On February 6, 1911, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in an apartment on the second floor of a commercial building in Tampico, Illinois. He would become a Hollywood actor and union leader before serving as the 33rd Governor of California from 1967 to 1975. Reagan served as the 40th President of the United States from 1981 to 1989. Between my freshman and junior years as a student at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School in Shawnee, Kansas, President Reagan gave a speech at my school to delegates of the National Conference of the National Association of Student Councils on June 29, 1982. I was a cadet in the U.S. Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (NJROTC) at the time and can recall the Secret Service temporarily “securing” our unit’s drill rifles used by the drill team and color guard during the duration of Reagan’s visit. This was just one year and three months following the attempted assassination of President Reagan and they weren’t taking any chances!
Ronald Reagan — nicknamed “Dutch” — was raised in a poor family in small towns of northern Illinois. He graduated from Eureka College in 1932 and worked as a sports announcer on several regional radio stations. After moving to Hollywood in 1937, he became an actor and starred in a few major productions. Reagan was twice elected President of the Screen Actors Guild — the labor union for actors — where he worked to root out Communist influence. In the 1950s, he moved into television and was a motivational speaker at General Electric factories.
Reagan had always been a Democrat until 1962, when he became a conservative and switched to the Republican Party. In 1964, Reagan’s speech, “A Time for Choosing”, supported Barry Goldwater’s foundering presidential campaign and earned him national attention as a new conservative spokesman. Building a network of supporters, he was elected Governor of California in 1966. As governor, Reagan raised taxes, turned a state budget deficit to a surplus, challenged the protesters at the University of California, ordered in National Guard troops during a period of protest movements in 1969, and was re-elected in 1970. He twice ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency in 1968 and 1976. Four years later in 1980, he easily won the nomination outright and became the oldest elected U.S. president up to that time, when he defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter in a landslide.
Entering the presidency in 1981, Reagan implemented sweeping new political and economic initiatives. His supply-side economic policies, dubbed “Reaganomics”, advocated tax rate reduction to spur economic growth, economic deregulation, and reduction in government spending. In his first term, he survived an assassination attempt, spurred the War on Drugs, and fought public sector labor. Over his two terms, the economy saw a reduction of inflation from 12.5% to 4.4%, and an average annual growth of real GDP of 3.4; while Reagan did enact cuts in domestic discretionary spending, tax cuts and increased military spending contributed to increased federal outlays overall, even after adjustment for inflation.
During his re-election bid, Reagan campaigned on the notion that it was “Morning in America”, winning a landslide in 1984 with the largest electoral college victory in American history. Foreign affairs dominated his second term, including ending of the Cold War, the bombing of Libya, and the Iran–Contra affair. Publicly describing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”, and during his famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate, President Reagan challenged Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”. He transitioned Cold War policy from détente to rollback by escalating an arms race with the USSR while engaging in talks with Gorbachev. The talks culminated in the INF Treaty, which shrank both countries’ nuclear arsenals.
Reagan began his presidency during the decline of the Soviet Union, and the Berlin Wall fell just ten months after the end of his term. Germany reunified the following year, and on December 26, 1991 (nearly three years after he left office), the Soviet Union collapsed.
When Reagan left office in 1989, he held an approval rating of sixty-eight percent, matching those of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later Bill Clinton, as the highest ratings for departing presidents in the modern era. He was the first president since Dwight D. Eisenhower to serve two full terms, after a succession of five prior presidents did not. Although he had planned an active post-presidency, Reagan disclosed in November 1994 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease earlier that year. Afterward, his informal public appearances became more infrequent as the disease progressed. He died at home on June 5, 2004. An icon among Republicans, he is viewed favorably in historian rankings of U.S. presidents, and his tenure constituted a realignment toward conservative policies in the United States.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois, the younger son of Nelle Clyde (née Wilson; 1883–1962) and Jack Reagan (1883–1941). Jack was a salesman and storyteller whose grandparents were Irish Catholic emigrants from County Tipperary, while Nelle was of half English and half Scottish descent (her mother was born in Surrey). Reagan’s older brother, Neil Reagan (1908–1996), became an advertising executive.
Reagan’s father nicknamed his son “Dutch”, due to his “fat little Dutchman”-like appearance and “Dutchboy” haircut; the nickname stuck with him throughout his youth. Reagan’s family briefly lived in several towns and cities in Illinois, including Monmouth, Galesburg, and Chicago. In 1919, they returned to Tampico and lived above the H. C. Pitney Variety Store until finally settling in Dixon. After his election as president, Reagan resided in the upstairs White House private quarters, and he would quip that he was “living above the store again”.
According to Paul Kengor, author of God and Ronald Reagan, Reagan had a particularly strong faith in the goodness of people; this faith stemmed from the optimistic faith of his mother and the Disciples of Christ faith, into which he was baptized in 1922. For that period of time, which was long before the civil rights movement, Reagan’s opposition to racial discrimination was unusual and commendable. He recalled the time in Dixon when the proprietor of a local inn would not allow black people to stay there, and he brought them back to his house. His mother invited them to stay overnight and have breakfast the next morning. After the closure of the Pitney Store in 1920 and the family’s move to Dixon, the Midwestern “small universe” had a lasting impression on Reagan.
Reagan attended Dixon High School, where he developed interests in acting, sports, and storytelling. His first job involved working as a lifeguard at the Rock River in Lowell Park in 1927. Over a six-year period, Reagan reportedly performed 77 rescues as a lifeguard. He attended Eureka College, a Disciples-oriented liberal arts school, where he became a member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, a cheerleader, and studied economics and sociology. While involved, the Miller Center of Public Affairs described him as an “indifferent student”. He majored in economics and sociology and graduated with a C grade. He developed a reputation as a “jack of all trades”, excelling in campus politics, sports, and theater. He was a member of the football team and captain of the swim team. He was elected student body president and led a student revolt against the college president after the president tried to cut back the faculty.
After graduating from Eureka in 1932, Reagan drove to Iowa, where he held jobs as a radio announcer at several stations. He moved to WHO radio in Des Moines as an announcer for Chicago Cubs baseball games. His specialty was creating play-by-play accounts of games using as his source only basic descriptions that the station received by wire as the games were in progress.
While traveling with the Cubs in California in 1937, Reagan took a screen test that led to a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers studios. He spent the first few years of his Hollywood career in the “B film” unit, where, Reagan joked, the producers “didn’t want them good; they wanted them Thursday”.
He earned his first screen credit with a starring role in the 1937 movie Love Is on the Air, and by the end of 1939 he had already appeared in 19 films, including Dark Victory with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. Before the film Santa Fe Trail with Errol Flynn in 1940, he played the role of George “The Gipper” Gipp in the film Knute Rockne, All American; from it, he acquired the lifelong nickname “the Gipper.” In 1941, exhibitors voted him the fifth most popular star from the younger generation in Hollywood.
