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Only in America can a little boy born to ordinary parents in America’s mid-west grow up to become a great leader, not only for our nation, but for our world. Ronald Reagan did extraordinary things with his ordinary upbringing. His story is one of “A Truly American Life”.
February 6, 1911
Ronald Wilson Reagan is born in Tampico, Illinois
When Ronald Reagan was born, his father John said, “He looks like a fat little Dutchman. But who knows, he might grow up to be president some day.”Read More
The Reagan Family
His father believed that individuals determine their own destiny. His mother had a deep sense of optimism.Read More
Five moves in 7 years
The young leader-to-be was shy and introverted in his youth.Read More
The Reagan Family Settles in Dixon, Illinois
It was in Dixon that Ronald Reagan realized that America, above all places, gives us the freedom to reach out and make our dreams reality.Read More
Growing up in Dixon
Making his theatrical debut on a small stage in Dixon, Ronald Reagan found the response from the audience life-changing.Read More
Dixon High School
Captain of the football team, art director of the yearbook, president of the drama club – Ronald Reagan becomes a leader.Read More
Lifeguarding at Lowell Park
Over the course of 7 summers, Ronald Reagan saved 77 lives, a number he kept track of by cutting a notch in a log on the river’s edge.Read More
In a time when fewer than 7% of high school graduates in America attended college, Ronald Reagan attended with vigor and started to hone his leadership abilities.Read More
Ronald Reagan graduates from Eureka College
Ronald Reagan pursues his dream of entertainment and searches for a job in broadcasting.Read More
Ronald Reagan lands a job in broadcasting
Never giving up, Ronald Reagan becomes a sports announcer on WOC radio in Davenport, Illinois.Read More
Full time work for Ronald Reagan – in radio broadcasting
Ronald Reagan begins to make a name for himself across the mid-west.Read More
Ronald Reagan says good-bye to the mid-west
Following the Chicago Cubs to spring training in California, Ronald Reagan is on the way to finding his new home.Read More
As Ronald Reagan said good-bye to his beloved mid-west, he took much of it with him when he moved to California. He took the faith and optimism of his mother, the humor and tolerance of his father and the core values of community and hard work he had learned as a boy. He took his education, his ambition and his dreams west, not knowing how deeply he would embrace life there, nor how he would impact California and be embraced by it.
Ronald Reagan goes west
After a screen test in Hollywood, Ronald Reagan is offered a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers.Read More
Ronald Reagan arrives in Hollywood
A studio “make-over” turns “Dutch” Reagan into Ronald Reagan.Read More
Ronald Reagan in the movies
With a seven-year contract extension by Warner Brothers, Ronald Reagan believed all of his dreams had been fulfilled.Read More
Ronald Reagan and family
Before passing away at 58 years old, Ronald Reagan’s father said to his wife, “I was there when our son became a star.”Read More
Ronald Reagan is called to Active Duty
While making air force training films as part of Army Air Force Intelligence, Ronald Reagan saw first-hand the atrocities of war.Read More
Reagan returns to Hollywood
Post-war, although making another 22 films, Ronald Reagan became to focus about politics and the world off-screen, become a political activist and spokesman for causes he believed in.Read More
Ronald Reagan becomes a Republican
Ronald Reagan began to take a stand against Communism, giving speeches on organization’s behalf defending American values against the new Fascism that seemed to be emerging at home and abroad.Read More
Ronald Reagan is elected President of the Screen Actors Guild
During his five years as President of SAG, Ronald Reagan proved himself to be a capable leader, a skillful negotiator and an adept problem solver.Read More
Ronald Reagan meets Nancy Davis
Ronald Reagan always said that his life didn’t begin until he met his Nancy.Read More
Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s early years together
Raising a family, breeding thoroughbreds, and giving speeches filled their early years together.Read More
Ronald Reagan’s rise in recognition
Ronald Reagan becomes the host of G.E. Theater, travelling to 139 plants and continues to shape his political agenda.Read More
Changing times for Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan registers as a Republican, formalizing his commitment to the party.Read More
“I’m an actor, not a politician”, Reagan claimed, “I’m in show business.”
Although that statement had been true of Ronald Reagan, his life was now taking a dramatic turn from that of spectator and commentator on the political scene, to that of leading man. Ronald Reagan never sought political life, but rather, it sought him. The more he spoke out against the flaws of big government, the more the people around him wanted him to fix those problems. Reagan was full of ideas and solutions and was now being given the chance to implement them – putting to the test the very ideals he had formulated and articulated for years.
“Friends of Ronald Reagan” group is formed
Supporters of Ronald Reagan convince him to run for California Governor – the start of his public political career.Read More
Ronald Reagan is elected Governor of California
Ronald Reagan set about answering what was best for California – not about what was best for him in popularity – and a true leader was born.Read More
Gaining footing as Governor
Ronald Reagan learns the value – and success rates – of face-to-face diplomacy.Read More
“Favorite Son” candidacy for President of the United States
California delegates submit Ronald Reagan’s name for President of the United States.Read More
August 15, 1969
National Guard sent to University of California Berkele
“Obey the rules or get out.” becomes Governor Reagan’s mantraRead More
Governor Reagan elected to serve a second term
Ronald Reagan wins the election in a 53 to 45 percent margin.Read More
California welfare reform act signed into law
Under Governor Reagan’s leadership, this new law is called “probably the most comprehensive” such initiative in American history.Read More
Looking beyond the Governorship
It was love at first sight as the Reagans settle in at Rancho del Cielo.Read More
August 19, 1976
Republican National Convention in Kansas City
Ronald Reagan goes after Democrats and big government.Read More
November 13, 1979
Ronald Reagan runs for President of the United States
Ronald Reagan selects George Bush as his running-mate and announces intention to beat the Carter-Mondale ticket.Read More
Ronald Reagan is elected the 40th President of the United States
Ronald Reagan, a poor kid from a small, rural Midwest town, becomes the leader of our great nation.Read More
July 16, 1980
The Reagan-Bush ticket
Ronald Reagan travels the nation discussing the need to regain that unique sense of optimism that makes America different.Read More
The Reagan Years ushered in what would become an unprecedented time of economic growth and prosperity, military strengthening, establishment of new diplomatic allies abroad and a resurgence of national pride. In Ronald Reagan, our nation found the embodiment of all that makes America great – his unlikely rise from the heartland of the midwest to the seat of power in Washington, D.C. is a story that could only be told here. An eternal optimist, Ronald Reagan believed in unlimited possibilities for the people of the United States and inspired them to look ahead to a bright future together. Reagan’s strong leadership and effective communication with Americans and with the world brought him and our nation great respect. A new day had dawned in America and once again our country was a beacon of hope for people around the world seeking freedom and opportunity. Not only America, but the world, benefitted from the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
January 20, 1981
Inauguration of Ronald Reagan as the 40th President of the United States
In his inaugural address, President Reagan outlines his desire that government should serve the people, not the other way around.
