Reagan, Ronald Wilson
Reagan, Ronald Wilson
(b. 6 February 1911 in Tampico, Illinois; d. 5 June 2004 in Los Angeles, California), movie and television actor, governor of California (1967–1975), and fortieth president of the United States (1981–1989).
After his birth in Tampico, Reagan moved frequently with his parents and older brother before his family settled in Dixon, Illinois, in 1920. His father, John Edward (“Jack”) Reagan, whose family was Irish Catholic, sold shoes; his mother, Nelle (Wilson) Reagan, occasionally did sewing work and participated in the charity and missionary activities of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Reagan remembered his childhood as “one of those rare Huck Finn–Tom Sawyer idylls,” a carefree adventure in the American heartland. But Reagan’s early years did not always conform to his idealized recollection. His father was an alcoholic whose excessive drinking occasionally led to frightening moments, as when Reagan, only eleven, found Jack lying unconscious on the porch. The Reagan family was poor, lived in rented housing, and had trouble making ends meet during the Great Depression.
Reagan, however, learned from his mother to believe that “all things were part of God’s plan” and that “everything worked out for the best.” He joined the Dixon Christian Church, whose minister emphasized that individuals must take responsibility for their own lives. Ambitious and athletic, Reagan played high school football and worked as a lifeguard at a local park, where he saved seventy-seven people from drowning between 1927 and 1932. Friends called him “Dutch,” a nickname that went back to his infancy. He graduated from Dixon High School in 1928. Despite his family’s limited means, a scholarship and part-time employment allowed him to attend Eureka College, a small liberal arts school affiliated with the Disciples of Christ in Eureka, Illinois. He graduated in 1932 with a BA in economics and sociology.
Reagan’s dream was to be a movie actor, but Hollywood was a long way from Eureka. Reagan thought that a job in radio announcing might be a step in the right direction. He found his first job in Davenport, Iowa, where he began announcing football games in late 1932 for radio station WOC. A few months later he became a sports announcer for WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, a powerful station that could be heard throughout the Midwest. One of Reagan’s main duties was doing the play-by-play accounts of the games of Chicago’s Major League Baseball teams, the Cubs and the White Sox, based only on the bare-bones information transmitted by telegraph from the playing field. Sitting at the microphone in Des Moines, Reagan provided commentary that allowed listeners to experience the sights and sounds of a game that he imagined as he turned radio into what he called a “theater of the mind.” Reagan’s created reality seemed like the real thing, and it brought him success and celebrity.
As Reagan had hoped, sports announcing opened the door to a movie career. In early 1937, while covering the Cubs’ spring-training camp in Southern California, he took a screen test. The result was a contract with Warner Bros. Pictures. Reagan began his first film, Love Is on the Air, in June 1937, and it was released later that year. Most of Reagan’s early motion pictures were B movies, films with modest budgets and second-magnitude stars that got second billing in the double features that then commonly played in theaters. Reagan quickly established a reputation as a hard-working, dependable actor who gave effective performances that often won critical praise. He achieved a new level of success with his role in Knute Rockne—All American (1940), in which he played George Gipp, the University of Notre Dame football player who, according to the film, made a dying request of Rockne to “win one for the Gipper.” Those words later became one of Reagan’s signature lines during his political career. In 1940 his performance earned him roles in A movies such as Santa Fe Trail (1940) and Kings Row (1942) along with salary increases that made him wealthy. On 26 January 1940 Reagan married the actress Jane Wyman, with whom he had costarred in Brother Rat (1938). They had a daughter, Maureen, in January 1941 and adopted a son, Michael, in March 1945. A member of the Army Reserves when he was called to active duty as a second lieutenant in April 1942, Reagan was transferred to the Army Air Forces shortly thereafter. He served in Culver City, California, where he made government films that aided the war effort.