Reagan played his favorite acting role in 1942’s Kings Row, where he plays a double amputee who recites the line “Where’s the rest of me?” — later used as the title of his 1965 autobiography. Many film critics considered Kings Row to be his best movie, though the film was condemned by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. Although Reagan called Kings Row the film that “made me a star”, he was unable to capitalize on his success because he was ordered to active duty with the U.S. Army at San Francisco two months after its release, and never regained “star” status in motion pictures.
After completing 14 home-study Army Extension Courses, Reagan enlisted in the Army Enlisted Reserve and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Officers’ Reserve Corps of the Cavalry on May 25, 1937.
On April 18, 1942, Reagan was ordered to active duty for the first time. Due to his poor eyesight, he was classified for limited service only, which excluded him from serving overseas. His first assignment was at the San Francisco Port of Embarkation at Fort Mason, California, as a liaison officer of the Port and Transportation Office. Upon the approval of the Army Air Forces (AAF), he applied for a transfer from the cavalry to the AAF on May 15, 1942, and was assigned to AAF Public Relations and subsequently to the First Motion Picture Unit (officially, the 18th Army Air Force Base Unit) which operated out of Hal Roach Studios, which the men nicknamed “Fort Roach,” in Culver City, California. On January 14, 1943, he was promoted to first lieutenant and was sent to the Provisional Task Force Show Unit of This Is the Army at Burbank, California. He returned to the First Motion Picture Unit after completing this duty and was promoted to captain on July 22, 1943.
In January 1944, Reagan was ordered to temporary duty in New York City to participate in the opening of the Sixth War Loan Drive, which campaigned for the purchase of war bonds. He was reassigned to the First Motion Picture Unit on November 14, 1944, where he remained until the end of World War II. He was recommended for promotion to major on February 2, 1945, but this recommendation was disapproved on July 17 of that year. While with the First Motion Picture Unit in 1945, he was indirectly involved in discovering actress Marilyn Monroe. He returned to Fort MacArthur, California, where he was separated from active duty on December 9, 1945. By the end of the war, his units had produced some 400 training films for the AAF.
Reagan never left the United States during the war, but he kept a film reel that he obtained while he was in the service. The reel depicted the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp; he believed that doubts would someday arise as to whether the Holocaust had occurred. It has been alleged that he was overheard telling Israeli foreign minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1983 that he had filmed that footage himself and helped liberate Auschwitz, though this purported conversation was disputed by Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
In the post-war era, Reagan co-starred in such films as The Voice of the Turtle, John Loves Mary, The Hasty Heart, Bedtime for Bonzo, Cattle Queen of Montana, Tennessee’s Partner, Hellcats of the Navy (the only film in which he appears with Nancy Reagan), and the 1964 remake The Killers (his final film). Throughout his film career, his mother answered much of his fan mail.
Reagan was first elected to the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1941, serving as an alternate member. After World War II, he resumed service and became third vice-president in 1946. The adoption of conflict-of-interest bylaws in 1947 led the SAG president and six board members to resign; Reagan was nominated in a special election for the position of president and was subsequently elected. He was chosen by the membership to serve seven additional one-year terms, from 1947 to 1952 and in 1959. Reagan led the SAG through eventful years that were marked by labor-management disputes, the Taft–Hartley Act, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings and the Hollywood blacklist era.
Reagan began as a Hollywood Democrat, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was “a true hero” to him. He moved to the right-wing in the 1950s, became a Republican in 1962, and emerged as a leading conservative spokesman in the Goldwater campaign of 1964.
During the late 1940s, Reagan and his then-wife, Jane Wyman, provided the FBI with the names of actors within the motion picture industry whom they believed to be communist sympathizers. Though he expressed reservations, he said, “Do they expect us to constitute ourselves as a little FBI of our own and determine just who is a Commie and who isn’t?”
Reagan also testified on the subject before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A fervent anti-communist, he reaffirmed his commitment to democratic principles, stating, “I never as a citizen want to see our country become urged, by either fear or resentment of this group, that we ever compromise with any of our democratic principles through that fear or resentment.”
In his early political career, he joined numerous political committees with a left-wing orientation, such as the American Veterans Committee. He fought against Republican-sponsored right-to-work legislation and supported Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950 when she was defeated for the Senate by Richard Nixon. It was his realization that Communists were a powerful backstage influence in those groups that led him to rally his friends against them.
Though an early critic of television, Reagan landed fewer film roles in the late 1950s and decided to join the medium. He was hired as the host of General Electric Theater, a series of weekly dramas that became very popular. His contract required him to tour General Electric (GE) plants 16 weeks out of the year, which often demanded that he give 14 speeches per day. His many speeches — which he wrote himself — were non-partisan but carried a conservative, pro-business message; he was influenced by Lemuel Boulware, a senior GE executive. Boulware, known for his tough stance against unions and his innovative strategies to win over workers, championed the core tenets of modern American conservatism: free markets, anticommunism, lower taxes, and limited government. Reagan earned approximately $125,000 (equivalent to $1,011,276 in 2017) in this role. General Electric Theater ran for 10 seasons from 1953 to 1962, which increased Reagan’s profile in American households. He had previously appeared in feature films mostly in supporting roles or as a “second lead”.
In his final work as a professional actor, Reagan was a host and performer from 1964 to 1965 on the television series Death Valley Days. Reagan and future wife Nancy Davis appeared together on television several times, including an episode of General Electric Theater in 1958 called “A Turkey for the President.” Reagan appeared on the panel show What’s My Line? twice, once as a “mystery guest” in 1953 and as a panelist in 1956.
At political rallies, Reagan spoke frequently with a strong ideological dimension. In December 1945, he was stopped from leading an anti-nuclear rally in Hollywood by pressure from the Warner Bros. studio. He would later make nuclear weapons a key point of his presidency when he specifically stated his opposition to mutual assured destruction. Reagan also built on previous efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. In the 1948 presidential election, Reagan strongly supported Harry S. Truman and appeared on stage with him during a campaign speech in Los Angeles. In the early 1950s, his relationship with actress Nancy Davis grew, and he shifted to the right when he endorsed the presidential candidacies of Dwight D. Eisenhower (1952 and 1956) and Richard Nixon (1960).
Eager for a larger stage, but not allowed to enter politics by GE, he quit and formally registered as a Republican. He often said, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”
When the legislation that would become Medicare was introduced in 1961, he created a recording for the American Medical Association (AMA) warning that such legislation would mean the end of freedom in America. Reagan said that if his listeners did not write letters to prevent it, “we will awake to find that we have socialism. And if you don’t do this, and if I don’t do it, one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.” He also joined the National Rifle Association (NRA) and would become a lifetime member.
