Reagan, Ronald Wilson

▪ 2005

      40th president (1981–89) of the United States (b. Feb. 6, 1911, Tampico, Ill.—d. June 5, 2004, Los Angeles, Calif.), was a Hollywood actor who became one of the most popular presidents of the 20th century—the winner of two landslide victories in the elections of 1980 and 1984 and the leader of a conservative revival in American politics. Called “the Great Communicator” for his remarkable skill as an orator and for his effective use of television to promote his agenda, Reagan succeeded in attracting supporters beyond the traditional base of the Republican Party. The oldest person ever elected to the White House, he was nevertheless noted for his youthful optimism and jaunty personality. In his two terms as president, he oversaw an economic recovery, albeit one that coincided with record budget deficits. In foreign affairs he sought a more assertive role for the U.S., and his policies, which included the largest peacetime military buildup in American history, were credited by some with having helped to end the Cold War.

      “Dutch” Reagan, the son of a ne'er-do-well shoe salesman, spent most of his childhood in Dixon, Ill., and attended nearby Eureka College. After graduating (1932) with a bachelor's degree in economics and sociology, he worked as a sportscaster for radio stations in Davenport and Des Moines, Iowa. On a trip to California to cover the Chicago Cubs baseball team at its spring training camp in 1937, Reagan landed a screen test with Warner Brothers and soon thereafter signed a long-term contract with the movie studio.

      Over the next quarter of a century, Reagan appeared in more than 50 films, most notably Knute Rockne—All American (1940), in which his role as George Gipp earned him the lifelong nickname “the Gipper,” Kings Row (1942), and The Hasty Heart (1949). He was twice president (1947–52, 1959–60) of the Screen Actors Guild, in which position he cooperated with efforts to combat alleged communist influences in the motion picture industry. He was divorced from his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, in 1948 and four years later married actress Nancy Davis. Reagan was hired as a public-relations spokesman for the General Electric Co. and served (1954–62) as host of its TV program, General Electric Theater. He made his only appearance as a villain in his last film, The Killers (1964), and spent one season (1965–66) as the host of TV's Death Valley Days before giving up Hollywood for politics.

      Once a liberal Democrat, Reagan gradually changed his political affiliation to conservative Republican. He became a fund-raiser for conservative groups and in 1964 was active in the presidential campaign of Sen. Barry Goldwater. Reagan's television address entitled “A Time for Choosing” raised a million dollars for Goldwater and marked an impressive debut for the neophyte politician on the national political stage. Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966 and was reelected in 1970, but during his two terms he was only moderately successful in carrying out his conservative programs.

      After having nearly taken the Republican presidential nomination away from Pres. Gerald Ford in 1976, Reagan swept to victory over Pres. Jimmy Carter four years later, in part by making inroads among such longtime Democratic constituencies as blue-collar workers, white southerners, and Roman Catholics. Shortly after taking office, Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt but, though seriously wounded, made a quick and complete recovery. In 1981 Congress approved much of his “supply-side” economic program, which relied on drastic cuts in personal income taxes and domestic spending. A recession (1982–84) was followed by several years of economic growth, and while the inflation rate dropped significantly, the national debt doubled by 1986 and nearly tripled by the time he left office.

      A fervent anticommunist, Reagan adopted an early hard-line stance against the Soviet Union, which he famously denounced as an “evil empire.” In 1983 he proposed construction of the Strategic Defense Initiative as a means of defending the U.S. from potential Soviet nuclear attacks. That same year he also authorized a military invasion of Grenada, ostensibly to prevent the island nation from becoming a Soviet outpost. During Reagan's second term, however, he embraced negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev in response to signals of glasnost under the new Soviet leader. The two met several times, ultimately signing a historic nuclear disarmament pact in December 1987.

      Although Reagan had been reelected by an overwhelming margin over challenger Walter Mondale in 1984, his image and governing authority were weakened for a time by revelations stemming from the Iran-Contra Affair. In eight hours of videotaped testimony about a secret plot to sell American weapons to Iran and divert the money illegally to Nicaraguan rebels, Reagan repeatedly swore, “I don't recall.” The scandal, however, did not permanently damage the popularity of the president, whose uncanny ability to deflect criticism prompted some to describe him as “Teflon-coated.” At the time he left office, he held the highest approval ratings (68%) of any retiring president in the history of modern-day polling. In 1994 Reagan disclosed publicly that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer disease. Aged 93 at his death, he was the nation's longest-surviving president.

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Universalium. 2010.

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  • Ronald Wilson Reagan — noun 40th President of the United States (1911 2004) • Syn: ↑Reagan, ↑Ronald Reagan, ↑President Reagan • Instance Hypernyms: ↑President of the United States, ↑United States President, ↑President, ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

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