984 reelection campaign at a rally in Orange County, Calif., Reagan said, "We present to the people of America a sparkling vision of tomorrow, a belief that greatness lies ahead, only waiting for us to reach out for it."
There were other contradictions. Reagan, the only divorced man to serve as president, preached family values but was a distant figure to his four children and his grandchildren. He urged a religious revival yet rarely went to church. He lauded military heroism after spending World War II in the hometown comfort of a Hollywood studio making training films.
But on March 30, 1981, when he was shot and seriously wounded by John W. Hinckley Jr. outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, Reagan gave an impressive demonstration of the heroism he frequently celebrated. As liberal Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan put it: "Reagan won our hearts the day he was shot. He almost became JFK and settled instead for John Wayne, becoming legend with a wince and a wisecrack: 'I hope all you doctors are Republicans.' "
Reagan also survived colon cancer. Within weeks of an operation to remove cancerous polyps in 1985, he was riding the range again at Rancho del Cielo, his mountaintop California ranch northwest of Santa Barbara. Never one to dwell on negatives, Reagan managed to persuade himself that he never had cancer. As Reagan described his medical condition, the surgeons had removed "a self-contained polyp" that "had begun to develop a few cancer cells."
One of the paradoxes of Reagan's political career was that he campaigned ceaselessly against government, even as an incumbent president, but wound up strengthening the presidency and the influence of the central government. John B. Anderson, an independent candidate for president in 1980, complained that Reagan "made government seem more an enemy than a friend of the people." But because American attitudes toward government closely reflect their opinion of the president, public opinion surveys showed that trust in government increased during the Reagan years.
Conservative columnist George Will, a friend and confidant of Reagan, contended that he also made enduring political contributions to his party and to the conservative movement. "He caused conservatives to grow up," Will said. "He changed the conservative movement from one of catharsis for the disaffected into a movement of government."
One of the weapons in Reagan's personal arsenal for accomplishing this change was his irrepressible sense of humor. Few politicians understood the distinction between seriousness of purpose and taking oneself too seriously as well as Reagan, who relentlessly poked fun at himself and his fellow conservatives. Asked after his election in 1966 what kind of governor he would be, Reagan replied, "I don't know, I've never played a governor." At a Gridiron Club dinner early in his presidency, Reagan quipped, "Sometimes in our administration the right hand doesn't know what the far right hand is doing."
But Reagan sometimes exhibited lapses that undermined his Great Communicator image. Factual errors were commonplace at his infrequent White House news conferences. He seemed often to have a sketchy command of military matters and once left the impression that submarine-based nuclear missiles could be recalled in flight. He forgot the names of Cabinet officers, trusted aides and visiting dignitaries. In Brazil, he toasted the people of Bolivia.
Reagan brushed off criticisms about his verbal missteps, which he said were blown out of proportion by the media. In any case, he rarely suffered politically for such mistakes. It became fashionable among the president's critics to say, in a metaphor coined by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), that Reagan had a Teflon coating because nothing seemed to stick to him.
Poor but Secure
Reagan was born Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill., in the front bedroom of a five-room flat above the general store on Main Street where his father worked. He was the second and last son of John Edward Reagan, an itinerant shoe salesman known to everyone as Jack, and Nelle Wilson Reagan, who suffered through a delivery so difficult that her doctor advised her not to have more children.
Jack Reagan, a muscular, hard-drinking man of Irish ancestry who dreamed of owning his own shoe store, drifted from town to town in central Illinois before settling in Dixon, where his sons went to high school and which they considered their home town. On the night he was elected president, Reagan turned to his brother, Neil, and said, "I'll bet they're having a hot time in Dixon tonight."
Reagan's remembrances of boyhood in small-town central Illinois were tranquil ones, reminiscent of the attitudes of George Orwell's middle-class heroes about life in England before World War I. "It isn't that life was softer than now," says one of them. "Actually, it was harder. People on the whole worked harder, lived less comfortably and died more painfully. . . . And yet what was it people had in those days? A feeling of security, even when they weren't secure. More exactly, it was a feeling of continuity."
This feeling was expressed sentimentally by Reagan in his autobiography, "Where's the Rest of Me?" published in 1965, in which he described his boyhood as "a rare Huck Finn idyll" in which he explored the mysteries of woods and meadows and enjoyed escapades and pickup games of football with other boys.
But there was a dark side to Reagan's childhood. His father was an alcoholic, and Reagan's autobiography describes a scene in which, as a rather scrawny 11-year-old boy, he discovered him "drunk, dead to the world" on the porch and dragged him in from the snow and up to bed. Reagan acknowledged in later interviews that his father's drinking was a recurrent problem of his boyhood. As a child, he shared his mother's distaste for alcohol. As an adult, he would drink a glass of wine with dinner but rarely consumed hard liquor.