After his discharge from active duty in December 1945, Reagan’s participation in Hollywood politics eclipsed his performances on screen. His roles in his first postwar films, Stallion Road, That Hagen Girl, and The Voice of the Turtle, all released in 1947, neither reestablished his earlier popularity nor advanced his career. As his stardom began to dim, Reagan gained prominence in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), first as board member and then as president from 1947 until 1952. Working for SAG involved Reagan not only in acrimonious labor disputes but also in heated controversies over Communist influence in Hollywood. As the cold war emerged after World War II, a red scare gripped domestic U.S. politics. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held sensational hearings about Communist subversion in Hollywood, supposedly a prime target because of the film industry’s potential to mold public attitudes. On 25 October 1947 Reagan testified in Washington, D.C., before HUAC that a “small clique” in SAG had been “more or less following the tactics that we associate with the Communist Party,” even though he had no proof that any members of this faction were Communists. No committee member asked Reagan for the names of suspected Communists, but since April 1947 Reagan had confidentially provided that information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Even though he worried about damage to individual rights and reputations, Reagan believed that SAG should cooperate with the blacklist that studio executives began using to deny employment to actors, writers, and directors who refused to discuss their political beliefs and affiliations or those of their colleagues when called to testify before HUAC.
Other political causes also engaged Reagan in the early postwar years. He identified with the Democratic Party, an allegiance that solidified when he cast his first vote in the election of 1932 for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Reagan later said that he “idolized” Roosevelt. He especially admired the president’s radio “fireside chats” that “reassured us that we could lick any problem.” He also favored Roosevelt’s New Deal, which brought hope, relief, and employment to millions of Americans, including Jack Reagan, who had lost his job during the Depression. In 1948 Reagan supported Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S Truman, and appeared on the platform with the president during a campaign stop in Los Angeles. He joined the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) shortly after its founding in 1947. Like other ADA members Reagan was a cold war liberal—an advocate of progressive causes and an ardent anti-Communist.
Reagan’s personal and professional life changed dramatically during the late 1940s and early 1950s. In June 1948 Jane Wyman filed for divorce. The end of Reagan’s marriage left him stunned and disconsolate. In 1949, however, he met the actress Nancy Davis, and they married on 4 March 1952. They had two children, Patricia (later known as Patti Davis), born in October 1952, and Ronald, born in May 1958. Nancy Reagan limited her acting career and devoted herself to home and family. The Reagans in some ways had a traditional marriage by the standards of the 1950s, but they also established a strong and intimate partnership. On personal, professional, and—eventually—political matters, Nancy Reagan was her husband’s most trusted and important adviser. Soon after the marriage Reagan’s performing career also changed significantly. He shifted from movies to television when he signed a contract in 1954 to serve as host of the weekly drama anthology General Electric Theater.
Reagan’s work for General Electric (GE) was a catalyst for a major transformation in his political thinking. In addition to hosting the Sunday night television program, Reagan became a corporate spokesperson for GE. He traveled to GE plants across the country and gave inspirational talks to employees. The GE slogan was “progress is our most important product,” and Reagan lauded corporate innovation while decrying what he said was excessive government regulation. Personal experience also contributed to the shift in Reagan’s views as he became an outspoken critic of high taxes, in part because his own substantial income placed him in a bracket where the marginal rate exceeded 90 percent. As the cold war deepened, so did Reagan’s anti-Communism as well as his conviction, first learned from the Disciples of Christ, that the United States had a divine mission in world affairs. By the end of the decade Reagan had developed a set of beliefs that guided his political thinking for the rest of his public career. He thought that high taxes and big government endangered liberty and undermined individual responsibility. He insisted that international Communism was a mortal danger and that the United States was a beacon of hope to people around the world. The liberal Democrat had become a staunchly conservative Republican. In 1962 Reagan formally changed his party registration.
