Reagan, Ronald Wilson

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Reagan, Ronald Wilson

Ronald Wilson Reagan (rā´gən), 1911–2004, 40th president of the United States (1981–89), b. Tampico, Ill. In 1932, after graduation from Eureka College, he became a radio announcer and sportscaster. On a 1937 trip to California he was screen-tested and that year he acted in his first motion picture. Although never a major star, Reagan appeared in 50 films, including Knute Rockne—All-American (1940), King's Row (1941), The Hasty Heart (1950), and Bedtime for Bonzo (1951). He became interested in politics during his six terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild (1947–51, 1959). He was a liberal Democrat and a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s; later, he was among those Democrats who supported Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon.

After joining the Republican party in 1962 he began to champion conservative causes and enthusiastically endorsed presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. In the California gubernatorial election of 1966 he defeated the Democratic incumbent, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown. As governor of California for two terms (1967–75), he cut state welfare and medical services and aid to public schools and higher education. He also signed a series of tax increases aimed at ending the state's deficit. Nonetheless, during his tenure California's budget more than doubled and the number of state employees increased significantly. Reagan made unsuccessful bids for the 1968 and 1976 Republican presidential nominations, losing to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, respectively. Four years later he won the 1980 nomination and, with his running mate, George H. W. Bush, resoundingly defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

Reagan's presidency had barely begun when he was shot by a would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., on Mar. 30, 1981; he recovered completely and quickly. Advocating a balanced budget to combat inflation, he reversed long-standing political trends by successfully pursuing his supply-side economic program of tax and non-defense budget cuts through Congress (see supply-side economics). Adopting a hardline stance against the Soviet Union and other Communist countries, Reagan advocated and oversaw the largest peacetime escalation of military spending in American history; in 1983 he proposed the controversial and expensive space-based defense system known as the Strategic Defense Initiative.

After a recession in 1982, the economy picked up between 1983 to 1986, spurred largely by the tax cuts and deficit financing; on the strength of the economic rebound, the successful invasion of the Marxist-controlled island of Grenada, and his personal popularity, he defeated Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in 1984 by a landslide. Economic growth, however, remained relatively modest, although the rate of inflation dropped below 4% during his tenure. The tax cuts and the sharp increase in military expenditures resulted in a series of huge budget deficits and consequently more than doubled the size of the national debt.

Beginning in 1985, Reagan began to soften his stance toward the Soviet Union in response to signals of a new openness (see glasnost) in foreign relations under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The two leaders met four times between 1985 and 1988, when they concluded the Intermediate-Range Nuclear-Force Missile Treaty (INF treaty) which sharply reduced intermediate nuclear forces. The last years of Reagan's presidency were disrupted by the Iran-contra affair, which broke in late 1986 and involved the White House's complicity in the illegal diversion of profits from arms-for-hostage deals with Iran to the U.S.-supported contra guerrillas fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. In 1994, Reagan disclosed that he had Alzheimer's disease in hope of increasing public awareness of the illness; he died of complications from the disease a decade later.

See his writings collected in K. K. Skinner et al., ed., Reagan, in His Own Hand (2000); D. Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries (2007); his autobiography (1990, repr. 1999, with R. Lindsey); memoir by R. Reagan, his son (2011); biographies by L. Cannon (1982), K. T. Walsh (1997), E. Morris (1999), R. Reeves (2005), and M. Schaller (2010); P. Boyer, ed., Reagan as President (1990); L. Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (1991) and Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power (2003); D. H. and G. S. Strober, Reagan: The Man and His Presidency (1998); P. Noonan, When Character Was King (2001); T. W. Evans, The Education of Ronald Reagan (2007); M. Eliot, Reagan: The Hollywood Years (2008); S. Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008 (2008); W. Kleinknecht, The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America (2009); J. Mann, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War (2009); S. F. Hayward, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980–1989 (2009); R. Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014).

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