March 30, 1981
Attempted assassination of President Reagan
“Honey, I forgot to duck.”Read More
August 3, 1981
Air Traffic Controllers Strike
President Reagan tells the Air Traffic Controllers to return to work within 48 hours or lose their jobs.Read More
Other Important Presidential Relationships
President Reagan’s contagious enthusiasm and optimism for democracy spreads.Read More
September 25, 1981
Sandra Day O’Connor sworn in as first female Supreme Court Justice
Gender, race, ethnicity or religion are not criteria for discrimination in the selection process.Read More
January 26, 1982
President Reagan’s first State of the Union address
“I wonder if I’ll ever get used to addressing the joint session of Congress...Somehow there’s a thing about entering that chamber -- goose bumps and a quiver.”Read More
Relationship with Margaret Thatcher and Great Britain put to the test
No alliance was stronger for President Reagan than the one he held with Prime Minister Thatcher.Read More
October 23, 1983
Bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut
President Reagan’s response to national tragedy pulls the country together.Read More
Ronald Reagan is elected to serve a second term as President
President Reagan begins his second term with a landslide victory of 49 states and 525 Electoral Votes to 13.Read More
November 16, 1985
Geneva Summit with Mikhail Gorbachev
“We don’t mistrust each other because we’re armed; we’re armed because we mistrust each other.”Read More
March 4, 1987
Ronald Reagan addresses the nation on the Iran-Contra controversy
"What began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages.”Read More
July 19-21, 1981
President Reagan participates in G-7 summits
President Reagan helps make the G-7 Summits productive forums for frank discussion.Read More
In most countries, when a leader leaves power, they fade away into the archives of history, and remove themselves from political affairs. In America, former Presidents have an opportunity, and some feel, an obligation, to remain engaged in the current conversations and topics of the day. Though Ronald Reagan had left Washington, D.C., his desire to promote and inspire reform in government didn’t end with his move west.
The post-presidency years of Ronald Reagan were full of new-found enthusiasm to influence and promote change. Reagan traveled frequently during his early post-presidency years, making several international trips as well as criss-crossing the nation, speaking out on issues of importance to America and to the world.
In his later post-presidency years as his health declined, Reagan found comfort and contentment in meeting ordinary citizens who had inspiring stories of freedom or hope. Reagan’s faith in God, and his love of family and country were evident and strong even to the end of his life, when he ultimately succumbed to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Ronald Reagan lived a life of service to others and was honored by tributes from around the globe, from those who remembered and appreciated his leadership, optimism, inspiration and commitment to democracy. Ronald Reagan was a proud American for 93 years.
January 20, 1989
Ronald Reagan returns to California
Happy to be home, Ronald Reagan settles in to his new office in Century City, California.Read More
February 16-17, 1990
President Reagan gives testimony on Iran-Contra
Ronald Reagan gives seven hours of videotaped testimony.Read More
Ronald Reagan’s seeds of democracy, planted during his administration, bloom into flowers of freedom.Read More
November 4, 1991
Dedication of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
“The doors of this library are open now and all are welcome. The judgment of history is left to you, the people. “Read More
Ronald Reagan releases letter to the public announcing he has Alzheimer’s Disease
“In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition.”Read More
Presidential / Republican Party events
“And whatever else history may say about me when I'm gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts.”Read More
Ronald Reagan is recognized for his leadership and friendship across the nation and the world.Read More
“Ordinary Days” as a former President
Whether spending time at the office or with his beloved wife, Ronald Reagan leads a full life post-presidency.Read More
June 5, 2004
President Ronald Reagan dies at the age of 93
As the nation mourns, Ronald Wilson Reagan is laid to rest at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.Read More
February 6, 1911
On February 6, 1911 at 4:16 am, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois in a flat above the local bank. He was born to John and Nelle Reagan and had an older brother Neil, who was 2. When John saw his new son, according to family legend he said “He looks like a fat little Dutchman. But who knows, he might grow up to be president some day. . .” Nelle Reagan had a difficult time delivering her 10 pound son and was told she shouldn’t have any more children. So the Reagan family was now complete. Ronald Reagan was supposed to have been named “Donald”, but since a cousin had recently been given that name, his parents decided to name him “Ronald”.
In 1911, Tampico IL had a population of 820. It had one main street, a railroad station, two or three churches and a couple of stores. John Reagan was a shoe salesman who was known to everyone as “Jack”. Nelle was a homemaker who sometimes took in sewing. They lived in a five-room apartment on the main street of town which, like most homes in Tampico in the early 1900s, did not have running water or an indoor toilet.
Ronald Reagan’s father, John Edward Reagan, was called “Jack” by everyone. Born July 13, 1883, his ancestors had come to America from county Tipperary by way of England during Ireland’s great potato famine. He was endowed with the “gift of blarney and the charm of a leprechaun”. No one could tell a story better than Jack Reagan. He was 29 when Ronald Reagan was born and his formal education had been limited to just a few years of grade school. Both of Jack’s parents died before he was six years old of tuberculosis, so he was brought up by an elderly aunt who raised him a proper Irish Catholic. Though lacking in formal education, Jack was gifted in “street smarts” and was restless in his willingness to seek out a better life for his family anytime the opportunity presented itself. As a result, the Reagan family moved often. Destined by God to be a salesman – Jack could have sold anything, but he sold shoes and always wanted to own his own store. Jack Reagan believed in the rights of the individual and of the working man and was suspicious of the over-reaching arm of established authority. He believed strongly that all men and women, regardless of their color or religion, were created equal and that individuals determine their own destiny – that their own ambition and hard work in life largely determine their fate. These core beliefs of Jack Reagan were passed on to his son, and would later become part of the fundamental structure of Ronald Reagan’s political viewpoint. From his father, Ronald Reagan learned the value of hard work, the importance of tolerance, the rewards of ambition, and inherited a great penchant for storytelling.
Ronald Reagan’s mother, Nelle Clyde Wilson Reagan, was born July 18, 1882, the youngest of seven children in a family of Scots-English descent. She met and fell in love with Jack Reagan in a tiny farm town on the Illinois prairie. They were married in Fulton, Illinois in 1904. Nelle taught Ronald Reagan the value of prayer, and how to have dreams and believe they could come true. A small woman with auburn hair, she had a deep sense of optimism and believed that God had a plan for everyone and that seemingly random twists of fate are all part of God’s perfect plan. Nelle faithfully attended Sunday services at the Disciples of Christ Church throughout her life and was involved there in Bible readings and prayer meetings. Aside from her church work, she also acted in many plays. Like Ronald Reagan’s father, his mother, Nelle, also had a natural and intuitive intelligence that went far beyond her limited formal schooling. She had a drive within her not to make something of herself, but to help her sons make something of themselves. Nelle Reagan had several brothers and sisters who all lived in or near the mid-west. They often visited each other and would assist each other in times of difficulty. Nelle saw the best in people and would help others in need – whether they were family, neighbors, or prisoners at the local jail. Nelle’s belief in the good in everyone and her eternal optimism helped Ronald Reagan look beyond the confines of his small town and dream the seemingly impossible. Even when setbacks would come, Nelle’s encouragement helped Ronald Reagan see the opportunities that were still there.
John Neil Reagan, born September 16, 1908, was nicknamed “Moon” because he parted his thick hair down the middle like the popular comic character Moon Mullins. Neil was not happy with the arrival of his brother, Ronald, since he had wanted a sister. For several days after his birth, Neil would not go in to see his new little brother. As they grew though, they got into typical boyhood trouble, sharing the experiences of brotherhood.