Reagan gained national attention in his speeches for conservative presidential contender Barry Goldwater in 1964. Speaking for Goldwater, Reagan stressed his belief in the importance of smaller government. He consolidated themes that he had developed in his talks for GE to deliver his famous speech, “A Time for Choosing”, on October 27, 1964:
“The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing … You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream—the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order—or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.“
This “A Time for Choosing” speech was not enough to turn around the faltering Goldwater campaign, but it was the key event that established Reagan’s national political visibility.
California Republicans were impressed with Reagan’s political views and charisma after his “Time for Choosing” speech, and in late 1965 he announced his campaign for Governor in the 1966 election. He defeated former San Francisco mayor George Christopher in the GOP primary. In Reagan’s campaign, he emphasized two main themes: “to send the welfare bums back to work,” and, in reference to burgeoning anti-war and anti-establishment student protests at the University of California at Berkeley, “to clean up the mess at Berkeley.” In 1966, Reagan accomplished what both U.S. Senator William F. Knowland in 1958 and former Vice President Richard Nixon in 1962 had attempted to do: he was elected, defeating two-term governor Pat Brown, and was sworn in on January 2, 1967. In his first term, he froze government hiring and approved tax hikes to balance the budget.
Shortly after assuming his gubernatorial term, Reagan tested the 1968 presidential waters as part of a “Stop Nixon” movement, hoping to cut into Nixon’s southern support and become a compromise candidate if neither Nixon nor second-place candidate Nelson Rockefeller received enough delegates to win on the first ballot at the Republican convention. However, by the time of the convention Nixon, had 692 delegate votes, 25 more than he needed to secure the nomination, followed by Rockefeller with Reagan in third place.
Reagan was involved in several high-profile conflicts with the protest movements of the era, including his public criticism of university administrators for tolerating student demonstrations at the University of California, Berkeley campus. On May 15, 1969, during the People’s Park protests at the university’s campus (the original purpose of which was to discuss the Arab–Israeli conflict), Reagan sent the California Highway Patrol and other officers to quell the protests. This led to an incident that became known as “Bloody Thursday,” resulting in the death of student James Rector and the blinding of carpenter Alan Blanchard. In addition, 111 police officers were injured in the conflict, including one who was knifed in the chest. Reagan then called out 2,200 state National Guard troops to occupy the city of Berkeley for two weeks to crack down on the protesters. The Guard remained in Berkeley for 17 days, camping in People’s Park, and demonstrations subsided as the university removed cordoned-off fencing and placed all development plans for People’s Park on hold.
One year after “Bloody Thursday,” Reagan responded to questions about campus protest movements saying, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” When the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst in Berkeley and demanded the distribution of food to the poor, Reagan joked to a group of political aides about a botulism outbreak contaminating the food.
Early in 1967, the national debate on abortion was starting to gain traction. In the early stages of the debate, Democratic California state senator Anthony C. Beilenson introduced the “Therapeutic Abortion Act” in an effort to reduce the number of “back-room abortions” performed in California. The state legislature sent the bill to Reagan’s desk where, after many days of indecision, he signed it on June 14, 1967. About two million abortions would be performed as a result, mostly because of a provision in the bill allowing abortions for the well-being of the mother. Reagan had been in office for only four months when he signed the bill, and later stated that had he been more experienced as governor, he would not have signed it. After he recognized what he called the “consequences” of the bill, he announced that he was pro-life. He maintained that position later in his political career, writing extensively about abortion.
In 1967, Reagan signed the Mulford Act, which repealed a law allowing public carrying of loaded firearms (becoming California Penal Code 12031 and 171(c)). The bill, which was named after Republican assemblyman Don Mulford, garnered national attention after the Black Panthers marched bearing arms upon the California State Capitol to protest it.
Despite an unsuccessful attempt to force a recall election on Reagan in 1968, he was re-elected governor in 1970, defeating “Big Daddy” Jesse M. Unruh. He chose not to seek a third term in the following election cycle. One of Reagan’s greatest frustrations in office was the issue of capital punishment, which he strongly supported. His efforts to enforce the state’s laws in this area were thwarted when the Supreme Court of California issued its People v. Anderson decision, which invalidated all death sentences issued in California before 1972, though the decision was later overturned by a constitutional amendment. The only execution during Reagan’s governorship was on April 12, 1967, when Aaron Mitchell’s sentence was carried out by the state in San Quentin’s gas chamber.
When Reagan was governor in 1969, he signed the Family Law Act, which was an amalgam of two bills that had been written and revised by the California State Legislature over more than two years. It became the first no-fault divorce legislation in the United States.
Reagan’s terms as governor helped to shape the policies he would pursue in his later political career as president. By campaigning on a platform of sending “the welfare bums back to work,” he spoke out against the idea of the welfare state. He also strongly advocated the Republican ideal of less government regulation of the economy, including that of undue federal taxation.
Reagan did not seek re-election to a third term as governor in 1974; he was succeeded by the Secretary of State, Democrat Jerry Brown, who took office on January 6, 1975.
In 1976, Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford in a bid to become the Republican Party’s candidate for president. Reagan soon established himself as the conservative candidate with the support of like-minded organizations such as the American Conservative Union, which became key components of his political base, while Ford was considered a more moderate Republican.
Reagan’s campaign relied on a strategy crafted by campaign manager John Sears of winning a few primaries early to damage the inevitability of Ford’s likely nomination. Reagan won North Carolina, Texas, and California, but the strategy failed, as he ended up losing New Hampshire, Florida, and his native Illinois. The Texas campaign lent renewed hope to Reagan, when he swept all 96 delegates chosen in the May 1 primary, with four more awaiting at the state convention. Much of the credit for that victory came from the work of three co-chairmen, including Ernest Angelo, the mayor of Midland, and Ray Barnhart of Houston, whom Reagan as President would appoint in 1981 as director of the Federal Highway Administration.
As the GOP convention neared, Ford appeared close to victory. Acknowledging his party’s moderate wing, Reagan chose moderate Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his running mate if nominated. Nonetheless, Ford prevailed with 1,187 delegates to Reagan’s 1,070. Ford would go on to lose the 1976 presidential election to the Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter.
Reagan’s concession speech emphasized the dangers of nuclear war and the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Though he lost the nomination, he received 307 write-in votes in New Hampshire, 388 votes as an Independent on Wyoming’s ballot, and a single electoral vote from a faithless elector in the November election from the state of Washington, which Ford had won over Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.
After the campaign, Reagan remained in the public debate with the Ronald Reagan Radio Commentary series and his political action committee, Citizens for the Republic, which was later revived in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2009 by the Reagan biographer Craig Shirley.
