Actor, Governor, President, Icon
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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