Reagan left GE in 1962 and made the last of his fifty-three feature films, The Killers (1964). He also became the host of the television program Death Valley Days during the 1965–1966 season. His most notable role, however, was in the 1964 presidential campaign of Senator Barry Goldwater (a Republican from Arizona). Reagan gave a speech in Los Angeles before an audience of Goldwater supporters, and a film of his address, “A Time for Choosing,” aired on national television on 27 October 1964. “The Speech,” as it became known, brought Reagan national recognition for articulate and charismatic advocacy of the conservatism that had emerged as a powerful force in Republican Party politics. It also suggested that, unlike Goldwater, who lost in a landslide, Reagan had the appeal to carry that conservative agenda to victory. Within months, leading California conservatives approached Reagan and asked him to run for governor. He decisively defeated George Christopher, the former mayor of San Francisco, in the Republican primary in June 1966.
Reagan faced a formidable opponent, the two-term Democratic governor Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown, in the general election, but he ran a shrewd and effective race. Reagan capitalized on voter discontent with rising street crime and urban riots, especially the disturbance that left thirty-four people dead in the Watts section of Los Angeles in August 1965. Reagan also found that his denunciations of the free-speech movement and antiwar demonstrations at the University of California, Berkeley, and ridicule of the hippies in the emerging counterculture resonated with many Californians, who resented these challenges to authority and middle-class values. He appealed to many Democrats who had previously supported Brown and won by almost one million votes in November 1966.
As governor Reagan was often controversial and usually pragmatic. He vigorously defended his conservative views but recognized that effective governance required negotiation and compromise since Democrats held majorities in the state legislature in Sacramento during most of his years in the governor’s office. Although he cut the spending of several agencies during his first months in office and limited the growth of the state workforce, he could not balance the budget without signing the largest tax increase to that point in California history. Reagan insisted that Brown’s profligate policies gave him no choice. He proposed the first tuition for state residents at the University of California but quietly agreed in August 1967 to a new, smaller charge, which the regents refused to call tuition. Reagan also secured the dismissal of the president of the University of California, Clark Kerr, whom he blamed for coddling campus demonstrators. Critics maintained that Reagan was hostile to higher education, but appropriations for the state’s colleges and universities rose 136 percent during his governorship. Reagan signed more than forty bills that toughened law enforcement, yet the state’s violent crime rates still climbed. He also approved abortion-reform legislation, although he later maintained that he did not expect its provisions would allow so many women to terminate their pregnancies. In 1970 he won reelection against opponent Jesse Marvin Unruh, a former California Assembly Speaker, with a smaller majority than in his first run for governor; yet he still gained 52.9 percent of the vote. A notable accomplishment of his second term was welfare-reform legislation that conservatives lauded for reducing the number of Californians on public assistance and liberals praised for raising benefits to the needy.
Conservatives urged Reagan to seek the presidency from the time that he won his first election as governor. In 1968 he was reluctant to enter the race, although he ran as a favorite son in the California primary and campaigned in the South for delegates. He declared his candidacy on 7 August, only hours before the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, selected the party’s nominee, Richard M. Nixon. Reagan tried for the nomination eight years later, although he hesitated at first to challenge the incumbent Republican, Gerald R. Ford. Reagan and Ford waged a spirited battle in the primaries, and the president won a narrow, first-ballot victory in July 1976 at the Republican convention in Kansas City, Missouri. Ford’s close loss to Jimmy Carter in November opened the door to Reagan’s third run for the nomination. Reagan made clear to conservative supporters as early as 1977 that he intended to be a candidate. He worried that because of his age—he would be almost seventy on inauguration day 1981—any hesitation might encourage conservatives to look for another standard-bearer. He announced his candidacy on 13 November 1979 and entered a crowded Republican field as the front-runner. The contest for the nomination narrowed after the first primaries to Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and Reagan surged ahead. He won an overwhelming first-ballot victory at the GOP convention in Detroit in July 1980 and selected Bush as his running mate.
