CBC In Depth

America's movie star president
Ian Clayton, CBC News Online | June 5, 2004

Ronald Reagan speaks to the Republican National Convention in Houston's Astrodome in August 1992. Trying to boost the troubled campaign of his former vice-president, Reagan told the audience that America needed George Bush as "a steady hand on the tiller." (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
Ronald Reagan was America's movie star president... a celebrity in his own right long before he entered politics. As a former screen actor, he knew the tricks of the trade and could often foil a reporter's attempts to query him.

To minimize his encounters with the press, President Ronald Reagan often arranged to take questions from the press while his helicopter roared nearby in the background. As frustrated journalists shouted out queries, Reagan would cup his hands behind his ears, shrug, chuckle and wave to the cameras.

This contradictory image of Reagan, the "great communicator", avoiding questions mirrors the public's deeply divided attitude about the man and his presidency.

To many, Reagan was a forceful leader who brought back confidence and prosperity to the United States, and played a fundamental role in ending the Cold War. To others, his most significant legacies were a more polarized and less caring U.S., huge deficits (the American debt swelled by $1.5 trillion during the Reagan years), and obsessive support for right-wing leaders around the world.

Reagan was born to Nelle and John Reagan in Tampico, Illinois. In high school his hobbies included football, school politics and acting. Reagan studied economics and sociology at Eureka College before becoming a radio sports announcer in the 1930s. A screen test in 1937 led to a contract in Hollywood and over the next two decades Reagan appeared in 53 films, including Knute Rockne - All American, Bedtime for Bonzo and Hellcats of the Navy.

During the McCarthy era, Reagan became active in the Screen Actors Guild and grew concerned about communism in the film industry. It was at this time that he evolved into a staunch conservative and began touring the United States as a speaker for right-wing values. In 1966 he was elected Republican Governor of California and was re-elected in 1970. As governor, Reagan cut welfare, medical services and education funds.

Reagan made the leap to national politics when he won the Republican Presidential nomination in 1980. Capitalizing on inflation fears and frustration about the year-long captivity of American hostages in Iran, Reagan – along with running mate and future president George Bush – swept to victory against Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Sixty-nine days after taking office, Reagan was shot by a would-be assassin. When his wife Nancy arrived at the hospital Reagan told her, "Honey, I forgot to duck." The incident and Reagan's quick recovery increased his popularity, but did not change his pro-gun views, even though White House press secretary Jim Brady, who was crippled by the shooting, became synonymous with the U.S. gun control movement (the Brady bill, passed in 1993, mandated criminal background checks for gun buyers and instituted five-day waiting periods).

Over the course of his two terms in office, between 1981 and 1989, Reagan cut taxes, slashed government programs and ran up huge deficits with a 35 per cent increase in military spending.

Ronald Reagan as the gipper
Ronald Reagan poses in a scene from the 1940 film "Knute Rockne -- All American," in which Reagan portrayed Notre Dame halfback George Gipp. (AP File photo)
Joined by Conservative counterparts Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Brian Mulroney in Canada, Reagan stamped the 80s as a decade of privatization, deregulation, government downsizing, and free market values in the West.

Further abroad, Reagan's extensive support for right-wing dictators and guerrilla groups in Central America, Asia and Africa culminated in the 1986 Iran-Contra affair, a covert operation which diverted funds to Nicaraguan rebels from U.S. arms sales to Iran. It was never established how much – if anything at all – Reagan knew about the operation. Although there were suspicions about Reagan's involvement, no evidence was found linking him to any crime.

Reagan's most high profile political dealings were with the Soviet Union. Reagan always took an extreme position against his country's Cold War enemy, which he famously termed the "evil empire" in 1983. His philosophy on foreign policy was equally hard line - "peace through strength". America would negotiate with the Soviet Union, he said, only from a position of power and superiority.

To achieve that superiority, Reagan approved the deployment of missiles across Western Europe, started the Strategic Defense Initiative (nicknamed "Star Wars" and mocked by political opponents as an extravagant fiasco) and pushed the Reagan Doctrine, which was committed to spreading capitalism and rolling back communism around the globe.

Reagan's second term as President was characterized by a more conciliatory relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – something which upset hawkish members of the Reagan administration. Still, many say Reagan was instrumental in bringing about the demise of the USSR and the end of the Cold War.

In the latter years of his presidency, "The Gipper", as Reagan was called after a character in Knute Rockne, was increasingly questioned about his grip on the presidency. Many political commentators and private citizens suggested that his wife Nancy and other senior officials were really in charge. These rumours were given added fuel by pictures of Reagan looking confused, and Nancy whispering instructions into his ear after a question was asked of him.

After his second term ended and Reagan retired to private life, it was revealed that he had Alzheimer's disease. He appeared less and less in public in the 1990s, retreating with Nancy to their Bel Air home and Santa Barbara ranch, where he had always loved riding horses.

In late 2003, daughter Patti Davis wrote in People Magazine that Reagan's Alzheimer's disease was in an advanced stage and that her father could no longer walk, talk or recognize his family. Ronald Reagan is survived by wife of four decades, Nancy, and their two children Patti Davis and Ronald Prescott. He is also survived by one son from his marriage to actress Jane Wyman – Michael. Their daughter Maureen – Reagan's first – died in 2001 after a five-year battle with cancer. She was 60 years old.

In their own words

"I probably know as well as anybody what a formidable communicator and campaigner that President Reagan was. It was because of him that I was retired from my last job."
     – Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter

"I take the death of Ronald Reagan very hard. He was a man whom fate set by me in perhaps the most difficult years at the end of the 20th century. It was his goal and his dream to end his term and enter history as a peacemaker."
      – Former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev

"He was a very strong and powerful leader who did an enormous amount of good for the world. He enters history as a strong and dramatic player and people are going to miss him forever."
      – Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney

"He will be missed not only by those who knew him and not only by the nation that he served so proudly and loved so deeply, but also by millions of men and women who live in freedom today because of the policies he pursued."
     – Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher

"His wit, warmth and unique capacity to communicate helped to make him one of the most influential figures in the second half of the 20th century."
     – Prime Minister Paul Martin

"Most people think of him in rather simplistic terms. Either he's the guy who brought America back, or he's some sort of dumb actor who lucked out and got to be president."
      – Reagan's son, Ron Reagan

Text of Brian Mulroney's eulogy

Ronald Reagan 1911-2004

Former U.S. president dead (June 5, 2004)

Ronald Reagan's daughter Maureen dies in California (Aug. 8, 2001)

Ronald Reagan turns 88 (Feb. 6, 2001)

Reagan released from hospital (Jan. 21, 2001)

Ronald Reagan recovering after surgery (Jan. 14, 2001)

Shamrock Summit seen as 'turning point' for U.S.-Canada relations (Aug. 18, 1999)

Man who shot Reagan could be allowed out of hospital (July 27, 1999)

Would-be Reagan assassin may soon get day parole (Jan. 15, 1999)

CBC's David Halton looks back at the life and career of Ronald Reagan

The president was loved and hated

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Ronald Reagan Memorial Foundation

Various speeches

Pictorial history of Ronald Reagan

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