In 1913, at the age of two, Ronald Reagan and his family left Tampico, Illinois and moved to Chicago, where his father had taken a job selling shoes at Marshall Field’s department store. They lived in the city near the University of Chicago and young Ronald witnessed urban life firsthand – the gaslit sidewalks, streets alive with people, carriages, trolleys, and the occasional automobile. He would watch the horse-drawn fire engines race by and determined that he would like to become a fireman.
Less than two years later, Jack was offered a job in Galesburg, 140 miles west of Chicago. The Reagans left the bustling city and moved to a quiet, small town of meadows and caves, trees and streams. The home they rented in Galesburg had a huge collection of bird eggs and butterflies left behind by the previous occupant. Ronald Reagan became captivated by their beauty and intricacy and would spend hours studying them and marveling at their complexity. Though he was only 5, in Galesburg he also taught himself to read. By first grade Ronald Reagan discovered he had a very good memory and could pick up something to read and memorize it easily. World War I began while the Reagans lived in Galesburg, so the young Reagan would go down to the railroad station and watch the troop trains come in and depart.
At the conclusion of first grade, the Reagan family moved again – this time to Monmouth, Illinois. While in Monmouth, a 7 year old Ronald Reagan experienced Armistice Day – the streets filling with people, the bonfires, the torches, the singing, and the hopes of everyone that “the war to end all wars” had just concluded. He also realized that some of the troops he saw depart, had died on European soil and would not be returning to celebrate.
Not long after the end of the war, the Reagans moved again – this time back to Tampico, Illinois where Ronald Reagan had been born and where Jack returned to his old job. His boss promised to help Jack become part owner of a shoe store, and true to his word, in about a year, the Reagans moved again – to Dixon, Illinois where Jack helped open a shoe store called the “Fashion Boot Shop”. Finally, young Ronald Reagan and his family could put down some roots.
Moving so often during his formative years was difficult for young Ronald Reagan. He became a bit introverted and was shy about making deep friendships. He would read, draw, and explore his surroundings, but had a reluctance to get too close to people that he might have to say good-bye too soon. In Dixon that all changed as he finally felt established in the community and at home with his surroundings. The Dixon years were times of growth and change for Ronald Reagan.
Following a quick succession of moves from the south side of Chicago, to Galesburg, IL to Monmouth, IL and then back to Tampico, IL the Reagan family moved to Dixon, Illinois in 1920 when Ronald Reagan was 9. The Reagan family finally put down roots when Jack became part owner of “The Fashion Boot Shop” in Dixon. It was here in Dixon that Ronald Reagan really discovered himself and his small-town world began to expand.
Dixon, Illinois – population 10,000 in 1920, was described as “heaven” by young Ronald Reagan. It had a busy main street lined with shops, several churches, an elementary and a high school, a public library, a post office, a wire screen factory, a shoe factory and a cement plant. The outskirts of town were dotted with dairy farms that went on as far as you could see. Dixon was what Ronald Reagan considered his hometown.
The Reagan family was poor by most standards, but young Ronald Reagan never felt disadvantaged growing up because there was always someone worse off than they were and he always had food to eat and clothes to wear. As he grew, young Reagan didn’t think the name “Ronald” sounded tough enough, so he started asking people to call him “Dutch”, which grew out of his father’s “Dutchman” nickname for him. Dutch Reagan spent his early years in Dixon reading about birds and wildlife, swimming in the Rock River, exploring the local valley and wilderness and drawing cartoons and caricatures. Although he had lots of playmates, he was a bit introverted and preferred to enjoy his first few years in Dixon engaged in more solitary activities.
Jack Reagan had a propensity toward alcohol, but during their years in Dixon, the Reagan family became more affected by Jack’s struggle with it. When Ronald Reagan was told by his mother that it was a sickness that his father couldn’t control, he finally realized why they often suddenly left the house to visit relatives. Instead of drinking when times were hard, Jack’s drinking often came when life was going well. Many holidays or family gatherings were ruined by Jack, causing Ronald Reagan great embarrassment and frustration. Nelle would remind her boys of how kind and loving their father was when he wasn’t drinking, which helped her sons to still respect their father, while despising his behavior.
It was in Dixon that Ronald Reagan observed the love and common sense of purpose that unites families and communities and recognized it as one of the most powerful forces on earth. He also learned that hard work is an essential part of life – that by and large you don’t get something for nothing and that America was a place that offered unlimited opportunity to those who worked hard. In Dixon, IL, Ronald Reagan learned that Americans all want freedom, peace, security, a good home, a chance to worship God in their own way, an opportunity to get ahead and make their children’s lives better than their own, a chance to work at a job of their own choosing and be fairly rewarded for it -- and the opportunity to control their own destiny. He realized that America, above all places, gives us the freedom to reach out and make those dreams reality. For Ronald Reagan, his dreams all began in Dixon.
In the winter of 1922, Ronald Reagan came home from the YMCA to find his father passed out drunk in the snow outside. He dragged his father in and put him to bed, but didn’t tell his mother. Watching his father’s ongoing struggle with alcohol addiction, Ronald Reagan relied heavily on his mother’s faith and nurturing guidance as he grew. When he was 11, young Ronald Reagan decided to become a member of his mother’s church, the First Christian Church of Dixon, and was baptized into it on June 21, 1922. He was passionate about his faith and involved himself in church activities with his mother. He even convinced his brother, Neil, to be baptized on the same day.
Along with church work, Nelle Reagan excelled in community “readings” and enjoyed acting on the stage, whether it was low comedy or high drama. She loved performing, as did Neil. Ronald Reagan was more shy and wasn’t interested in performing in front of an audience. His mother and brother persisted and finally Ronald Reagan gained enough confidence to try acting and made his theatrical debut on a small stage for the first time in Dixon. It took all the courage he could summon up, but the response from the audience was life-changing. People laughed and applauded – and the applause was music to young Ronald Reagan’s ears. For a kid suffering the pangs of childhood insecurity, the response from the audience was life-changing.
Another life-changing moment came around 13 or 14 years of age when Ronald Reagan picked up a pair of his mother’s eyeglasses she had left on the back seat of the car and put them on. He yelled when he realized all he could see while wearing them. The trees suddenly had leaves and branches, billboards had words on them, and the fields were full of cows. A visit to the eye doctor diagnosed severe nearsightedness. Ronald Reagan was fitted for a large, thick pair of black-rimmed glasses and his world opened up for him – especially the world of sports. He had never been able to hit a baseball, had always been picked last for teams, but that all changed for the young Reagan when he got his glasses. Suddenly he was a star athlete, could see the blackboard from the back of the classroom and gained new-found confidence in his abilities.
Ronald Reagan’s decision to become a Christian, his first foray into the theater, and the world around him literally coming to life with his new glasses were all important milestones in his formative years. They gave him a new-found belief in himself and grounded him in a new direction which would open doors of opportunity for him in his high school years and beyond. Life in Dixon was helping shape young Reagan into the man he would later become.