During the campaign Reagan blamed President Jimmy Carter for “a disintegrating economy,” “weakened defense,” and “mediocre leadership.” Economic problems had become so severe that Reagan used a “misery index”—a combination of the rates of inflation and unemployment that by 1980 exceeded 20 percent—to measure the economic pain that workers and consumers experienced. He denounced Carter’s earlier efforts at détente with the Soviet Union as a “disaster.” While the Soviets had conducted “the greatest military buildup in the history of man,” Carter, according to Reagan, had let U.S. strategic and conventional forces wither. Reagan also charged Carter with allowing the Soviets and their Cuban proxies to extend Communist influence in Africa and Central America. The greatest of recent “humiliations” was the prolonged incarceration of fifty-two Americans, seized at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, on 4 November 1979. Reagan capitalized on the widespread anger and outrage over the Iranian hostage crisis and popular frustration over Carter’s failure to bring the captives home. At a time when many people thought that U.S. international stature was declining and economic problems were intractable, Reagan spoke hopefully about national renewal. He promised to rejuvenate the economy, rebuild national-security forces, and restore American confidence and spirit.
Carter tried to make Reagan’s fitness for the presidency the main issue of the campaign. Democrats seized on Reagan’s misstatements or mistakes, including an assertion that trees were an important source of air pollution. Carter, however, warned that the real danger was that Reagan’s “simplistic answers” and “habitual” belligerence could lead to war. Polls showed the race was even when the two candidates met for their only debate in Cleveland on 28 October 1980. In his closing remarks Reagan urged voters to answer some simple questions before casting their ballots. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Reagan asked. “Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?” he inquired. Polls revealed a dramatic shift toward Reagan in the aftermath of the debate. Many Americans who voted for him were Reagan Democrats, traditional supporters of the party of Roosevelt, Truman, and John F. Kennedy who thought it was time for a change. Others identified with a growing and diverse conservative movement that included evangelicals, libertarians, and neoconservatives who had become disillusioned with the liberalism they once embraced. On Election Day, Reagan won 50.7 percent of the popular vote and a lopsided majority of 489 electoral votes.
While Reagan delivered his inaugural address on 20 January 1981, the Iranian government released the U.S. hostages after 444 days of captivity. Reagan welcomed their return, but he made clear that his highest priority was to alleviate the nation’s serious economic problems. He asserted that conventional thinking and business as usual would not suffice. “Government is not the solution to our problem,” he declared on inauguration day. “Government is the problem.” Reagan proposed solutions that he had advocated for two decades, including cutting income taxes and reducing federal programs, especially those in social welfare that he insisted were ineffective or wasteful. He wanted to diminish the size of a government that he believed had grown too large and to curtail the federal regulations that he considered a drag on the economy. What made the president’s proposals so unorthodox was his belief that the tax reductions would not increase federal deficits, already so chronic and severe that he warned about “mortgaging our future,” or add to the rate of inflation, which had reached double digits. Instead he predicted that increased purchasing power and investment dollars would stimulate the economy, put people back to work, and provide sufficient tax revenue to balance the budget. He even thought his administration could eliminate the deficit while drastically increasing defense spending.
“Reaganomics,” or supply-side economics, as people frequently called the president’s ideas and programs, produced a divided reaction. Reagan worked hard to cultivate support, especially in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Democrats held a majority. His efforts came to a temporary halt on 30 March 1981, when a deranged shooter, John W. Hinckley, Jr., seriously wounded him outside a Washington, D.C., hotel. The public did not know at the time how close Reagan came to death. Instead they learned about his courage and humor in the face of adversity, including his quip to his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Reagan spent only twelve days in the hospital, and his optimism and fortitude throughout his recovery added to his personal popularity. Even on a reduced schedule, Reagan lobbied members of Congress to approve his economic program. The White House negotiated concessions and made deals with influential representatives to gain their support. On 13 August 1981 Reagan signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act, which decreased personal income taxes by 5 percent in 1981 and by 10 percent during each of the next two years. On that same day he also signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which reduced expenditures, mainly in social programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, and public housing, by $130 billion over the next three years.