The 1980 presidential election featured Reagan against incumbent President Jimmy Carter and was conducted amid a multitude of domestic concerns as well as the ongoing Iran hostage crisis. Reagan’s campaign stressed some of his fundamental principles: lower taxes to stimulate the economy, less government interference in people’s lives, states’ rights, and a strong national defense.
Reagan launched his campaign by declaring “I believe in states’ rights.” After receiving the Republican nomination, Reagan selected one of his opponents in the primaries, George H. W. Bush, to be his running mate. His appearance in an October televised debate boosted his popularity. Reagan won the election, carrying 44 states with 489 electoral votes to 49 electoral votes for Carter (representing six states and Washington, D.C.). Reagan received 51% of the popular vote while Carter took 41%, and Independent John B. Anderson (a liberal Republican) received 7%. Republicans captured the Senate for the first time since 1952, and gained 34 House seats, but the Democrats retained a majority.
During his presidency, Reagan pursued policies that reflected his personal belief in individual freedom; brought changes domestically, both to the U.S. economy and expanded military; and contributed to the end of the Cold War. Termed the “Reagan Revolution,” his presidency would reinvigorate American morale, reinvigorate the U.S. economy and reduce reliance upon government. As president, Reagan kept a diary in which he commented on daily occurrences of his presidency and his views on the issues of the day. The diaries were published in May 2007 in the bestselling book, The Reagan Diaries.
Ronald Reagan was 69 years old when he sworn into office for his first term on January 20, 1981. In his inaugural address (which Reagan himself wrote), he addressed the country’s economic malaise, arguing: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
In 1981, Reagan became the first president to propose a constitutional amendment on school prayer. Reagan’s election reflected an opposition to the 1962 Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale, prohibiting state officials from composing an official state prayer and requiring that it be recited in the public schools. Reagan’s 1981 proposed amendment stated: “Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions. No person shall be required by the United States or by any state to participate in prayer.” In 1984, Reagan again raised the issue, asking Congress “why can’t [the] freedom to acknowledge God be enjoyed again by children in every schoolroom across this land?” In 1985, Reagan expressed his disappointment that the Supreme Court ruling still bans a moment of silence for public schools, and said he had “an uphill battle.” In 1987, Reagan renewed his call for Congress to support voluntary prayer in schools and end “the expulsion of God from America’s classrooms.” Critics argue that any governmental imposition of prayer on public school students is involuntary. No Supreme Court rulings suggest that students cannot engage in silent prayer on their own. During his term in office, Reagan campaigned vigorously to restore organized prayer to the schools, first as a moment of prayer and later as a Moment of Silence.
On March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan, his press secretary James Brady, Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy were struck by gunfire from would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. outside the Washington Hilton hotel. Although “close to death” upon arrival at George Washington University Hospital, Reagan was stabilized in the emergency room, then underwent emergency exploratory surgery. He recovered and was released from the hospital on April 11, becoming the first serving U.S. president to survive being shot in an assassination attempt. The attempt had great influence on Reagan’s popularity; polls indicated his approval rating to be around 73%. Reagan believed that God had spared his life so that he might go on to fulfill a greater purpose.
n 1981, PATCO, the union of federal air traffic controllers went on strike, violating a federal law prohibiting government unions from striking. Declaring the situation an emergency as described in the 1947 Taft–Hartley Act, Reagan stated that if the air traffic controllers “do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.” They did not return and on August 5, Reagan fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored his order, and used supervisors and military controllers to handle the nation’s commercial air traffic until new controllers could be hired and trained. A leading reference work on public administration concluded, “The firing of PATCO employees not only demonstrated a clear resolve by the president to take control of the bureaucracy, but it also sent a clear message to the private sector that unions no longer needed to be feared.”
Reagan implemented policies based on supply-side economics, advocating a laissez-faire philosophy and free-market fiscal policy, seeking to stimulate the economy with large, across-the-board tax cuts. He also supported returning the United States to some sort of gold standard, and successfully urged Congress to establish the U.S. Gold Commission to study how one could be implemented. Citing the economic theories of Arthur Laffer, Reagan promoted the proposed tax cuts as potentially stimulating the economy enough to expand the tax base, offsetting the revenue loss due to reduced rates of taxation, a theory that entered political discussion as the Laffer curve. Reaganomics was the subject of debate with supporters pointing to improvements in certain key economic indicators as evidence of success, and critics pointing to large increases in federal budget deficits and the national debt. His policy of “peace through strength” resulted in a record peacetime defense buildup including a 40% real increase in defense spending between 1981 and 1985.
During Reagan’s presidency, federal income tax rates were lowered significantly with the signing of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which lowered the top marginal tax bracket from 70% to 50% and the lowest bracket from 14% to 11%. Other tax increases passed by Congress and signed by Reagan ensured however that tax revenues over his two terms were 18.2% of GDP as compared to 18.1% over the 40-year period of 1970–2010. Then, in 1982 the Job Training Partnership Act of 1982 was signed into law, initiating one of the United States’ first public–private partnerships and a major part of the president’s job creation program. Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of Labor and Chief of Staff, Al Angrisani, was a primary architect of the bill.
The net effect of all Reagan-era tax bills was a 1% decrease in government revenues when compared to Treasury Department revenue estimates from the Administration’s first post-enactment January budgets. However, federal income tax receipts increased from 1980 to 1989, rising from $308.7 billion to $549 billion or an average annual rate of 8.2% (2.5% attributed to higher Social Security receipts), and federal outlays grew at an annual rate of 7.1%
Reagan’s policies proposed that economic growth would occur when marginal tax rates were low enough to spur investment, which would then lead to higher employment and wages. Critics labeled this “trickle-down economics” — the belief that tax policies that benefit the wealthy will create a “trickle-down” effect to the poor. Questions arose whether Reagan’s policies benefited the wealthy more than those living in poverty, and many poor and minority citizens viewed Reagan as indifferent to their struggles. These views were exacerbated by the fact that Reagan’s economic regimen included freezing the minimum wage at $3.35 an hour, slashing federal assistance to local governments by 60%, cutting the budget for public housing and Section 8 rent subsidies in half, and eliminating the antipoverty Community Development Block Grant program. The widening gap between the rich and poor had already begun during the 1970s before Reagan’s economic policies took effect.
Reagan was opposed to government intervention, and he cut the budgets of non-military programs including Medicaid, food stamps, federal education programs and the Environmental Protection Agency. He protected entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, but his administration attempted to purge many people with disabilities from the Social Security disability rolls.
The administration’s stance toward the savings and loan industry contributed to the savings and loan crisis. A minority of the critics of Reaganomics also suggested that the policies partially influenced the stock market crash of 1987, but there is no consensus regarding a single source for the crash. In order to cover newly spawned federal budget deficits, the United States borrowed heavily both domestically and abroad, raising the national debt from $997 billion to $2.85 trillion. Reagan described the new debt as the “greatest disappointment” of his presidency.