In 1924, Ronald Reagan entered Dixon High School with a strong love for football. He wanted to play on the team more than anything, but at 5’3” and 108 pounds, his coach wasn’t even sure they had regulation pants to fit him. He tried out for the team, but didn’t make it as a freshman. He determined that next year he would be ready to play and decided over the summer to make sure he was bigger and stronger for football in the fall. Over the summer, Ronald Reagan took a job -- working for 35¢ an hour – helping build and remodel homes around Dixon. He learned to lay floors, shingle roofs, and work with concrete. Not only did he earn money for his future, but built up his muscles for football.
Ronald Reagan’s brother, Neil, also played football for Dixon High School, although he attended the Dixon south campus. Since the Reagans had just moved to the north side of town, young Ronald Reagan attended the north campus, while Neil decided to remain with his friends at the south campus. The river that ran between their two schools divided the Reagan boys both figuratively and literally as Neil was drawn to a tougher crowd that would fight and frequent a local pool hall while Ronald Reagan began to pursue his studies more seriously, and took elocution lessons from his mother. The Reagan boys began to go their separate ways, even though they shared a small enclosed porch for a bedroom.
In the fall of 1925, Ronald Reagan, a sophomore, was proudly named captain of the football team – in a newly-established division for players under 135 pounds. He loved football as much as he had dreamed and went on to play varsity football his junior and senior years. By then he was 5’10½”, 160 pounds and a proud right guard and tackle. He also was the captain of the swim team and involved himself in writing and acting as president of the Dramatic Club. He worked as art director of the yearbook and vice president in charge of entertainment for the YMCA’s Hi-Y Club, which was dedicated to “Clean Speech, Clean Sports, Clean Living, and Clean Scholarship.” In his senior year at Dixon High School, Ronald Reagan was elected Student Body President and had his first real leadership experience.
Around the time Ronald Reagan started high school, his church hired a new minister who had three very proper daughters. One of them, Margaret Cleaver, caught Ronald Reagan’s eye and a friendship ensued. Margaret reminded him of his mother – she was short, pretty, had auburn hair and was very intelligent. Ronald Reagan and Margaret were involved in dramatics and leadership at Dixon High School together, and although they kept their relationship at a friendship level until their senior year, by graduation they were very much in love and began to dream of a life together.
Starting in 1925, his sophomore year in high school, and continuing for the next 7 summers, Ronald Reagan was the proud lifeguard of Lowell Park’s swimming section of the Rock River. When an opening for lifeguard came up, Ronald Reagan went to the YMCA to take a lifesaving course and was then hired for the position. From Memorial Day to Labor Day he worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week keeping swimmers safe. Over the course of 7 summers, he saved 77 lives, a number he kept track of by cutting a notch in a log on the river’s edge each time he pulled someone in need out of the water.
Lowell Park was a 320-acre forested sanctuary three miles north of town which had been donated to the city of Dixon by the family of the poet James Russell Lowell. In the park was a posh hotel called The Lodge where wealthy mid-west families would often come to spend their summers. Ronald Reagan loved his job as lifeguard – he enjoyed helping people, working outdoors, and swimming. He always considered himself blessed to have had such steady work every summer and an opportunity to earn money for his future, even through the midst of the Great Depression.
At Lowell Park, Ronald Reagan also learned the truth of the old adage, “Nothing is so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse.” The manager of The Lodge in Lowell Park owned a big gray horse that he occasionally rode. A couple of times when there weren’t any swimmers on the beach, Ronald Reagan was allowed to ride that horse. Young Reagan made some friends who also like to ride and when there was a free afternoon, they would often go to a local stable and rent horses for an hour or so. Little did he know then that horses would become such an important part of his life and that they would be his constant reminder of those wonderful, simple days in Lowell Park on the Rock River in Dixon.
In the 1920s fewer than 7% of high school graduates in America attended college, but Ronald Reagan was determined to be among them. His sights were set on Eureka College, 110 miles south-east of Dixon because one of Dixon’s biggest heroes had become a football celebrity there. He dreamed of going there, but knew that financially his parents would not be able to help so he would have to work it out on his own. Although he wanted to play football for four more years and get an education, another attraction at Eureka was Margaret Cleaver. She was following her sisters there, so everything seemed to be lining up perfectly, except financially. Tuition was $180 a year plus room and board, which was nearly as much. During his years of working construction and lifeguarding Ronald Reagan had managed to save $400 – not nearly enough.
When Ronald Reagan drove Margaret to Eureka College in September of 1928, the campus was even lovelier than he had imagined. Five Georgian-style brick buildings were arranged in a semi-circle with white framed windows and ivy-covered walls. There were acres of rolling green lawn and lush trees and foliage. He knew he had to find a way to stay. So as Margaret was registering for classes, young Reagan tried to impress the president, Bert Wilson, and football coach, Mac McKinzie, with his credentials as someone who would be a great addition to their football and swim teams and would provide leadership to their student body. They agreed to give him a Needy Student Scholarship to cover half of his tuition and promised a job that would cover his meals. The balance of his tuition and living expenses would have to come from his savings account.
Ronald Reagan’s first job at Eureka was serving tables and washing dishes in the Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) fraternity house where he was a pledge. He worked in exchange for his meals and his sophomore year was asked to wash dishes in the girls’ dormitory on campus, one of the more pleasant jobs available to a male student at Eureka College. Although money ran out for Ronald Reagan the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, the football coach, Mac McKinzie went to bat for him and within a few hours was able to renew the Needy Student Scholarship. Ronald Reagan was not only able to finish his second year, but went on to graduate from Eureka College in 1932.
Ronald Reagan officially majored in Economics at Eureka College, but unofficially minored in extra-curricular activities. Along with playing football, he pledged the TKE (Tau Kappa Epsilon) Fraternity, was the captain and coach of the swim team, ran track, was a basketball cheerleader, president of the Eureka Boosters Club, yearbook feature editor, student senate and eventually was elected Student Body President. His first giant step of leadership came during his freshman year when he represented his peers in a proposed strike against unfair faculty layoffs and other budget cuts. His rousing speech was a call to action for the students and led to a strike which forced the president to resign and normalcy returned to Eureka College thanks in part to the leadership of young Ronald Reagan.
“Eureka” is a Greek word that means “I have found it”. For Ronald Reagan, Eureka College was literally that – a place of discovery that fulfilled and exceeded his dreams for college. The opportunities and experiences he had at Eureka College prepared him for the rest of his adult life more than he could have imagined.
In 1932, as Ronald Reagan was graduating from Eureka College, he was filled with uncertainty over what he should do with the rest of his life. Reagan could never have imagined where his life’s path would lead, though he secretly hoped it would include acting. Eureka’s theater arts teacher had entered the theatrics department in a nation-wide competition. Not only did Eureka place second in this prestigious contest, but Ronald Reagan was selected as one of three performers to receive an individual acting award. His dream was born, but in those days in Dixon, acting in Hollywood seemed as remote and impossible as a trip to the moon.
Since radio was beginning to gain in popularity, Ronald Reagan decided that broadcasting would make a promising career for him, ideally sports announcing in Chicago. So after graduation he hitch-hiked his way to Chicago and began knocking on radio station doors looking for a job – any job – in broadcasting. But during the Great Depression jobs were few and far between – especially for those like young Reagan, who had no pertinent work experience. Nothing in radio was available for him anywhere. Reagan hitch-hiked back to Dixon and applied for a job managing the sporting goods department at the new Montgomery Wards in Dixon. When the job was given to someone else, young Reagan was truly disheartened and defeated.