Reagan's mother, Nelle, dominated the household, took her children to concerts and plays and was the major influence in her younger son's life. Neil often observed that he was more like Jack Reagan in his habits, while his brother took after their mother. Neil was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church of his father, but Ronald became a member of his mother's Christian Church (the Disciples of Christ).
According to family accounts, Ronald Reagan began to read when he was 5, enjoyed participating in family theatricals and possessed a remarkable memory that his brother described as photographic.
The Reagans, never prosperous, were almost crushed by the Depression, which forced his father to close a shoe store opened with borrowed money and sent his mother to work in a dress shop for $14 a week. Years later, trying to demonstrate that he understood the problems of the unemployed, Reagan frequently related a Depression story about how his father, then working as a salesman, opened a letter on Christmas Eve expecting a bonus and learned that he had been fired. Describing his family's economic plight in those days, Reagan said, "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 Reagan rarely dwelt on deprivation in talking about his boyhood. Except for the references to his father's alcoholism, Reagan's accounts of his boyhood in Dixon were exceptionally cheerful.
For seven summers, Dutch Reagan, as he was then known, worked as a lifeguard at Lowell Park on a treacherous section of the Rock River north of Dixon, and he rescued 77 people. Reagan also became an accomplished doodler, dreamed of becoming a cartoonist and was the lightest tackle on his undermanned high school football team, which in his senior year in 1927 lost seven of nine games. The motto under his class photo in his senior yearbook, echoing a rosy sentiment Reagan had expressed earlier that year in a poem, said, "Life is just one grand sweet song, so start the music."
The subsequent four years at Eureka College, a small liberal arts school near Peoria, were also generally happy ones for Reagan, an indifferent student but an enthusiastic football player who was valued more for scrappiness than his athletic skills. He became a leading member of the dramatic society, joined a fraternity, washed dishes in the girls' dormitory and nourished an ambition to become a radio announcer.
Reagan graduated on June 7, 1932, in the depths of the Depression. The cement plant where his brother worked had closed, and most of the family income came from Nelle Reagan's income as a seamstress. But Reagan was typically optimistic about his job prospects, even at a time when millions of Americans were unemployed.
Borrowing a well-worn family car, Reagan set out on a swing of small-town radio stations. In Davenport, Iowa, he tried out for a part-time sports announcer's job, re-creating the fourth quarter of a Eureka College football game from memory. He gave it a Reaganesque twist on the winning touchdown, giving himself credit for a block that he had missed.
The tryout earned Reagan what became a $10-a-game job broadcasting University of Iowa home football games. When a staff announcer's job opened up, Reagan was hired by WOC for $100 a month. While he found it difficult to read commercials in a conversational tone, Reagan learned that he could sound spontaneous if he memorized a script before he read it. He followed this practice with important radio and television speeches during much of his political career.
Reagan's principal gift as an announcer was his voice, which, in the words of a subsequent observer, "recedes at the right moments, turning mellow at points of intensity. When it wishes to be most persuasive, it hovers barely above a whisper so as to win you over by intimacy, if not by substance. . . . He likes his voice, treats it like a guest. . . . It was that voice that carried him out of Dixon and away from the Depression."
In 1933, Reagan's voice carried him to Des Moines and WOC's larger sister station, WHO. Broadcasting over a new 50,000-watt clear-channel station that carried throughout the Midwest, Reagan became a well-known sports announcer whose specialty was creating play-by-play accounts of Chicago Cubs baseball games that the station received by wire.
Reagan was fascinated by Hollywood. In 1937, he went to Catalina off the Southern California coast to cover the spring training of the Chicago Cubs, and an actress friend from Des Moines introduced him to movie agent Bill Meiklejohn. By his account, Reagan considerably exaggerated his college acting experience, and Meiklejohn persuaded Warner Bros. to give him a screen test. He passed, and Reagan quit his radio job and drove to California in a new Nash convertible.
At the time, Hollywood was a magnet for stage-struck Americans, and many aspiring actors who had been signed to contracts waited months or years to make their first films. But Warner Bros. was looking for a wholesome and likable young man for its B-movie division to replace Ross Alexander, an actor who had committed suicide. Reagan, who vaguely resembled Alexander, filled the bill.
The Face Is Familiar
Reagan made his film debut in June 1937 as a crusading radio announcer in a minor crime movie, "Love Is On the Air." During the next two decades, he made 52 films, concluding with "Hellcats of the Navy" in 1957, in which the leading lady was his second wife, Nancy Davis. A 53rd film, "The Killers" -- the only movie in which Reagan portrayed a villain -- was made for television in 1964 but was ultimately released in movie theaters because it was considered too violent for the small screen.