Administration hopes for economic improvement rested on a set of optimistic projections for economic growth, diminished inflation, and shrinking deficits that Reagan’s advisers called the “rosy scenario.” Even as Reagan signed his economic reforms into law, he knew that the “rosy scenario” would not occur. Because of a miscalculation, budget officials had approved increases in defense spending that far exceeded the administration’s plans. But Reagan balked at ordering substantial cuts in the defense budgets he had publicly announced for fear of appearing to back down on a vital issue of national security despite warnings that the extra spending would make balancing the budget impossible during his first term. Instead of the “rosy scenario,” Americans experienced a severe recession, which began in late 1981 and reached bottom a year later, when the unemployment rate climbed into double digits. Reagan faced fierce criticism, and his approval rating in the Gallup Poll sank in January 1983 to only 37 percent. He admitted that the road to recovery might be long and difficult, but he insisted on staying the course. Despite his rhetoric he quietly agreed with leaders of Congress to increase taxes in order to shrink the budget deficits that had swelled during the recession. The president emphasized that he was closing loopholes—not raising taxes—when he approved the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. He said the same thing when he agreed to similar legislation two years later.
Recovery began in late 1982. Inflation plunged in 1983 to an annual rate of 3.2 percent, the first time since 1972 that it had fallen to less than 5 percent. The decline in inflation helped sustain economic growth for more than seven years. Some observers credited Reagan’s policies with restoring economic health and creating conditions for robust expansion for many years beyond his presidency. Critics, however, emphasized that Reagan did not balance a single budget and that the combined deficits during his presidency were almost twice as large as the nation’s accumulated debt during its entire history before 1981. They also charged that the president’s budget and tax policies, including a major reform in 1986 that lowered marginal tax rates for those with high incomes from 50 to 28 percent, contributed to a growing inequality of wealth that disproportionately benefited the wealthy. Some policy analysts maintained that Reagan’s reforms were significant and successful but that the president should share credit with Paul A. Volcker, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, for squeezing inflation out of the economy.
Reagan also made important changes in national-security policy. Defense spending increased sharply after he entered the White House. Reagan maintained that new weapons systems and improvements in U.S. combat forces were essential to overcoming Soviet superiority in some categories of nuclear and conventional strength and to countering the Kremlin’s worldwide efforts to extend its power. He bluntly denounced Soviet goals, methods, and values, most notably in his “evil empire” speech on 8 March 1983. He also relied on covert action to undermine Communist forces. He directed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to provide help to Solidarity, a trade-union organization that challenged the Communist government of Poland. He expanded covert aid, begun during the Carter administration after the Soviet invasion in December 1979, to resistance fighters in Afghanistan. He directed the CIA to train and equip counter revolutionaries, known as the Contras, who opposed the Nicaraguan government, which Reagan condemned for cooperating with Moscow and Havana. He also ordered U.S. troops to rescue U.S. medical students and topple the Marxist government after a coup in October 1983 on the Caribbean island of Grenada. The success in Grenada occurred only days after 241 U.S. marines on a peacekeeping mission in Beirut, Lebanon, died in a terrorist bombing.
Reagan’s most sensational national-security proposal was his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). In a televised address on 23 March 1983 Reagan challenged scientists and engineers to devise a system that could “intercept and destroy” incoming strategic missiles. The proposal reflected the president’s desire to find an alternative to mutual assured destruction, a method of deterring a nuclear exchange that depended on the vulnerability of both sides to devastating retaliation. Reagan occasionally had told friends and advisers that he worried about the biblical prophecy of Armageddon and dreamed of a nuclear-free world. SDI, which promised to render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete,” could avert a nuclear Armageddon. But Reagan encountered a flood of criticism that SDI was costly and infeasible, little more than a Hollywood fantasy that skeptics derided as “Star Wars.” SDI also failed to diminish the strength of the nuclear-freeze movement, a global, grassroots campaign that mustered sufficient influence to secure passage of a resolution in the House of Representatives on 5 May 1983 calling on the administration to negotiate with the Soviets a mutual freeze of nuclear arsenals as a prelude to further arms-control accords. Reagan opposed a nuclear freeze, which he said would allow the Soviets to maintain critical strategic advantages. Arms-reduction talks had failed to make progress since the beginning of Reagan’s presidency. SDI added to the difficulties, as Soviet officials charged that Reagan wanted a defensive system so that he would be able to launch a first strike without fear of retaliation. By late 1983 the arms talks halted when Soviet negotiators walked out in protest over the installation of new U.S. intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Germany. Soviet-American relations were so strained that Kremlin leaders feared that a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) training exercise might be the beginning of a U.S. attack. Reagan was astonished that Soviet leaders thought he might start a nuclear war. In January 1984 he moved toward a more moderate course, declaring that he desired “a constructive and realistic working relationship with the Soviet Union.”