Nelle Reagan always believed that there was a purpose for everything and all things were part of God’s plan if you don’t let the setback keep you down. She encouraged her son to just move on, keep trying, and things would work out for the best. Mother was right – and the disappointment of not getting the job at Montgomery Wards forced Ronald Reagan to leave Dixon in search of his dreams elsewhere. This defeat was the best thing that could have happened to him and though it led him far from Dixon, it also led him closer to fulfilling his destiny.
In 1932, after being passed over for a job managing the sporting good department at Montgomery Wards in Dixon, Ronald Reagan borrowed the family car with hopes of finding a job in radio. He knew of several small stations outside of Chicago, so went to the tri-cities areas of Davenport, Moline and Rock Island along the Mississippi River about 75 miles southwest of Dixon. After being rejected by both stations in Illinois, Ronald Reagan crossed the river into Iowa and stopped at station WOC in Davenport.
At WOC he met with the program director who informed Ronald Reagan that he had an opening yesterday which had already been filled. Dejected and defeated, Ronald Reagan walked away muttering under his breath, but loud enough to be heard, “How the hell can you get to be a sports announcer if you can’t even get a job at a radio station?” The program director hollered back “Hold on, you big bastard. What was that you said about sports announcing?”
Ronald Reagan told the program director that what he really wanted to do in radio was to be a sports announcer. He asked Reagan if he knew anything about football, which of course, after his years of playing in high school and in college, Ronald Reagan was quite familiar with. He asked Reagan to pretend to call a game, so Reagan described in great detail an exciting game in which he played at Eureka College. The director liked what he heard and hired him on the spot – offering to pay him $5.00 plus bus fare to broadcast the Iowa-Minnesota Homecoming game. After an impressive first game, Ronald Reagan was hired to call the next 3 Big Ten games for Iowa and would be paid $10 each plus bus fare. He had finally reached his goal of becoming a sports broadcaster – at least for now. At the end of the season, however, WOC did not have a continuing position for him, so Ronald Reagan went home again to Dixon, hoping to find another job.
Ronald Reagan had resigned himself to waiting until summer to be hired for another year of lifeguarding at Lowell Park. When the phone rang in February of 1933 asking if he would come fill a vacant staff announcer position at WOC in Davenport, Ronald Reagan didn’t hesitate in answering “I’ll be there tomorrow.” It would pay $100 a month. He was on the air the first day he arrived – playing records, reading commercials and filling in between local programming and network broadcasts. Without any real training or instructions, Ronald Reagan failed miserably. After nearly losing his job, friends went to work helping him improve his on-air delivery, his rhythm, cadence and emotion. It worked and his steady progress saved his job.
Less than 3 months after returning to Davenport, Reagan was asked if he knew anything about track. Since he had both high school and college experience with the sport, he was asked to broadcast the Drake Relays, a high-profile nationwide meet, and did so with excellence. He also would call the Cubs baseball games without actually attending the games. He would get a slip of paper from over the wire that would describe the play in a few words. Ronald Reagan had to convey that information to the listening audience, adding color commentary, descriptions of the weather, the stadium, the fans and the setting – all from his sound booth in the studio.
WOC soon closed its doors and joined WHO in Des Moines in transmitting from a 50,000 watt clear channel station, one of only 15 in the country. WHO was now one of the most powerful NBC stations in the country – and Ronald Reagan was its sportscaster. He was making $75 a week, but more importantly, was making a name for himself throughout the mid-west and could now help his family out of their financial troubles.
By the age of 22, Ronald Reagan had already achieved a dream of his – he had spent 4 years as a sports announcer at station WHO in Des Moines. If life would have stopped there, he would have been happy the rest of his life. Far from over though, Ronald Reagan’s life had barely begun. The doors of his future were opening with each passing day and would ultimately lead him far from the mid-west and his job in sports broadcasting.
Since his sophomore year in high school, Ronald Reagan had planned to marry Margaret Cleaver. He had hung his fraternity pin on her, given her an engagement ring, and talked of marriage once they could afford it. During the Great Depression, Margaret took the only job she could find – in a remote part of Illinois, far away from her betrothed. Although they wrote letters and saw each other sporadically, it became harder and harder. After about two years of living so far apart, Ronald Reagan opened a letter from Cleaver and out fell his fraternity pin and engagement ring. She had met and fallen in love with a Foreign Service officer and married him soon after.
As in previous disappointments, Reagan’s mother Nelle, encouraged him to trust that everything works out all right in the end and that every reverse in life carries with it the seeds of something better in the future. Though it was a difficult time, Ronald Reagan realized that his life and its ties to the mid-west had changed and he now could stand ready to take whatever would come next. That opportunity soon presented itself in the form of a trip to California in 1934 to broadcast the Cubs’ spring training. Little did he realize then that his first step toward the west would be his first step away from Dixon and the mid-west that had nurtured him – and the mid-west that he loved.
Winters in the mid-west were long and hard. For Ronald Reagan, he wanted to escape another harsh Iowa winter, but also, secretly, wanted to get closer to Hollywood and to his dream of becoming an actor. In 1935, since he was still calling games on the radio for the Chicago Cubs, he offered to use his vacation time and accompany the team to their training facility on Catalina Island, just 26 miles off the coast of Southern California. He would gather background information on the players and their progress which would be useful as he called games during the season. It also gave him an opportunity to write articles about the team to sell to small-town local newspapers in the mid-west. His first two annual trips to California were fairly uneventful, but that all changed when Reagan went west for the third time.
In 1937, during his annual trip to cover the Chicago Cubs, Ronald Reagan took a ferry from the spring training facility on Catalina Island, and went to meet a friend at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Joy Hodges had worked with Reagan at radio station WHO in Des Moines and now was singing at night with a band and trying to get into the movies. Reagan confessed to her that he had been coming to California with hopes of becoming an actor as well, so she arranged a meeting with an agent who would tell Reagan whether or not he’d be wasting his time trying to break into Hollywood. Joy told Ronald Reagan that he would have to get rid of his glasses though, so he went to the biggest meeting of his life barely able to see his interviewer!
This agent saw potential in Ronald Reagan and called a casting director at Warner Brothers and told him he should meet Reagan. The two of them liked Reagan – especially his voice. They agreed to give him a screen test and said they’d call him in a few days. Unfortunately, Ronald Reagan was leaving Los Angeles to return to Iowa and to his job broadcasting the Cubs. As Reagan left L.A., he wondered if he was making a huge mistake.
Less than 48 hours after arriving back into Des Moines, Ronald Reagan got a telegram which read, “WARNERS OFFERS CONTRACT SEVEN YEARS STOP ONE YEAR OPTION STOP STARTING $200 A WEEK STOP WHAT SHALL I DO” Reagan quickly replied “SIGN BEFORE THEY CHANGE THEIR MINDS”. Although Reagan continued to broadcast Cubs games for another month, his heart wasn’t in it anymore. After saying many sad good-byes, Ronald Reagan packed up everything he owned into a Nash convertible he had recently bought for $600 and headed for California to begin his next chapter of life.