Reagan escalated the Cold War, which accelerated a reversal from the policy of détente that began in 1979 after the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Reagan ordered a massive buildup of the United States Armed Forces and implemented new policies that were directed towards the Soviet Union; he revived the B-1 Lancer program that had been canceled by the Carter administration, and he produced the MX missile. In response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, Reagan oversaw NATO’s deployment of the Pershing missile in West Germany.
Reagan and the United Kingdom’s prime minister Margaret Thatcher both denounced the Soviet Union in ideological terms. In a famous address on June 8, 1982, to the Parliament of the United Kingdom in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, Reagan said, “the forward march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism–Leninism on the ash heap of history.” On March 3, 1983, he predicted that communism would collapse, stating, “Communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written.” In a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983, Reagan called the Soviet Union “an evil empire.”
After Soviet fighters downed Korean Air Lines Flight 007 near Moneron Island on September 1, 1983, carrying 269 people, including Georgia congressman Larry McDonald, Reagan labeled the act a “massacre” and declared that the Soviets had turned “against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere.” The Reagan administration responded to the incident by suspending all Soviet passenger air service to the United States, and dropped several agreements being negotiated with the Soviets, wounding them financially. As a result of the shootdown, and the cause of KAL 007’s going astray thought to be inadequacies related to its navigational system, Reagan announced on September 16, 1983, that the Global Positioning System would be made available for civilian use, free of charge, once completed in order to avert similar navigational errors in future.
Under a policy that came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine, Reagan and his administration also provided overt and covert aid to anti-communist resistance movements in an effort to “rollback” Soviet-backed communist governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Reagan deployed the CIA’s Special Activities Division to Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were instrumental in training, equipping and leading Mujahideen forces against the Soviet Army. President Reagan’s Covert Action program has been given credit for assisting in ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, though some of the United States funded armaments introduced then would later pose a threat to U.S. troops in the 2001 War in Afghanistan. However, in a break from the Carter policy of arming Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, Reagan also agreed with the communist government in China to reduce the sale of arms to Taiwan.
In March 1983, Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a defense project that would have used ground- and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. Reagan believed that this defense shield could make nuclear war impossible. There was much disbelief surrounding the program’s scientific feasibility, leading opponents to dub SDI “Star Wars” and argue that its technological objective was unattainable. The Soviets became concerned about the possible effects SDI would have; leader Yuri Andropov said it would put “the entire world in jeopardy.” For those reasons, David Gergen, former aide to President Reagan, believes that in retrospect, SDI hastened the end of the Cold War.
Critics labeled Reagan’s foreign policies as aggressive, imperialistic, and chided them as “warmongering,” though they were supported by leading American conservatives who argued that they were necessary to protect U.S. security interests. The Reagan administration also backed anti-communist leaders accused of severe human rights violations, such as Efraín Ríos Montt of Guatemala and Hissène Habré of Chad, and helped Iranian leader Ruhollah Khomeini identify and purge communists in his government. As a result of the brief 16-month regime of Ríos Montt in 1982 and 1983, Guatemala was accused of genocide for killing more than 80,000 members of the Ixil Mayans and other indigenous groups. Reagan had said that Montt was getting a “bum rap,” and described him as “a man of great personal integrity.” The Reagan administration unsuccessfully appealed to Congress to restart military aid. The administration was successful, however, in providing nonmilitary aid such as USAID.
With the approval of Congress, Reagan sent forces to Lebanon in 1983 to reduce the threat of the Lebanese Civil War. The American peacekeeping forces in Beirut, a part of a multinational force during the Lebanese Civil War, were attacked on October 23, 1983. The Beirut barracks bombing killed 241 American servicemen and wounded more than 60 others by a suicide truck bomber. Reagan sent in the battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62) to shell Syrian positions in Lebanon. He then withdrew all the Marines from Lebanon.
On October 25, 1983, Reagan ordered U.S. forces to invade Grenada (codenamed “Operation Urgent Fury”) where a 1979 coup d’état had established an independent non-aligned Marxist–Leninist government. A formal appeal from the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) led to the intervention of U.S. forces; President Reagan also cited an allegedly regional threat posed by a Soviet-Cuban military build-up in the Caribbean and concern for the safety of several hundred American medical students at St. George’s University as adequate reasons to invade. Operation Urgent Fury was the first major military operation conducted by U.S. forces since the Vietnam War, several days of fighting commenced, resulting in a U.S. victory, with 19 American fatalities and 116 wounded American soldiers. In mid-December, after a new government was appointed by the governor-general, U.S. forces withdrew.
Reagan accepted the Republican nomination for the 1984 presidential campaign in Dallas, Texas. He proclaimed that it was “morning again in America,” regarding the recovering economy and the dominating performance by the U.S. athletes at the 1984 Summer Olympics, among other things. He became the first president to open an Olympic Games held in the United States.
Reagan’s opponent in the 1984 presidential election was former Vice President Walter Mondale. With questions about Reagan’s age, and a weak performance in the first presidential debate, his ability to perform the duties of president for another term was questioned. His apparent confused and forgetful behavior was evident to his supporters; they had previously known him clever and witty. Rumors began to circulate that he had Alzheimer’s disease. Reagan rebounded in the second debate, and confronted questions about his age, quipping, “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,” which generated applause and laughter, even from Mondale himself.
That November, Reagan was re-elected, winning 49 of 50 states. The president’s overwhelming victory saw Mondale carry only his home state of Minnesota (by 3,800 votes) and the District of Columbia. Reagan won a record 525 electoral votes, the most of any candidate in United States history, and received 59% of the popular vote to Mondale’s 41%.
Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president for the second time on January 20, 1985, in a private ceremony at the White House. At 73 years of age, he was the oldest person to ever have been sworn into a second term. Because January 20 fell on a Sunday, a public celebration was not held but took place in the Capitol rotunda the following day. January 21 was one of the coldest days on record in Washington, D.C.; due to poor weather, inaugural celebrations were held inside the Capitol. In the coming weeks he shook up his staff somewhat, moving White House Chief of Staff James Baker to Secretary of the Treasury and naming Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, a former Merrill Lynch officer, Chief of Staff.
In 1985, Reagan visited a German military cemetery in Bitburg to lay a wreath with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It was determined that the cemetery held the graves of forty-nine members of the Waffen-SS. Reagan issued a statement that called the Nazi soldiers buried in that cemetery as themselves “victims,” a designation which ignited a stir over whether Reagan had equated the SS men to victims of the Holocaust; Pat Buchanan, Reagan’s Director of Communications, argued that the president did not equate the SS members with the actual Holocaust, but as victims of the ideology of Nazism. Now strongly urged to cancel the visit, the president responded that it would be wrong to back down on a promise he had made to Chancellor Kohl. He ultimately attended the ceremony where two military generals laid a wreath.