Reagan's film career was a productive one in which he displayed a particular talent for light comedy roles. While often overshadowed by better-known actors, he received many good reviews. Much of Reagan's early career was spent in the B-film division, where his knack for quick memorization made him a valuable asset. Producers of B-films, as Reagan often put it, "didn't want them good, they wanted them Thursday." Reagan was considered a cheerful journeyman who worked hard and did not agitate for star roles. Most often, as Garry Wills put it in his social history "Reagan's America," Reagan played "the heart-warming role of himself."
Reagan graduated to major movies with a small but significant part in the 1940 film "Knute Rockne -- All American," which starred Pat O'Brien as the famed Notre Dame football coach. Reagan played George Gipp, a Notre Dame football player who died of pneumonia and years later was the inspiration for a Rockne halftime pep talk in which he exhorted his team to "win one for the Gipper." Four decades later, this nickname was revived by reporters covering the presidential campaign, who routinely called Reagan "the Gipper."
In one scene in the movie, Gipp arrives for a Notre Dame football practice and is asked by Rockne if he can carry the ball. "How far?" Gipp replies with an insouciance that typified Reagan, in both his film and political careers.
Of all Reagan's films, the most acclaimed and his personal favorite was "Kings Row," set in a small southern town. Reagan was cast as Drake McHugh, a pleasure-loving young man whose legs are sadistically amputated by a crazed surgeon (Charles Coburn) who wants to keep him away from his daughter. When he awakens from surgery and finds that his legs are missing, McHugh cries out, "Where's the rest of me?" Reagan used this line as the title of his 1965 autobiography; he said it was intended as a symbolic expression that there was more to his life than making movies.
By the time "Kings Row" was released in 1942, Reagan was in the Army. He had joined the cavalry reserve in 1937 because he liked to ride horses and was called to duty in April 1942. But Reagan's nearsightedness disqualified him from combat duty. He was assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps, which had taken over the Hal Roach studios in Culver City a few miles from Reagan's home. Reagan spent the war at Fort Roach, as its inhabitants called it, making training films and appearing in a 1943 Irving Berlin musical, "This Is the Army." He was discharged on Dec. 9, 1945, with the rank of captain.
Reagan met his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, in the 1938 film "Brother Rat," which featured the debut of Eddie Albert. Their relationship was encouraged by gossip columnist Louella Parsons, another Californian who came from Dixon, Ill. They were married in Glendale, Calif., on Jan. 26, 1940, and had a daughter, Maureen Elizabeth, a year later. In 1945, they adopted a son, Michael Edward. Another child was born four months premature in 1947 and died the same day.
In May 1948, Wyman filed for divorce, saying that Reagan had become "very political" and that she did not share his interests. Reagan, trying to save the marriage, acknowledged in an interview with his friend Parsons that he may have spent too much time on the Screen Actors Guild and politics. "Perhaps I should have let someone else save the world and saved my own home," he said.
The divorce became final July 18, 1949. Because Reagan neither initiated nor wanted the divorce, he sometimes behaved as if it had not occurred. Thirty-two years later, he said in an interview, "I was divorced in the sense that the decision was made by somebody else."
Reagan often described the two-year period after his divorce as the most difficult of his life. He became despondent and quarrelsome and was dissatisfied with the film roles offered him by Warner Bros. Like many other actors on the verge of stardom before World War II, he was not well known to the new young audiences that flocked to the movie theaters after the war.
A Change of Heart
In these uneasy years, Hollywood was shaken by labor strife, congressional inquiries into alleged communist influence and competition from the fledgling medium of television. All these events impinged on Reagan, a self-proclaimed "bleeding-heart liberal" who had joined the United World Federalists, which advocated world government.
But Reagan's liberalism did not last long. He was soon convinced that the Communist Party was trying to dominate liberal groups to which he belonged and gain control of Hollywood craft unions. Reagan briefly became an FBI informant, although this was not known at the time, and an ardent anti-communist. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, which he led in a successful strike against the movie producers, he helped implement the blacklist that prevented suspected communists from working in movies. At the same time, Reagan opposed what he viewed as an indiscriminate effort by the House Un-American Activities Committee to smear liberals who had unwittingly joined leftist organizations.
Although he remained a Democrat for the next decade, the political struggles of this period left a mark on Reagan, who would later trace his anti-communism to clashes with communists in the film industry.
Reagan met Nancy Davis, an attractive minor actress at MGM, in 1951, at the height of the congressional investigations. By her account, she had a friend arrange the meeting with Reagan on the pretext that she needed to explain personally why her name had wrongly appeared on a list of supposed communist sympathizers.
Nancy Davis said later that she knew immediately that Reagan was "the man I wanted to marry." They were married on March 4, 1952, and Nancy Davis quit her career to become a wife and mother. Their daughter, Patricia Ann, was born later that year. In 1958, Nancy Reagan gave birth to their second child, named Ronald Prescott.