In his first term Reagan established a reputation as a “Great Communicator.” He used television just as his idol, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had used radio to stir and persuade millions of Americans. Aides carefully planned his public appearances, and some speeches were notable not just for memorable lines but also for striking settings. For example, on the fortieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion in June 1984, Reagan traveled to France and stood on a cliff in Normandy near a memorial to U.S. Army rangers and remembered “the champions who helped free a continent,... the heroes who helped win a war.” Critics, however, insisted that the president did little more than speak the lines written by aides. He had an appealing folksiness but was really an “amiable dunce.” When he had no script Reagan at times seemed alarmingly ignorant or confused. But later openings of White House files revealed that Reagan wrote substantial portions of some speeches and answered correspondence in his own hand. He depended heavily on his staff but usually declared his own position on basic issues—taxes, defense spending, or federal regulation—and asked administration officials to carry out his mandate.
Doubts persisted about his intelligence, energy, and engagement, and they combined with concerns about his age in 1984, when Reagan sought a second term although already older than any previous president. Reagan’s Democratic opponent, Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota, had served as vice president during the Carter administration and was Reagan’s junior by seventeen years. After a lethargic, fumbling performance in his first debate with Mondale, Reagan addressed the question of his age. In his second debate with Mondale, in Kansas City, Missouri, on 21 October, he stated, “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.” Reagan’s wit produced a howl of laughter and effectively neutralized the issue. Mondale consistently trailed in the polls, and the Reagan campaign used the theme of “Morning in America,” a phrase from an upbeat television commercial, to emphasize that the president’s policies had renewed the nation’s economic and military strength and given Americans fresh hope. Reagan won 58.8 percent of the vote and carried every state except Minnesota and Washington, D.C.
In his second term Reagan made surprising progress in easing cold war tensions with the Soviet Union. After Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in March 1985, Reagan established a good working relationship with him. Gorbachev was eager for improvements in U.S.-Soviet relations, which he hoped would allow reductions in defense spending that would invigorate the troubled Soviet economy. Reagan, however, made few, if any, concessions to Gorbachev. During their summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986 they almost agreed to dismantle their strategic nuclear arsenals in ten years, but Reagan refused to accept Gorbachev’s requirement for restrictions on SDI. Gorbachev nevertheless made unilateral cuts in Soviet military forces and announced in 1988 that Soviet troops would begin leaving Afghanistan. Gorbachev also accepted the Reagan administration’s terms for what became the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987), which required both Soviets and Americans to eliminate that entire category of weaponry. When Reagan visited Moscow at the end of May 1988, he said that the “evil empire” was part of “another time, another era.” As the two leaders strolled through Red Square, almost as old friends, their relationship symbolized the waning of the cold war.