The disintegration of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, proved a pivotal moment in Reagan’s presidency. All seven astronauts aboard were killed. On the night of the disaster, Reagan delivered a speech, written by Peggy Noonan, in which he said:
“The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave … We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’“
In 1988, near the end of the Iran–Iraq War, the U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes (CG-49) accidentally shot down Iran Air Flight 655 killing 290 civilian passengers. The incident further worsened already tense Iran–United States relations.
Relations between Libya and the United States under President Reagan were continually contentious, beginning with the Gulf of Sidra incident in 1981; by 1982, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was considered by the CIA to be, along with USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, part of a group known as the “unholy trinity” and was also labeled as “our international public enemy number one” by a CIA official. These tensions were later revived in early April 1986, when a bomb exploded in a Berlin discothèque, resulting in the injury of 63 American military personnel and death of one serviceman. Stating that there was “irrefutable proof” that Libya had directed the “terrorist bombing,” Reagan authorized the use of force against the country. In the late evening of April 15, 1986, the United States launched a series of airstrikes on ground targets in Libya.
Britain’s prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, allowed the U.S. Air Force to use Britain’s air bases to launch the attack, on the justification that the UK was supporting America’s right to self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. The attack was designed to halt Gaddafi’s “ability to export terrorism,” offering him “incentives and reasons to alter his criminal behavior.” The president addressed the nation from the Oval Office after the attacks had commenced, stating, “When our citizens are attacked or abused anywhere in the world on the direct orders of hostile regimes, we will respond so long as I’m in this office.” The attack was condemned by many countries. By a vote of 79 in favor to 28 against with 33 abstentions, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 41/38 which “condemns the military attack perpetrated against the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya on April 15, 1986, which constitutes a violation of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law.”
Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. The act made it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit illegal immigrants, required employers to attest to their employees’ immigration status, and granted amnesty to approximately three million illegal immigrants who entered the United States before January 1, 1982, and had lived in the country continuously. Critics argue that the employer sanctions were without teeth and failed to stem illegal immigration. Upon signing the act at a ceremony held beside the newly refurbished Statue of Liberty, Reagan said, “The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.” Reagan also said, “The employer sanctions program is the keystone and major element. It will remove the incentive for illegal immigration by eliminating the job opportunities which draw illegal aliens here.”
In 1986, the Iran–Contra affair became a problem for the administration stemming from the use of proceeds from covert arms sales to Iran during the Iran–Iraq War to fund the Contra rebels fighting against the government in Nicaragua, which had been specifically outlawed by an act of Congress. The affair became a political scandal in the United States during the 1980s. The International Court of Justice, whose jurisdiction to decide the case was disputed by the United States, ruled that the United States had violated international law and breached treaties in Nicaragua in various ways.
President Reagan professed that he was unaware of the plot’s existence. He opened his own investigation and appointed two Republicans and one Democrat (John Tower, Brent Scowcroft and Edmund Muskie, known as the “Tower Commission”) to investigate the scandal. The commission could not find direct evidence that Reagan had prior knowledge of the program, but criticized him heavily for his disengagement from managing his staff, making the diversion of funds possible. A separate report by Congress concluded that “If the president did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have.” Reagan’s popularity declined from 67% to 46% in less than a week, the greatest and quickest decline ever for a president. The scandal resulted in fourteen indictments within Reagan’s staff, and eleven convictions.
Many Central Americans criticize Reagan for his support of the Contras, calling him an anti-communist zealot, blinded to human rights abuses, while others say he “saved Central America.” Daniel Ortega, Sandinistan and president of Nicaragua, said that he hoped God would forgive Reagan for his “dirty war against Nicaragua.”
Until the early 1980s, the United States had relied on the qualitative superiority of its weapons to essentially frighten the Soviets, but the gap had been narrowed. Although the Soviet Union did not accelerate military spending after President Reagan’s military buildup, their large military expenses, in combination with collectivized agriculture and inefficient planned manufacturing, were a heavy burden for the Soviet economy. At the same time, Saudi Arabia increased oil production, which resulted in a drop of oil prices in 1985 to one-third of the previous level; oil was the main source of Soviet export revenues. These factors contributed to a stagnant Soviet economy during Gorbachev’s tenure.
Reagan recognized the change in the direction of the Soviet leadership with Mikhail Gorbachev, and shifted to diplomacy, with a view to encourage the Soviet leader to pursue substantial arms agreements. Reagan’s personal mission was to achieve “a world free of nuclear weapons,” which he regarded as “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization.” He was able to start discussions on nuclear disarmament with General Secretary Gorbachev. Gorbachev and Reagan held four summit conferences between 1985 and 1988: the first in Geneva, Switzerland, the second in Reykjavík, Iceland, the third in Washington, D.C., and the fourth in Moscow. Reagan believed that if he could persuade the Soviets to allow for more democracy and free speech, this would lead to reform and the end of Communism.
Speaking at the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, Reagan challenged Gorbachev to go further, saying “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!”
Before Gorbachev’s visit to Washington, D.C., for the third summit in 1987, the Soviet leader announced his intention to pursue significant arms agreements. The timing of the announcement led Western diplomats to contend that Gorbachev was offering major concessions to the United States on the levels of conventional forces, nuclear weapons, and policy in Eastern Europe. He and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) at the White House, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons. The two leaders laid the framework for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I; Reagan insisted that the name of the treaty be changed from Strategic Arms Limitation Talks to Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.
When Reagan visited Moscow for the fourth summit in 1988, he was viewed as a celebrity by the Soviets. A journalist asked the president if he still considered the Soviet Union the evil empire. “No,” he replied, “I was talking about another time, another era.” At Gorbachev’s request, Reagan gave a speech on free markets at the Moscow State University. In his autobiography, An American Life, Reagan expressed his optimism about the new direction that they charted and his warm feelings for Gorbachev. In November 1989, ten months after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall was opened, the Cold War was unofficially declared over at the Malta Summit on December 3, 1989, and two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
Early in his presidency, Reagan started wearing a custom-made, technologically advanced hearing aid, first in his right ear and later in his left ear as well. His decision to go public in 1983 regarding his wearing the small, audio-amplifying device boosted their sales.
On July 13, 1985, Reagan underwent surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital to remove cancerous polyps from his colon. He relinquished presidential power to the Vice President for eight hours in a similar procedure as outlined in the 25th Amendment, which he specifically avoided invoking. The surgery lasted just under three hours and was successful. Reagan resumed the powers of the presidency later that day. In August of that year, he underwent an operation to remove skin cancer cells from his nose. In October, more skin cancer cells were detected on his nose and removed.
In January 1987, Reagan underwent surgery for an enlarged prostate that caused further worries about his health. No cancerous growths were found and he was not sedated during the operation. In July of that year, aged 76, he underwent a third skin cancer operation on his nose.
