June 5th was the 12th anniversary of the death of Ronald Reagan. When the former president died in 2004, thousands upon thousands of Americans stood in line to pay their respects in the rotunda of the Capital Building — including Glenn Beck. Ronald Reagan had a huge impact on Americans and the United States. People still talk about our 40th president — the man, the president, the legend. In this series, we explore Reagan’s early years, his conversion from Democrat to Republican, the path to his election, and how his policies brought back morning in America.
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Ronald Reagan Part I: Morning In America
In the 1970s, those who believed in the promise of America instinctively knew that America was more than she'd been allowed to become. Images from the decade --- gas lines, Watergate, Nixon holding up the peace sign and boarding Marine One, hostages in Iran and helicopters burning in the desert --- showed we were a nation lost, a once great nation on the decline --- or so we thought.
Then a simple man stepped forward to present a new image. That man was Ronald Reagan and the image was one we hadn't seen in quite some time --- the image of American greatness.
Many historians go on about Ronald Reagan's story-telling ability, saying his willingness to laugh at himself and spin a tale was how he moved people. What Ronald Reagan really did, though, was hold up a mirror.
For so long, people in America were told how corrupt or inept they were. Critics ran us down and divided us --- rich from poor, white from black, Democrat from Republican. Tearing Americans apart had become as fashionable as bell bottoms and silk disco shirts. Yet Ronald Reagan forced us to look at the good. Once again, we saw ourselves for who we really were: hard-working, decent, honest, capable and God-fearing Americans whose best days were still on the horizon.
At first, many said he was a simpleton, an idealist. They said he was way over his head with Gorbachev and Reykjavik, but he won the Cold War. They said he was arrogant, but he tore down that wall. They said he was too stupid to talk economics, yet he created a better economy than in the 1990s.
Opponents said he was just a Bible thumper, but at the same time claimed he didn't go to church. In reality, he was like most Americans: a man of deep faith, while not attending a specific church, wasn't hostile towards them. In fact, Ronald Reagan stopped going to church when security became disruptive. And yet, until the day he died, he and Nancy still tithed. How many of us still do that?
They said Reagan was too simple to become a great president, but that's what we loved about him. He was like our father or our grandfather. He told us what we needed to do and inspired us to go out and do it on our own. Reagan said that a great leader doesn't do great things, he inspires others to do them. And he did just that. Reagan inspired us to believe in the power of the individual, in the small business owner, in the strength of our military and the humility of those who live it.
And he reminded us of the existence of good and evil, that there are evil systems of governments that we must stand against.
Ronald Reagan named his ranch in California the Ranch of Heaven, saying, "If it weren't heaven itself, it certainly was in the same ZIP code." It's good to know that following Ronald Reagan's final day on earth, he didn't have to move far.
Ronald Reagan Part II: The Early Years
Ronald Wilson Reagan, born February 6th, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. Nicknamed Dutch, he was the second son of Jack and Nelle Reagan. Jack was a shoe salesman with a thirst for liquor, a storyteller who loved to regale fellow drinkers at the local saloon. Nelle was a housewife who joined the Disciples of Christ, a Christian church staunchly opposed to the consumption of alcohol.
Jack's inability to hold a steady job forced the Reagan family to bounce from town to town. This really affected Ronald who got used to being alone. He loved to hang out in the woods, and he was very self-sufficient. Returning from school one day, he found his father sprawled out on the front porch, completely drunk and out of it. He went to his mother and said, "This is just horrible." His mother said, "Look, your father has an illness, and he really tries. And you have to be understanding of him." She said, "When something bad happens in life, that's because God is going to make something good happen down the way."
Like his mother, 11-year-old Ronald found a wellspring of hope and comfort in the Disciples of Christ and was baptized in the church on September 21st, 1922. By 15, he was teaching Sunday school classes and delivering the Easter sermon, developing his speaking and performance skills through the church.
By high school, Ronald was thriving as an A student, a member of the swimming and football teams, and one of the most popular kids in his class. In the summers, he spent his days manning a concession stand and lifeguarding a dangerous stretch of the Rock River, saving a reported 77 lives in his five years on the job. After high school, Ronald Reagan enrolled in Eureka College, earning an economics degree in 1932.
Reagan started out a staunch Democrat and supporter of FDR. Not yet politically active, he headed off to Chicago to find work in radio. Unable to land a job there, he wound up in Iowa at WHO radio in Des Moines where he made a name for himself announcing Chicago Cubs and the White Sox games. Fans were drawn to the way he could paint pictures of the games and the surroundings with his words.
