Ronald Wilson Reagan

Well-known American actor and politician, whose great charisma in front of the camera brought him numerous leading roles in both his careers. His biography reads like a Machiavellian fantasy – espousing whatever political views were in vogue at the time, Reagan went from a union leader to a strike-buster while climbing the political ladder.

Reagan was born February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. His father, John Reagan, was an alcoholic shoe salesman, and his mother Nelle Wilson Reagan held various jobs and did volunteer work. He had an older brother, Neil Reagan. Reagan’s parents were strong supporters of FDR’s New Deal programs, which shaped his own political leanings until much later in his life, when he would gain great political power with a right-wing traditionalist platform.

Though a mediocre student, Reagan graduated from Eureka College in 1932. For the next several years, he broadcasted sports for a radio station in Iowa until signing a contract with Warner Brothers in 1937 to appear in films.

Reagan would go on to act in 53 motion pictures. His best-known role was that of doomed football player George Gipp in the 1940 film Knute Rockne – All American. The nickname "The Gipper" stayed with him for the rest of his life.

An Army reservist since the early 1930’s, Reagan was called up to active duty after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Army administration, not wanting to waste Reagan’s acting talents in the trenches, set him to work making propaganda films. Unlike many other future U.S. presidents, who really were war heroes, Reagan merely played one.

After the war, television was beginning its infiltration of American culture, and Reagan was right there on the ground floor. He landed a contract with General Electric, hosting the company’s weekly television program and serving as a general-purpose "celebrity spokesman," promoting the GE agenda wherever he was sent.

Love him or hate him, you’ve got to admit that Ronald Reagan knew how to pick a winner. You see, television wasn’t the only nefarious newcomer competing for Ameicans’ attention after World War II. Communism was becoming quite popular on the political scene, but Reagan didn’t hop onto that bandwagon. Instead, he helped lead the vigilantes chasing it down – as president of the Screen Actors Guild, he uncovered actors with communist sympathies and cheerfully ratted them out to the government. Now, decades later, communism is nowhere to be found, while TV is still going strong as ever. I rest my case.

Nonetheless, he remained a liberal until his divorce from film actress Jane Wyman in 1948. By the time he married his second wife Nancy in 1952, Reagan had become an active proponent of the conservative agenda of the Republican Party’s more rightist faction. She had tremendous influence on him, and her background of opulent wealth and social conservativism undoubtedly shaped his political agenda. It was not until 1962, however, that he formally changed his allegiance from Democratic to Republican.

Reagan’s great fame as an actor propelled him quickly up through the Republican Party ranks. He raised huge sums of money in support of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, and in 1966, decided to run for governor of California.

Though his platform was similar to Goldwater’s, Reagan’s presentation was drastically different. In stark contrast to Goldwater's intellectualism, Reagan was essentially a demagogue, using simple language and masterful rhetoric to present the Republican party line as a populist one. He was elected in a landslide, and spent 1967 through 1975 as head of California’s executive branch.

Reagan managed to win the Republican nomination for U.S. President in 1980, naming George Bush as his running mate, despite Bush’s sarcastic criticism of Reagan’s untested economic proposals as "voodoo economics." He then defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter in the general election, and became president.

Much of the rest of this node is devoted to debate over Reagan’s policies while president, and their impacts. Since there’s really not much more to be said in this area, I’ll just mention a few things he did.

  • Sworn in as president January 20, 1981.
  • Nearly killed in an attempted assassination by John Hinckley on March 30, 1981.
  • Fired striking air traffic controllers in August 1981.
  • Sent troops to invade Grenada in October 1983.
  • Re-elected in 1984, defeating Democratic challenger Walter Mondale.
  • Sent a bomber strike to Libya on April 14, 1986.
  • Got himself in a generally awful predicament in 1987 with the Iran-Contra Scandal.
  • Left office after two terms, with inauguration of George Bush on January 20, 1989.

Ronald Reagan announced to the world in 1994 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, from which he died in 2004. He had been the oldest American president ever, and his well-publicized spells of forgetfulness while still in office (and especially while in court!) suggest that the world’s most powerful military, as well as a nuclear stockpile large enough to destroy all human life on Earth, lay at the command of a man approaching senility. Scary!