On January 7, 1989, Reagan underwent surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to repair a Dupuytren’s contracture of the ring finger of his left hand. The surgery lasted for more than three hours and was performed under regional anesthesia. This procedure was done just thirteen days before he left office. For this reason, he had a hand and finger bandage the day of his farewell speech and the day of the inauguration of George H. W. Bush.
After leaving office in 1989, the Reagans purchased a home in Bel Air, Los Angeles, in addition to the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara. They regularly attended Bel Air Church and occasionally made appearances on behalf of the Republican Party; Reagan delivered a well-received speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Previously, on November 4, 1991, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was dedicated and opened to the public. At the dedication ceremonies, five presidents were in attendance, as well as six first ladies, marking the first time that five presidents were gathered in the same location. Reagan continued publicly to speak in favor of a line-item veto; the Brady Bill; a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget; and the repeal of the 22nd Amendment, which prohibits anyone from serving more than two terms as president. In 1992 Reagan established the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award with the newly formed Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. His final public speech was on February 3, 1994, during a tribute to him in Washington, D.C., and his last major public appearance was at the funeral of Richard Nixon on April 27, 1994.
On April 13, 1992, Reagan was assaulted by an anti-nuclear protester during a luncheon speech while accepting an award from the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas. The protester, 41-year old Richard Paul Springer, smashed a 2-foot-high (60 cm) 30-pound (13.5 kg) crystal statue of an eagle that the broadcasters had given the former president. Flying shards of glass hit Reagan, but he was not injured. Using media credentials, Springer intended to announce government plans for an underground nuclear weapons test in the Nevada desert the following day. Springer was the founder of an anti-nuclear group called the 100th Monkey. Following his arrest on assault charges, a Secret Service spokesman could not explain how Springer got past the federal agents who guarded Reagan’s life at all times. Later, Springer pled guilty to reduced charges and said he hadn’t meant to hurt Reagan through his actions. He pled guilty to a misdemeanor federal charge of interfering with the Secret Service, but other felony charges of assault and resisting officers were dropped.
In August 1994, at the age of 83, Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, an incurable neurological disorder which destroys brain cells and ultimately causes death. In November, he informed the nation through a handwritten letter, writing in part:
“I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease … At the moment I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done … 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. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you.“
After his diagnosis, letters of support from well-wishers poured into his California home.
There was also speculation over how long Reagan had demonstrated symptoms of mental degeneration. Not long after the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, at a reception for mayors, Reagan greeted his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel Pierce in 1981 by saying “How are you, Mr Mayor? How are things in your city?”, although he later realized his mistake. Former CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl recounted that, in her final meeting with the president in 1986, Reagan did not seem to know who Stahl was, and that she came close to reporting that Reagan was senile, but at the end of the meeting, Reagan had regained his alertness. However, Dr. Lawrence K. Altman, a physician employed as a reporter for The New York Times, noted that “the line between mere forgetfulness and the beginning of Alzheimer’s can be fuzzy,” and all four of Reagan’s White House doctors said that they saw no evidence of Alzheimer’s while he was president.
Dr. John E. Hutton, Reagan’s primary physician from 1984 to 1989, said the president “absolutely” did not “show any signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s.” His former Chief of Staff James Baker considered “ludicrous” the idea that Reagan slept during cabinet meetings. Other staff members, former aides, and friends said they saw no indication of Alzheimer’s while he was president. Reagan did experience occasional memory lapses, though, especially with names. Reagan’s doctors say that he only began exhibiting overt symptoms of the illness in late 1992 or 1993, several years after he had left office. For example, Reagan repeated a toast to Margaret Thatcher, with identical words and gestures, at his 82nd-birthday party on February 6, 1993.
Complicating the picture, Reagan suffered an episode of head trauma in July 1989, five years before his diagnosis. After being thrown from a horse in Mexico, a subdural hematoma was found and surgically treated later in the year. Nancy Reagan, citing what doctors told her, asserted that her husband’s 1989 fall hastened the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, although acute brain injury has not been conclusively proven to accelerate Alzheimer’s or dementia. Reagan’s one-time physician Daniel Ruge has said it is possible, but not certain, that the horse accident affected the course of Reagan’s memory.
As the years went on, the disease slowly destroyed Reagan’s mental capacity. He was only able to recognize a few people, including his wife, Nancy. He remained active, however; he took walks through parks near his home and on beaches, played golf regularly, and until 1999 he often went to his office in nearby Century City.
Reagan suffered a fall at his Bel Air home on January 13, 2001, resulting in a broken hip. The fracture was repaired the following day and the 89-year-old Reagan returned home later that week, although he faced difficult physical therapy at home. On February 6, 2001, Reagan reached the age of 90, becoming the third former president to do so (the other two being John Adams and Herbert Hoover, with Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter later reaching 90). Reagan’s public appearances became much less frequent with the progression of the disease, and as a result, his family decided that he would live in quiet semi-isolation with his wife Nancy.
Nancy Reagan told CNN’s Larry King in 2001 that very few visitors were allowed to see her husband because she felt that “Ronnie would want people to remember him as he was.” After her husband’s diagnosis and death, Nancy Reagan became a stem-cell research advocate, urging Congress and President George W. Bush to support federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, something Bush opposed. In 2009, she praised President Barack Obama for lifting restrictions on such research. Nancy Reagan said that she believed it could lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s.
Reagan died of pneumonia, complicated by Alzheimer’s disease, at his home in the Bel Air district of Los Angeles, California, on the afternoon of June 5, 2004. A short time after his death, Nancy Reagan released a statement saying, “My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has died after 10 years of Alzheimer’s disease at 93 years of age. We appreciate everyone’s prayers.”
President George W. Bush declared June 11 a National Day of Mourning, and international tributes came in from around the world. Reagan’s body was taken to the Kingsley and Gates Funeral Home in Santa Monica, California later in the day, where well-wishers paid tribute by laying flowers and American flags in the grass. On June 7, his body was removed and taken to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where a brief family funeral was held conducted by Pastor Michael Wenning. His body lay in repose in the Library lobby until June 9; over 100,000 people viewed the coffin.
On June 9, Reagan’s body was flown to Washington, D.C. where he became the tenth U.S. president to lie in state; in thirty-four hours, 104,684 people filed past the coffin.
On June 11, a state funeral was conducted in the Washington National Cathedral, and presided over by President George W. Bush. Eulogies were given by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and both former President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush. Also in attendance were Mikhail Gorbachev, and many world leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Prince Charles, representing his mother Queen Elizabeth II, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and interim presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, and Ghazi al-Yawer of Iraq.