In the off season, the Cubs would hold training camp in California. And Reagan made the trip with the team each year. In 1937, he met with an acting agent while there who got him a screen test with Warner Brothers. The studio liked him immediately and offered him a contract for $200 a week, many times what he had been making doing radio in Des Moines. Within just a few months, Reagan was appearing in his first movie, Love Is On the Air.
In 1939, he was cast in the movie Brother Rat. It was his most substantial role in a major film yet. But more importantly, for Reagan, playing opposite him was actress Jane Wyman who then was in the final stages of divorce. By the time filming ended, they were engaged. Reagan and Wyman married in January 1940 and had two children, Maureen, born in 1941, and Michael, whom the couple adopted in 1945, just a few days after his birth.
In 1944, Reagan signed a million dollar contract with Warner Brothers, which may have sparked the beginning of the end of his leftist ideology. Since the tax rate at the time was over 90 percent, he frequently and vehemently complained about the egregiously high taxes. Still, apparently not quite totally convinced yet, in 1948, he spoke out on the radio on behalf of the Democratic Party.
During the late 1940s, Reagan and Wyman divorced. They had grown apart during her rise to Hollywood prominence, as he started to fade. Meanwhile, Reagan was becoming more and more politically active. He was the president of the Screen Actors Guild and worked to distance the union from communist influence. He was also working with the FBI as an informant on communists and testified before the House Committee on un-American activities, but wasn't asked to name any names.
Reagan would later cite Democratic resistance to rooting out communism as one of the factors that drove him to the political right. Another factor was a young unknown actress named Nancy Davis, whom he met at a dinner part in 1949. Nancy came from a decidedly right-wing family, and with Reagan heading in that direction already, the relationship sped up Ronald Reagan's political transformation. The two were married in 1952.
In 1953, with his acting fortunes quickly disappearing, Reagan landed a job that would bring him into America's living rooms every week and secure his financial future over the next eight years as host of the General Electric theater. Listening to Reagan's speeches and performances, it becomes apparent why he became known as The Great Communicator. Eventually, Reagan's politics would interfere with the way he earned his living. He was fired as host of the GE Theater in 1962 for being outspoken politically.
During a speech, he referred to FDR's 1933 New Deal Program, the Tennessee Valley Authority, as one of the programs of big government. Undaunted, Reagan would later reiterate his point in his support of a candidate for president. As Ronald Wilson Reagan burst into the national political consciousness during the biggest speech of his life, up to that point.
Ronald Reagan Part III: The Biggest Role 'The Gipper' Ever Had
In the 1960s, a popular and outspoken Hollywood actor was about to make a big splash in American politics. Twenty years prior, he had started in the hit movie about Notre Dame's legendary player and coach Knute Rockne, who was nicknamed the Gipper. As a result, that nickname also stuck to Ronald Wilson Reagan throughout his political career.
In 1961, while he was still hosting General Electric Theater, the Gipper gave a speech that warned Americans about the evils of socialism:
Now, back in 1927, an American socialist, Norman Thomas, six times candidate for president on the Socialist Party ticket said the American people would never vote for socialism. But he said, under the name of liberalism, the American people will adopt every fragment of the socialist program.
His words were amazingly prescient.
Reagan was eventually fired by GE for being too outspoken. But he went on to make a huge impression at the contested G.O.P. convention of 1964, speaking on behalf of fellow conservative Senator Barry Goldwater. But one of the more famous speeches in his career came in October, just before the general election, in what has become known as the 'Time For Choosing' speech:
You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well, I'd like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There's only an up or down... Man's old-age dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.
Even the great communicator's skills couldn't help Goldwater overcome the scare tactics employed by President Johnson and his team against the senator. LBJ won the election handily.
But Reagan's skill and fiery, positive, patriotic conservatism did propel him to prominence. Two big California donors were present at his Time For Choosing speech, and they were absolutely convinced that he was the man to lead California into the next decade. They also believed that California governor would be just the beginning politically for Ronald Reagan.
Californians respond to Reagan and elected him as governor with 58 percent of the vote. He took office in 1967, with the state in a massive financial crisis.
Immediately, he went to work to cut government spending in the state and reigned in welfare fraud. He also did something extremely surprising: He raised taxes. But his efforts paid off. Reagan turned a massive deficit into a huge surplus. And with the crisis now behind them, he began a series of rebates to California taxpayers to make up for the tax increase. In 1970, wildly popular, Reagan easily won reelection.