Driving across the country with the top of his convertible down, Ronald Reagan was elated – “the sky was the limit” – both figuratively and literally. His dream was coming true and just the anticipation of fulfilling that dream was thrilling. Upon arriving in Los Angeles in June of 1937, Reagan’s agent told him it might be a while before the studios wanted to use him, but within a few days he was called to begin filming a movie called “Love Is on the Air” about a radio announcer -- a perfect role for him. Ronald Reagan first had to get a studio “make-over” though before filming could begin.
The studio didn’t like his hair, so it was cut and re-styled. The studio said his head looked too small on camera, so they made custom shirts which gave the illusion of smaller shoulders and a larger head. His pencil-thin ties were replaced with wider ties -- tied with wide Windsor knots. Then the publicity department decided that his nickname “Dutch Reagan” would not look good on movie theater marquees, so they started to come up with stage names. Although Ronald Reagan had never liked going by his given name “Ronald”, he decided that he’d rather be known by his own name than by a name created by the studios. He suggested that since he had wide name recognition already, especially in the mid-west, that he go back to his given name -- Ronald Reagan. The studio agreed and Reagan was finally ready for his first day on the set.
When Reagan drove through the gates of Warner Brothers for the first time in June of 1937, he wasn’t sure what he was doing there. He hadn’t acted since college, which was 5 years earlier, and didn’t know if he could make it in Hollywood. He had come this far though and wasn’t about to give up. Show-time jitters gave way to experience and the director loved the first take. The Hollywood Reporter, writing about “Love Is on the Air” said, it “presents a new leading man, Ronald Reagan, who is natural, giving one of the best first film picture performances Hollywood has offered in many a day.”
Four months later Ronald Reagan was cast in another picture called, “Sergeant Murphy” which was based on a true story about a wonder horse that won Britain’s Grand National steeplechase race. After a strong performance in “Sergeant Murphy”, Warner Brothers picked up Ronald Reagan’s option for another six months and gave him a raise. Knowing that his future was secure, at least for a while, Reagan moved his parents to California to join him.
During the first 4 years of his contract at Warner Brothers, from 1938 – 1942, Ronald Reagan made 31 movies, including acting in one of his most famous roles in the 1940 movie “Knute Rockne - All American”. Reagan played George Gipp, a Notre Dame football player who died of an infection at the age of 25. Reagan’s famous line in the movie, which he would repeat countless times throughout his life was, “go in there and win one for the Gipper”. Though most of Reagan’s early career was spent making “B” movies, after receiving high acclaim for his portrayal of George Gipp, Reagan started being cast as the leading man in “A” films.
In the 1941 movie, “King’s Row” there was talk of Reagan being nominated for an Academy Award. Although that didn’t happen, Reagan’s character, Drake McHugh, became famous for uttering the line, “Where is the rest of me?” after discovering that his legs had been amputated by a sadistic and vindictive surgeon who was angry that his daughter had been romanced by McHugh. Ronald Reagan was proud of his role in “King’s Row”, looking at it as one of his greatest works on screen and symbolic of having “made it” in Hollywood. Before “King’s Row” was even released, Warner Brothers offered Reagan another seven-year contract at a considerable increase in salary.
With a successful Hollywood movie career well underway, Ronald Reagan appeared to have fulfilled all of his dreams at a very young age. Never could he have imagined that his life story had just begun and that the best was yet to be written. This small town boy had emerged on the big screen to applause and acclaim, yet this was just laying the foundation for his later arrival on the world stage.
While filming the movie “Brother Rat”, Ronald Reagan met fellow co-star Jane Wyman, another contract player at Warner Brothers. They were married on January 26, 1940 and acted in two other movies together, “An Angel from Texas” and “Tugboat Annie Sails Again”. They welcomed a daughter, Maureen Elizabeth Reagan, on January 4, 1941 and adopted a son, Michael Edward Reagan, who was born March 14, 1945. Although their marriage produced two wonderful children, Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman would later divorce on June 28, 1949.
In 1941, Ronald Reagan’s father, “Jack”, died of heart failure. Although his life had been marred by alcoholism and chain smoking, his love for his son had never subsided. When Ronald Reagan moved his parents to California and bought their first house for them, Jack started working at the studios answering Reagan’s fan mail. This job gave Jack great pride and self-respect and kept him close to his son. Jack grew to love California and returned to his Catholic faith while living there. He was able to attend with his son a special premiere showing of “Knute Rockne – All American” at Notre Dame and told his wife before he died that “I was there when our son became a star.” Jack was 58.
Three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in early 1942, Ronald Reagan received a letter from the War Department marked “Immediate Action” in red ink. Without even opening it, Reagan knew it meant he was being called out of the reserves and into active duty. He was ordered to report to Fort Mason near San Francisco in fourteen days. Since he was in the middle of filming the movie “Desperate Journey”, a lot of rescheduling had to take place in order to get his final scenes on film, but on the 14th day, Reagan reported for active duty as a liaison officer.
During the physical exam, Reagan passed every section except for his vision without glasses. As a result, he was “confined to the continental limits, eligible for corps area service command or War Department overhead only”. Soon after, Reagan was transferred to Army Air Force Intelligence back in Los Angeles where his unit was assigned to make air force training films and documentaries. Reagan recruited technicians and artists from the movie business and put his previous film-making experience to work creating new methods of briefing pilots and bombardiers. Since their unit worked out of the old Hal Roach film studio, his post soon became unofficially known as “Fort Roach”.
While at Fort Roach, Reagan saw first hand the atrocities of war and the evil of Nazism. Combat camera crews brought back footage from every war zone in the world to be used for training and the images Reagan saw made a deep impact on him and convinced him that others had been duped by much false propoganda about the enemy. After the war ended, Reagan kept many of the films and showed them to others who didn’t believe that Germany had been capable of such tyrrany. In 1945, Ronald Reagan was discharged from the Army as a Captain.
In 1946, at the end of World War II, Ronald Reagan returned to Hollywood and began making movies again. He had recently signed a million dollar contract with Warner Brothers and proceeded to make 22 additional movies, primarily with Warner Brothers but also made films with Paramount, MGM, RKO and Universal as a free agent.
In his first film after the war, “Stallion Road”, Ronald Reagan played a veterinarian and horse owner. Since Reagan hadn’t ridden a horse since before the war, he hired Nino Pepitone, a former captain in the Italian cavalry, to get him back in the saddle. Nino’s horse, Baby, was used by the studios for the filming of the movie, and Reagan eventually bought Baby and went into business with Nino breeding and selling their thoroughbreds. Reagan also purchased an 8-acre ranch in the San Fernando Valley, something he dreamed of doing back in his years in Des Moines. He named it “The Yearling” and personally built the paddock and a quarter mile track of rail posts – enjoying every minute of this hard, physical work.
Ronald Reagan’s post-war life was full of firsts and new interests. His movie career almost became a sideline as he began to talk more about politics and the world off-screen. He joined every organization that promised to save the world and became an activist and spokesman for causes in which he believed. The war had changed Reagan – he had become serious and passionate about his political activities and people began to listen to what he had to say.