After the funeral, the Reagan entourage was flown back to the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, where another service was held, and President Reagan was interred. At the time of his death, Reagan was the longest-lived president in U.S. history, having lived 93 years and 120 days (2 years, 8 months, and 23 days longer than John Adams, whose record he surpassed). He was the first U.S. president to die in the 21st century, and his was the first state funeral in the United States since that of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973.
His burial site is inscribed with the words he delivered at the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library: “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph and that there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”
Since Reagan left office in 1989, substantial debate has occurred among scholars, historians, and the general public surrounding his legacy. Supporters have pointed to a more efficient and prosperous economy as a result of Reagan’s economic policies, foreign policy triumphs including a peaceful end to the Cold War, and a restoration of American pride and morale. Proponents also argue Reagan restored faith in the American Dream with his unabated and passionate love for the United States, after a decline in American confidence and self-respect under Jimmy Carter’s perceived weak leadership, particularly during the Iran hostage crisis, as well as his gloomy, dreary outlook for the future of the United States during the 1980 election.
Critics contend that Reagan’s economic policies resulted in rising budget deficits, a wider gap in wealth, and an increase in homelessness and that the Iran–Contra affair lowered American credibility.
Opinions of Reagan’s legacy among the country’s leading policy makers and journalists differ as well. Edwin Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation, said that Reagan “helped create a safer, freer world” and said of his economic policies: “He took an America suffering from ‘malaise’… and made its citizens believe again in their destiny.” However, Mark Weisbrot, co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, contended that Reagan’s “economic policies were mostly a failure” while Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post opined that Reagan was “a far more controversial figure in his time than the largely gushing obits on television would suggest.”
Despite the continuing debate surrounding his legacy, many conservative and liberal scholars agree that Reagan has been the most influential president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, leaving his imprint on American politics, diplomacy, culture, and economics through his effective communication, dedicated patriotism and pragmatic compromising. Since he left office, historians have reached a consensus, as summarized by British historian M. J. Heale, who finds that scholars now concur that Reagan rehabilitated conservatism, turned the nation to the right, practiced a considerably pragmatic conservatism that balanced ideology and the constraints of politics, revived faith in the presidency and in American exceptionalism, and contributed to victory in the Cold War.
On January 18, 1993, Reagan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded with distinction), the highest honor that the United States can bestow, from President George H. W. Bush, his Vice President and successor. Reagan was also awarded the Republican Senatorial Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed by Republican members of the Senate.
On Reagan’s 87th birthday, in 1998, Washington National Airport was renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport by a bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton. That year, the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center was dedicated in Washington, D.C. He was among 18 included in Gallup’s most admired man and woman poll of the 20th century, from a poll conducted in the U.S. in 1999; two years later, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) was christened by Nancy Reagan and the United States Navy. It is one of few Navy ships christened in honor of a living person and the first aircraft carrier to be named in honor of a living former president.
In 1998 the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation awarded Reagan its Naval Heritage award for his support of the U.S. Navy and military in both his film career and while he served as president.
Congress authorized the creation of the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home in Dixon, Illinois in 2002, pending federal purchase of the property. On May 16 of that year, Nancy Reagan accepted the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress, on behalf of the president and herself.
In 2005, CNN, along with the editors of Time magazine, named him the “most fascinating person” of the network’s first 25 years; Time listed Reagan one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th century as well. The Discovery Channel asked its viewers to vote for The Greatest American in June 2005; Reagan placed in first place, ahead of Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.
In 2006, Reagan was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, located at The California Museum. Every year from 2002, California governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed February 6 “Ronald Reagan Day” in the state of California in honor of their most famous predecessor. In 2010, Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 944, authored by Senator George Runner, to make every February 6 Ronald Reagan Day in California.
In 2007, Polish President Lech Kaczyński posthumously conferred on Reagan the highest Polish distinction, the Order of the White Eagle, saying that Reagan had inspired the Polish people to work for change and helped to unseat the repressive communist regime; Kaczyński said it “would not have been possible if it was not for the tough-mindedness, determination, and feeling of mission of President Ronald Reagan.” Reagan backed the nation of Poland throughout his presidency, supporting the anti-communist Solidarity movement, along with Pope John Paul II; the Ronald Reagan Park, a public facility in Gdańsk, was named in his honor.
On June 3, 2009, Nancy Reagan unveiled a statue of her late husband in the United States Capitol rotunda. The statue represents the state of California in the National Statuary Hall Collection. After Reagan’s death, both major American political parties agreed to erect a statue of Reagan in the place of that of Thomas Starr King. The day before, President Obama signed the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act into law, establishing a commission to plan activities to mark the upcoming centenary of Reagan’s birth.
Independence Day 2011 saw the unveiling of another statue to Reagan — this time in the British capital of London, outside the U.S. embassy in Grosvenor Square. The unveiling was supposed to be attended by Reagan’s wife Nancy, but she did not attend; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took her place and read a statement on her behalf; further to the former First Lady’s absence, President Reagan’s friend and British prime minister during his presidency, Baroness Thatcher, was also unable to attend due to frail health.
On February 9, 2005, just over eight months following his death, the United States Postal Service issued a 37-cent Ronald Reagan commemorative stamp in a pressure-sensitive adhesive pane of twenty stamps, in Simi Valley, California (Scott #3897). Howard E. Paine of Delaplane, Virginia, designed the stamp. The stamp art is a portrait of Reagan painted by award-winning artist Michael J. Deas, whose many projects for the Postal Service include several stamps in the Legends of Hollywood Series and the Literary Arts Series. The portrait is based on a 1981 photograph of Reagan by White House photographer Jack Kightlinger. Sennett Security Products printed 170 million stamps in the photogravure process with serpentine die cuts to a perforation gauge of 10¾.
This stamp design, with all other particulars remaining the same, was re-issued on June 14, 2006, with a new denomination of 39 cents (Scott #4078). The reissue was released in Washington, D.C., with a total of 50,000,000 copies printed.
The 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth was commemorated with the release of a Forever stamp (priced at 44 cents) which was released on February 10, 2011, in Simi Valley, California (Scott #4494). The stamp was designed by Ethel Kessler of Bethesda, Maryland, featuring stamp art by Bart Forbes of Plano, Texas, which was created in oil wash on board. It is based on a photograph of Reagan taken in 1985, during his second term as president, at his beloved Rancho del Cielo (Ranch in the Sky), near Santa Barbara, California.
Printed by Avery Dennison at Clinton, South Carolina, using photogravure using the colors yellow, magenta, cyan, black, dark blue, and gray on a Dia Nippon Kiko-type press, engraving was done by Trident. It was released in a square format in pressure-sensitive adhesive (PSA) panes of 20 stamps with 100,000,000 copies issued, perforated with serpentine die cuts of gauge 10¾. A header on each pane reads RONALD REAGAN CENTENNIAL with plate numbers in two corners and text on the backing paper.