After his second term, he stepped aside and set his sites on Washington, DC, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
With, his proven conservative principles and his political star rising rapidly, Reagan challenged President Gerald R. Ford for the 1976 G.O.P. nomination. He took the fight all the way to the convention, before Ford finally pulled out the necessary delegates on the first ballot in a razor-close election. After Ford was introduced to the delegates as the G.O.P. nominee, he motioned to Reagan and his wife Nancy to come down to the stage and address the crowd.
The Reagans, who were high up in the arena in a press box had first motioned for the crowd to settle down and sit down, but the ovation continued. And Ford gestured again. Reagan hesitated. Then reluctantly, he and Nancy made their way to the convention floor and then to the stage.
On their way there, Nancy asked the great communicator what he was going to say. To which Reagan replied, "I have absolutely no idea," until he got to the microphone.
In that moment, Ronald Reagan made his mark.
After that mesmerizing impromptu speech, there was almost a palpable sense among the delegates that they had nominated the wrong man. And they were right. Ford went on to lose badly to Jimmy Carter in the general election. However, America was about to get it right in the year 1980. The fateful G.O.P. would correct the mistake they had made in 1976.
Ronald Reagan Part IV: Assuming the Presidential Mantle
By 1980, Ronald Reagan had already lived a full, fascinating and successful life. As a young man, he had been a star in radio, movies and television, as well as President of the Screen Actors Guild. He had twice married, and he'd converted from an extremely liberal Democrat to a committed conservative Republican and a two-time governor of California. He was also the man who had lost the 1976 nomination for president. At 69 years old, Reagan was ready to try again.
The nation was at an incredibly low point. President Jimmy Carter had addressed the country in July 1980 to discuss an American crisis of confidence and inform Americans that they needed to sacrifice more to solve America's problems. The problems were many. Runaway inflation and interest rates and energy crisis. Long lines at the gas pump. The Cold War was at its peak with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And Iranian extremists had taken 56 American hostages when they stormed the US embassy in Tehran. They had been held for well over a year.
Unlike Carter, Reagan had a way of connecting with the American people and making them feel good about themselves. He was upbeat and positive. He also came off to the American people as fair and just.
Having learned from their mistake at the 1976 convention, Republicans didn't miss their second chance in 1980. They overwhelmingly handed Reagan the nomination, with 44 states and nearly all of the delegates. In his nomination acceptance speech, Reagan went to work changing the rhetorical tone Americans had endured for the past four years.
The general election wasn't even close. As he had done in the GOP primary, Reagan won 44 states to the sitting president Jimmy Carter's 6. Despite independent John Anderson siphoning off 6.6 percent, Reagan still garnered nearly 51 percent of the vote, to Carter's 41, and 489 electoral votes to 49. Against a sitting president, this was a historic and devastating win for The Gipper.
Things began to turn around immediately upon Reagan's election. Inauguration day, two weeks before his 17th birthday, the Iranians released the American hostages who had been held for 444 days. Then the domestic agenda went into full swing. He dramatically increased military spending in order to safeguard America against the Soviet threat. He also proposed a massive tax cut across-the-board to stimulate the sagging, repressed economy. Then just two months into his first term, on March 30th, 1981, coming out of a Washington, DC, hotel, the president was shot.
As shots rang out, Secret Service special agent Jerry Parr pushed the president into the waiting limo. Parr quickly gave Reagan the once over, patting him down and found nothing out of the ordinary. He radioed that the president was okay and they were on their way to the White House. But as they drove, Agent Parr noticed that Reagan seemed to be in pain and labored breathing.
As they sped down Connecticut Avenue, Parr weighed the available actions and then noticed Reagan wiping blood from his mouth with his handkerchief --- and there was a lot of it. Reagan thought he had cut his lip, but the blood was oxinating, which meant it probably was coming from his lungs.
"Get us to Washington University Hospital as fast as you can," he told the driver.
By the time they had reached the hospital, some of the president's motorcade had caught up with them. There was no stretcher waiting, so Reagan, badly wounded, insisted on walking in on his own. Once inside, he collapsed to one knee. When the attending medical staff cut off his custom-made suit, they finally found the bullet wound and realized the president of the United States had indeed been shot in the chest --- with a bullet lodged one inch from his heart.
With his blood pressure dangerously low, it was clear to the attending emergency room physician the president had gone into shock. Once stabilized, Reagan was taken to surgery where he famously joked before going under, "I hope you're all Republicans." The room erupted in laughter. The doctor who was, in fact, a liberal Democrat said, "Mr. President, today, we're all Republicans."