Scandal mixed with success during Reagan’s last years in office. After Congress halted U.S. military aid to the Nicaraguan opposition, Reagan told a National Security Council (NSC) staff aide, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, to maintain the Contras “body and soul.” North solicited funds from foreign governments and individual donors and engaged private arms dealers to accomplish the president’s objective. Reagan also approved extraordinary measures to secure the release of U.S. hostages seized during the civil war in Lebanon. Anguished over the plight of the captives, he authorized covert shipments of armaments to Iran as the price of enlisting the help of supposed Iranian moderates in gaining the hostages’ release. According to North and other NSC officials, the arms transfers also laid the foundation for improved U.S.-Iranian relations. The elaborate and irregular arrangements for the arms shipments to Iran yielded surplus revenues, which North used to boost Contra aid. The secret dealings became public knowledge in November 1986, and the Iran-Contra scandal produced stunned outrage over evading congressional restrictions and negotiating with terrorists. Questions about Reagan’s role were at the center of several investigations, including one conducted by a special commission that Reagan himself appointed and that was headed by a former Republican senator from Texas, John G. Tower. Reagan’s confused and contradictory statements troubled the members of the Tower Commission, which criticized NSC officials for failing the president but also faulted Reagan for not effectively supervising his aides. Reagan allayed much of the criticism by accepting responsibility for the scandal and admitting that the evidence showed that his administration had traded arms for hostages. By the summer of 1987 Reagan’s approval rating in the polls had climbed to more than 60 percent. Long after Reagan left the White House, the special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh issued a final report in 1994 that blamed the president for “the secret deviations from announced national policy.”
Reagan returned to California after he completed his second term as president in January 1989. His public career ended when he released a letter on 5 November 1994 that revealed that he had Alzheimer’s disease and would “begin the journey that would lead me into the sunset of my life.” He died almost ten years later of pneumonia, a complication of his Alzheimer’s disease. After a state funeral in Washington, D.C., on 11 June 2004, he was buried on the grounds of his presidential library in Simi Valley, California, during a magnificent sunset.
When Reagan left the White House, the fundamental beliefs that he brought to the presidency were unchanged. The economic expansion that followed the tax cuts and budget reductions only persuaded him that his basic ideas had been right all along, even if critics wondered whether the most important result of Reaganomics was record deficits. His ideas and his ability to communicate them had lasting effects. Mistrust of “big government” and skepticism about expensive social programs and the taxes needed to sustain them were enduring legacies. He also helped shift the political center toward the Right, a development that affected the Republican Party and national politics long after his departure from public life. Reagan’s stirring and uncompromising rhetoric at times obscured his remarkable political skill at building support for his programs and making pragmatic concessions that allowed him to get much, if not all, of what he wanted. Reagan’s accomplishments as symbolic leader were as important as his substantive achievements. His optimism, self-assurance, and certainty that the United States was “a shining city on a hill” were extraordinary political assets. He took special satisfaction in restoring national pride and increasing patriotism. Whether they supported or opposed his specific policies, Americans praised him for lifting the gloom of the 1970s, hastening the end of the cold war, and inspiring confidence in the future. He could justifiably claim in his Farewell Address as president that he had established a record that was “not bad, not bad at all.”
Records from Reagan’s governorship and presidency are in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, California. Reagan’s personal papers are also housed there, but they are under the control of the Reagan family. The Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Stanford, California, has several collections of textual and audiovisual records that deal with parts of Reagan’s prepresidential career. Reagan wrote two autobiographies, Where’s the Rest of Me? with Richard. G. Hubler (1965) and An American Life (1990). Many of the scripts that Reagan wrote for his daily radio program during the late 1970s are in Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, eds., Reagan, In His Own Hand (2001). A selection of his correspondence is in Skinner, Anderson, and Anderson, eds., Reagan: A Life in Letters (2003). The authorized biography by Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (1999), is disappointing. The best biographies are by the journalist Lou Cannon, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power (2003) and President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (1991). A brief, solid account is William E. Pemberton, Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan (1997). Also useful are John W. Sloan, The Reagan Effect: Economics and Presidential Leadership (1999), and Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (2005). Essays on many dimensions of Reagan’s presidency based on archival research are in W. Elliot Brownlee and Hugh Davis Graham, eds., The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservatism and Its Legacies (2003). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 6 June 2004).