Ronald Reagan 1911-2004: Stephen Young Puts the Career of the 40th American President into Historical Perspective

By Young, Stephen | History Review, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Ronald Reagan 1911-2004: Stephen Young Puts the Career of the 40th American President into Historical Perspective


Young, Stephen, History Review


The recent passing of former US President Ronald Reagan at the age of 93 was marked by a whole week of eulogising and by America's first state funeral in a generation. Many on this side of the Atlantic have expressed surprise at the glowing tributes paid to a man who remains a controversial figure. He can be portrayed as an amiable dunce who was fortunate to escape impeachment and whose policies widened social divisions, whereas supporters claim that he won the Cold War and restored America's self-confidence whilst laying the ground for a long period of economic growth in the 1990s.

From humble origins to White House

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Illinois in 1911 to a doting mother and alcoholic father. He was active in sports, student politics and amateur dramatics before carving a niche for himself as a sports broadcaster, commentating on baseball games from a radio studio but making listeners believe he was actually there as he enthusiastically embellished wire service reports. By 1937 he was in Hollywood gaining a reputation as a dependable B-movie actor with Warner Brothers. Reagan was no Henry Fonda but still amassed over 50 film appearances as he refined the skills that would serve him so well on a different stage.

He drifted into politics via the Screen Actors' Guild, earning his anticommunist spurs in the McCarthy era as the Cold War developed. He was employed by General Electric as corporate spokesman during the 1950s, a pivotal time for his own partisan allegiances as the one-time admirer of Franklin Roosevelt changed into a staunch Republican. Following an effective fundraising speech in favour of the right-wing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, Reagan was persuaded into running for governor of California by leading Republicans and businessmen who recognised his potential.

His two terms in Sacramento from 1967 to 1975 gave a preview of many of the themes of the Reagan presidency. He presented himself as a regular guy as opposed to a career politician, a conservative in favour of small government, a peddler of simple solutions who left the political realities to his aides. But ultimately it was his charm and his undoubted belief in himself and America that propelled him towards Washington.

The 1970s was a decade of self-doubt for the United States following the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate. Gerald Ford proved to be little more than a caretaker president and almost lost the right to face the electorate in 1976 in favour of the up-and-coming Reagan. Ford clung on to the Republican nomination but was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter at the polls. President Carter was exactly what America needed at the time: a humble, trustworthy leader whose low-key style and frugal nature hit the mark and helped restore some faith in the presidency. But the office of president acts like a mirror for America and, following the taking of American hostages in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the once mighty US felt somewhat impotent. The time was right to elect a more traditional type of leader, a strong man with charisma who would stand up to the Soviets and give America back its self-esteem. Reagan won the Republican primaries with ease and with defeated opponent George Bush in tow he dealt the dour Carter a convincing defeat in November 1980.

President Reagan's achievements

The stage was perfectly set for Reagan as he rode into town to save the day. His first year in office was nothing short of remarkable--full of glamour, heroism and political accomplishment. Reagan hit the ground running as the 52 US diplomats being held hostage in Tehran were released from their long captivity within an hour of his taking office. This was not due to any action of the new administration: the Iranians simply waited until Carter left office before allowing the hostages' plane to take off. Another event that helped heal America's wounded pride was the launch of the first space shuttle in April. …

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