Reagan's career also took a new direction. He had been an early critic of television for its potential impact on Hollywood, but when it became clear to him that the new medium was here to stay, Reagan decided to join it. In 1952, as Screen Actors Guild president, he signed a confidential contract with Music Corp. of America that allowed it to produce an unlimited number of television shows. Two years later, Taft Schreiber, the MCA vice president in charge of television productions, asked Reagan to host "General Electric Theater," a new series of weekly dramas that became the most popular show in its 9 p.m. Sunday time slot and by 1956-57 was rated third among all TV shows.
Reagan's contract with General Electric, initially for $125,000 a year and soon raised to $150,000, introduced him to a new generation of young people, many of whom would later vote for him. It also provided an unusual political apprenticeship. The contract required Reagan to spend 10 weeks a year touring GE plants, giving as many as 14 speeches a day. "We drove him to the limit," said Edward Langley, then a GE public relations man. "We saturated him in Middle America." Out of this saturation came the polished and patriotic speech that Reagan delivered for Goldwater in 1964, two years after his GE contract ended.
By then, Ronald and Nancy Reagan were an enduring team. She was supportive of his ambitions, shrewd in her personal judgments and highly protective. In Reagan's political campaigns and subsequently in the White House, she became a powerful figure who played a key role in choosing and ousting aides on the basis of their loyalty and effectiveness. Nancy Reagan acknowledged that she took a role in selecting her husband's staff, saying he needed this because he was sometimes too tolerant in his judgment of people. Reagan was similarly protective. While he often brushed aside attacks on his policies, he bridled at even the slightest criticism of his wife.
Reagan left office on a high note on Jan. 20, 1989. The last Gallup Poll of his presidency gave him a 63 percent approval rating, the highest for any departing president since FDR, who died in office in 1945. Reagan was also buoyed by the 1988 presidential election, in which Vice President George H.W. Bush defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis, an outcome some commentators said reflected the electorate's desire for a continuation of the Reagan presidency.
The Longer View
Reagan's first years of retirement in California were idyllic. The Reagans moved to a spacious ranch house on a wooded acre in upscale Bel Air, a five-minute drive from Reagan's office on the 34th floor at 2121 Avenue of the Stars in Century City, where he worked on his memoirs. Whenever possible, he slipped away to his mountaintop ranch, a two-hour drive from Bel Air, to ride horses and do ranch work. On May 3, 1992, the Reagans hosted Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, at Rancho del Cielo, where they gave their visitors white Stetson hats and reminisced.
Nancy Reagan observed that her husband had a preference for heights. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, built at a cost of $57 million, was also on a mountaintop, this one in Simi Valley, with an expansive view of rugged, brown hills that had served as backdrops for movie Westerns.
The dedication of this library at a Nov. 4, 1991, ceremony brought together five presidents for the first time in history. Jimmy Carter, the only Democrat among the presidents, set the tone of the event when he said, "Under President Ronald Reagan, the nation stayed strong and resolute and made possible the end of the Cold War."
But Reagan's world changed in 1993, when Mrs. Reagan and their friends noticed that he seemed increasingly forgetful. The first public demonstration of his decline occurred on Feb. 6, 1993, at the Reagan Library, where Reagan repeated a toast to Thatcher verbatim during a celebration of his 82nd birthday. At his annual visit to the Mayo Clinic in 1994, doctors diagnosed Alzheimer's disease.
Mrs. Reagan wanted the world to remember her husband in the prime of his presidency and guarded him from visitors, caring for him with protection from the Secret Service and assistance from a dedicated nurse. Out of public life, Reagan became an almost mythological figure. In the 1990s, when young basketball players were saying that they wanted to "be like Mike," in reference to the iconic basketball star Michael Jordan, Republicans of varying views and capabilities were promising to be like Ronald Reagan. During the 2000 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain claimed to be Reagan's rightful heir, even though the negative commercials they used to attack each other contrasted with Reagan's positive style of campaigning.
Meanwhile, historians were reevaluating the Reagan presidency, which looked better to many of them in retrospect then it did when he left office. A Sienna Research Institute survey of academic historians and political scientists ranked Reagan 22nd among the then-40 presidents soon after he left office, but he rose steadily in subsequent rankings. In 2000, a C-SPAN poll of presidential historians and biographers placed Reagan 11th among presidents. The eminent political historian James MacGregor Burns, best known for his books about Franklin D. Roosevelt, said in a 1999 column in The Washington Post that Reagan would rank with FDR among the "great" or "near-great" presidents of the 20th century.
Among those who shared a high opinion of Reagan was his old rival, Gorbachev, who in a retrospective on American television called Reagan "a really big person -- a very great political leader." It was an opinion widely shared by Reagan's fellow Americans.
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