Although life appeared to return to normal for Ronald Reagan in 1946, his experiences with the war had changed him -- giving him a new-found passion and interest in political causes, contract negotiations and organizational issues. At that time, Reagan, a staunch Democrat, thought that government could solve post-war problems, that they, not private companies, should own public utilities, build shelter for homeless Americans and provide socialized medicine for the sick. Reagan’s brother, Neil, had recently become a Republican, so they had many heated discussions about the future of the country. Neil complained about the growth of government, the over-reaching arm of Washington into the American economy and felt that Russia, our ally in the war, could no longer be trusted. Although Ronald Reagan felt his brother was just repeating Republican propaganda, it began to make him re-examine his own personal beliefs and political viewpoint.
Among Ronald Reagan’s post-war activities, he became increasingly involved in negotiations for the Screen Actors Guild, the American Veterans Committee and the Hollywood Democratic Committee. The American Veterans Committee whose motto was “A Citizen First, A Veteran Afterward” elected Reagan to its board. Reagan began to give speeches on their behalf defending American values against the new Facism that seemed to be emerging at home and abroad. During one of these speeches he was asked about the threat of Communism and responded that if Communism ever began to pose a threat to American values that he’d be just as strongly opposed to it as he was to Facism. That speech concluded to dead silence and Reagan became convinced that the AVC was just a front organization for Communism. Reagan resigned from the organization the very next day.
Meanwhile, the Hollywood Democratic Committee had merged with its New York counterpart, the Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions and became the HICCASP. Ronald Reagan became one of the most active movie stars working on behalf of the HICCASP. He started wearing his glasses again for these public speeches to show how seriously he took matters of international cooperation, the promotion of racial and religious tolerance and the threat of Facism to divide the world. Slowly, Reagan began to become convinced that the HICCASP, just like the AVC, was a Communist front as well. Reagan was contacted by the FBI to provide information on what he had learned and gave him their full cooperation. The FBI’s concern over the Communist influence in Hollywood reinforced Reagan’s disillusionment with his organizational affiliations and he resigned by telegram from membership in the HICCASP.
Simultaneously, the Screen Actors Guild, on whose board Reagan also served, was going through heated conflict over its statement of purpose. As Reagan removed himself from commitments to other organizations, his role on the board of the Screen Actor’s Guild was about to increase sharply.
Having served on the SAG board during the lengthy, turbulent 1946 strike between SAG and the “Conference of Studio Unions”, a Communist backed organization, Ronald Reagan was frightfully aware of Communist intentions to infiltrate Hollywood and control the content of its films. Many felt that this wasn’t possible, but after the strike, the truth was exposed and the public became aware of many famous “Red” Communist actors and actresses in Hollywood. During a court testimony, Ronald Reagan was described by a fellow actor as “a one-man battalion of opposition to the attempted Communist takeover of Hollywood.” For Ronald Reagan, there was no higher compliment or review.
In March of 1947, Ronald Reagan was elected to his first term as President of the Screen Actors Guild. This role, more than any other, unknowingly set Ronald Reagan on the road to his future career in politics. Following the strike, many Communist sympathizers were exposed. While this was alright, many innocent actors and actresses were falsely accused of having Communist ties as well. Ronald Reagan, as President of the Screen Actors Guild, set up a system by which innocent SAG members could clear their name and avoid being blacklisted by the public and not have their movies boycotted. An industry council was established to urge those on the list to publicly declare their opposition to Communism and volunteer to appear before the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee – two things no Communist would agree to. Reagan’s system worked -- and both the industry and the public accepted these pledges to clear the names and reputations of the innocent.
During his five years as President of SAG, Ronald Reagan proved himself to be a capable leader, a skillful negotiator and an adept problem solver. He continued speaking out on issues that concerned him and the members of SAG, and began to address increasingly more powerful groups. He was convinced that America faced no more insidious or evil threat than that of Communism. Little did he know how influential he would eventually become in the overthrow of that very threat.
As President of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan was called upon to help actors and actresses solve a variety of problems or disputes. In 1950, in the aftermath of Communist accusations in Hollywood, a young contract actress for MGM by the name of Nancy Davis was concerned that there were several other actresses by the name of Nancy Davis, and some were Communist sympathizers. She had recently been getting mail erroneously from these front groups and wanted to find a way to clear her good name. She solicited Ronald Reagan’s advice and assistance in doing so. At the urging of her director, Davis and Reagan went to dinner to discuss her situation and find a solution. Changing her name was not an option in Davis’ mind, so Reagan promised her that the Guild would clear her good name and defend her against further false accusations.
The conversation about Davis’s problem sooned turned to conversation about her mother, a Broadway actreess, her father, a prominent surgeon in Chicago, and about their lives in general. Soon dinner was followed by a show at Ciro’s to see Sophie Tucker, followed by the second show, followed by dinner the next night at Malibu Inn. With busy careers and other relationships though, their dating began slowly and sporatically at first, but eventually became more committed and serious, culminating in a proposal of marriage. To avoid the intrusion of the Hollywood press, Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis were married in a secret, quiet ceremony in the Little Brown Church in the Valley on March 4, 1952, attended only by their best man and matron of honor, Bill and Ardis Holden, and their minister. The ceremony was followed by pictures and dinner in the Holden’s home and an overnight honeymoon in Riverside, California. The newlyweds then drove to Phoenix where they joined Nancy’s parents who were vacationing there.
Reagan, in repeating a line from a movie in which he had acted, would often say “God must think a lot of me to have given me you.” Ronald Reagan thanked God every day for giving him Nancy and always said that his life really began when he met Nancy. On that day in 1952 when they became Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, neither of them could have ever imagined where their marriage would take them. Yet they knew they would find out together.
After her marriage to Ronald Reagan in 1952, Nancy asked to be released from her 7-year contract with MGM and turned her attention to her home and her husband. Later that year, on October 22, the Reagan family welcomed Patricia Ann Reagan. A few more years later, on May 28, 1958, Ronald Prescott Regan was born and completed their family.
In 1957, Nancy briefly returned to Hollywood and made one last picture, her only film with husband and co-star, Ronald Reagan. The movie was entitled “Hellcats of the Navy” and was based on the story of a World War II submarine commander, played by Ronald Reagan, and a nurse who was in love with him, played by Nancy.
Although their early years were happy -- with a new life together and the joy of young children, they were also challenging years for Ronald Reagan’s movie career. After making several successful films, there were several films which Ronald Reagan wished he hadn’t made. He began to turn down film offers and wait for roles which were better suited for him. In between those times, Reagan began to wonder about the future of his career and was concerned about the direction of the Hollywood film industry in general.
Reagan was still breeding thoroughbreds at his ranch and was giving speeches and emceeing live shows, but was hesitant to pursue TV offers, thinking that people would stop paying to see him on the big screen if they could watch him on the little screen for free. Nonetheless, guest television spots helped pay the bills between movies, so Reagan began to appear in more and more TV shows and theater programs. Little did he know then that his transition from movies to television would bring him out of the theater and into nearly every living room in America -- giving him a voice across the nation.
The General Electric Company in 1954 was in the market for a new television program and proposed a weekly dramatic anthology which would feature a different story and a different cast every week. Ronald Reagan was an obvious choice to both host the program every week and act in it periodically. At one time or another nearly every big name in Hollywood appeared in the weekly GE Theater which was broadcast at 9:00 on Sunday evenings for eight years. As emcee, Ronald Reagan became a familiar voice and face to most of the nation as the popularity of television was beginning to rise during what now is referred to as the “Golden Age of Television”. Ironically enough, it was not this role on television that gave rise to his future political career, but rather, other roles which GE asked him to play off screen.