Only years later did the nation discover how near to death their new president had been. But despite being 70 years old, Ronald Reagan was in excellent physical condition. The six shots fired before John Hinckley was subdued severely wounded Press Secretary James Brady, Secretary Service Agent Tim McCarthy, and DC police officer Thomas Delany. All of them survived their wounds.
President Reagan recovered quickly and got back to work, leading the nation out of the late 1970's malaise. As the president healed, he led America through the turbulent '80s, the Cold War, challenging the leader of the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall, economic prosperity, Iran Contra, morning in America, and eventually, the fall of the Soviet Union.
Ronald Reagan Part V: One of America's Greatest Presidents
At 70 years old and 70 days into his presidency, Ronald Reagan had survived an assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr., who was captured at the scene, tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity. Less than two weeks after the shooting, Reagan was back to work at the White House, turning the country's fortunes around.
His tax and spending cuts would spur the economy, but it took a little more time than some expected. In the meantime, the press did not cut him the slack they'd granted a more recent president during recessionary times. When asked by a reporter if any of the blame belonged to him, Reagan answered, "Yes, because for many years, I was a Democrat."
Reagan partnered with like-minded conservative, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II in opposing the spread of communism and the Soviet Union. In a 1983 speech, Reagan suggested a strategic defense initiative --- which came to be known as Star Wars defense --- to "intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil."
With that speech, President Ronald Reagan seemingly overturned 30 years of back and forth with the Soviet Union on offensive nuclear arsenals. No one knew it at the time, but it was a massive bluff that paid unbelievable dividends. The technology the president spoke of actually didn't exist. Yet, the Soviets panicked and began spending unprecedented amounts of money just to keep up. While Reagan increased the federal deficit by raising American defense spending to 7 percent of GDP, the Soviets went from an unreasonable 22 percent to an insane 27 percent of GDP with their military spending.
Domestically, the tone and policies of Ronald Reagan were working. Americans felt good again, patriotic again, positive about themselves and the future. Even though he would start a second term in 1985 at 74 years old, Reagan believed there was much more to do.
His age was definitely a factor during his '84 reelection campaign, a factor he used during a debate with his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale.
MODERATOR: You already are the oldest president in history, and some of your staff say you were tired during your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba Missile Crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?
RONALD: Not at all, Mr. Truett. And I want you to know that also, 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.
As he had done with Carter during the first presidential campaign, Reagan completely diffused something that was perceived to be a negative. With one single nicely delivered line, he had blown an actual concern of the American people out of the water.
He joked about it, often.
RONALD: One of my favorite quotations about age comes from Thomas Jefferson. He said that we should never judge a president by his age, only by his work. And ever since he told me that, I've stopped worrying.
Reagan won the reelection in one of the biggest landslides of all the time, winning 49 out of 50 states. Mondale only won his home state. The electoral count was 525 to 13. It's almost unimaginable now to think that a Republican won California, Massachusetts, New York and other liberal states --- but Ronald Reagan did.
His second term, while successful, was marked by significant hurdles and disasters --- the space shuttle Challenger explosion that took the lives of seven NASA astronauts on live national television, the Iran-Contra scandal and what he reportedly said was the biggest mistake of his presidency --- granting amnesty to the 2 million illegal aliens in 1986.
During his administration, the nation added over 16 million jobs. He cut the tax rate across-the-board, including the top rate from a ridiculous 70 percent income tax to 28. His policies lowered the inflation rate from 13.5 percent in 1980, to 1.9 in 1986. Real GDP growth under Reagan averaged 3.5 percent, and it was nearly 5 percent following the recession.
In Berlin on June 12th, 1987, President Ronald Wilson Reagan made a demand during a speech. When he went to the Brandenburg Gate at the Berlin wall, his advisers and speechwriters told him relentlessly that he couldn't possibly say what he wanted to say. They took a line out of his speech. He put it back in. They took it back out on the way to Berlin. He put it back in. And ultimately, Reagan said the five words that changed the world: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.
At the time, it was unthinkable that the Berlin wall could come down anytime soon. But thanks in large part to his heroic efforts rebuilding the United States military, opposing communism at every turn, remaining steadfast, not to mention his Star Wars defensive system --- which never existed and sent the Soviets into a spending frenzy they couldn't sustain --- the wall began coming down on November 9th, 1989, just over two years after the speech. The Soviet Union, the evil empire, collapsed.
Today, even Democrats generally speak of Ronald Reagan fondly. They hated his trickle-down economics, Reaganomics as they called it at the time. But they are forced to admit that his policies led to an amazing prosperity.
Even as he left office, in January 1989, a Gallup poll showed a 64 percent approval rating for the departing president, the highest ever recorded for a president leaving office.
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