In the 1950s, General Electric was on the forefront of an extraordinary experiment of American business – decentralization. Until that time, most companies operated out of a single, centralized location or headquarters. GE’s chairman believed that growth would be more dynamic if it could be dispersed to smaller, regional locations. As a result though, it left employees of the smaller GE plants feeling detached from the home office and feeling a bit like second-class citizens. GE decided to send Ronald Reagan to each of these smaller regions as a kind of goodwill ambassador from the home office. Sending the host of GE Theater out would demonstrate their commitment to these smaller facilities and help forge a closer link between the local plants, their respective communities, and headquarters.
At first, Reagan just walked the assembly lines at the GE plants, or would talk to small groups of employees, telling them about Hollywood and about GE Theater. After a year or two, Reagan began to also speak about the pride of working hard and not waiting on the government to take care of you, about the importance of helping the needy on a privatized basis, not allowing wasteful government programs to feed themselves first before helping their beneficiaries. At the conclusion of his speeches, Reagan was always confronted by people afterwards concerned about government interference, overregulation and bureaucratic obstacles in their business. Reagan began to take note of these issues and each time would research the problem and add that into his next speech. As time went on, the Hollywood part of his speech was lost and he began speaking out solely on behalf of private enterprise and the rights of individuals.
From 1954-1962, as a representative of General Electric, Ronald Reagan visited every one of its 139 plants (some of them several times), traveled around the country by train and car and met over 250,000 employees of GE. Not only did Reagan speak to them, but he listened to them and to what they were concerned about. Looking back, it was an invaluable apprenticeship for public life – a firsthand look at how government really operated and how its decisions affected people all over America. Reagan realized that no government has ever voluntarily reduced itself in size – and that our constitution begins with “We the People” – we should be telling government what to do, not the other way around. GE had given him the platform, but Ronald Reagan had developed the message – and was delivering it to anyone who would listen.
In 1960, while still working for General Electric as host of GE Theater, Ronald Reagan became part owner in a production company and as a result had to resign as President of the Screen Actors Guild. At his final SAG meeting in 1960, he received a standing ovation and a lifetime gold membership card. Reagan had successfully lead SAG through its first major strike in history and had served as its president for five terms.
Also that year, the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame was first dedicated and Ronald Reagan received an original star on that first day of unveiling. His star was awarded for his work in televison and can still be seen on Hollywood Blvd. serving as a permanent reminder of his early days as an actor.
Although Reagan’s father had passed away several years earlier, Reagan’s mother, Nelle, lived long enough to see her son’s rise to fame. She had worked tirelessly for many years comforting patients at the Olive View Tuberculosis Sanitarium and in 1962, she also died. Nelle Reagan was 79 years old and had suffered with the debilitating affects of what would later become known as Alzheimer’s Disease.
Through all his speaking and travels with General Electric, Ronald Reagan met people from all economic walks of life and through their stories became convinced that big business was not the problem in the economy, it was big government. As a result, more and more Republican groups began to extend speaking invitations to Ronald Reagan. In the fall of 1962, while making a campaign speech as a “Democrat for Nixon”, Reagan was interrupted in the middle of his speech and asked if he had registered as a Republican yet. When he said “well, no, I haven’t yet, but I intend to”, down the center aisle through the audience came a woman who declared “I’m a registrar” and placed a registration card in front of him. In front of his audience, Ronald Reagan officially joined the Republican party. Then, returning again to his notes, said, “Now, where was I?”.
In 1964, Ronald Reagan acted in his final film, playing a villain for the first and only time in a movie entitled, “The Killers”. He also was asked to host the television show, “Death Valley Days”. Reagan filmed 21 episodes which were broadcast in 1965 and 1966. By now though, it was clear to Reagan and to others that his career had begun to take a huge turn – one that would take him away from the screen and toward the political stage.
Ronald Reagan’s first step officially onto the political stage would come in the form of a televised speech he would give on October 27, 1964 on behalf of Barry Goldwater who was running for President. Reagan’s speech, entitled “A Time for Choosing” would catapult him into a place of prominence within the Republican party and even though Goldwater’s campaign was unsuccessful, it became clear that Ronald Reagan’s “time for choosing” had also come. His decision was clear and as the lights dimmed on his Hollywood career, Ronald Reagan was stepping into the spotlight on the political stage.
Following Ronald Reagan’s 1964 televised speech entitled “A Time for Choosing” given on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful Presidential bid, Holmes Tuttle, a Los Angeles automobile dealer and staunch Republican contributor, invited Ronald and Nancy Reagan over to his Pacific Palisades home. Several friends of the Tuttles were there and as a group they said they wanted to support Ronald Reagan in running for Governor of California in the upcoming 1966 election against Pat Brown, a liberal Democrat who would be seeking a third term. Reagan had never given thought about running for public office – he wanted to continue to study the operations of government and speak out about it, not become part of it. “I’m an actor, not a politician”, Reagan claimed, “I’m in show business.”
Yet, after constant pressure and urging from these “Friends of Ronald Reagan”, he agreed to travel the state for 6 months, speaking out on issues of interest to Californians, and in doing so, would help find a candidate who could bring the Republican party together again and defeat the Democratic candidate and incumbent Governor, Pat Brown. Although Holmes Tuttle and his group were convinced that Reagan was the only person who could do this, it took 6 months of meeting ordinary citizens up and down the state and hearing their concerns before Ronald Reagan, with Nancy’s support, agreed with them. Although he still wasn’t convinced that he was the right man for the job, he knew that California couldn’t endure another 4 years of Pat Brown and he would never forgive himself if he allowed that to happen without trying to stop it. Eventually the “Friends of Ronald Reagan” prevailed, and on January 4, 1966, Ronald Reagan announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination for Governor of the State of California. With a bit of trepidation, Ronald and Nancy Reagan knew that their lives were about to change dramatically, but they felt they couldn’t run away from it. People all over the state of California had spoken and made their choice clear. They wanted Ronald Reagan to run for Governor.
Although a Republican governor had been elected in Reagan, the legislature was still dominated by the Democratic party, who didn’t like the new governor telling them how to spend the taxpayers’ money. Governor Reagan was determined though, to surround himself with the best people from the business world and elsewhere, so he actively recruited individuals into public service because of their skills, reputation, experience, and proven success, rather than just hiring those who were interested in filling the post. Reagan also set policies and goals that he wanted these individuals to achieve and did whatever he could to help them succeed. With competent allies on his side, progress was made in the direction Governor Reagan wanted, even though the legislature often was determined to oppose him.
While Governor Reagan wanted input on how these changes were being met and implemented, he was never concerned about the “political ramifications” for him personally. Reagan wanted what was best for the state of California and its people, and was not concerned with his political career or political future. Because of this confident leadership, without concern for what “doing the right thing” would do to his popularity, he already was quietly being talked about as a leading presidential nomination contender as early as 1968.
During his first year as Governor, Ronald Reagan reluctantly agreed to a temporary tax increase as the only way of overcoming the deficit left to him by Governor Brown. By 1968, the spending cutbacks and additional income had begun to put Sacramento’s financial house back in order. Reagan was learning to deal with the hostile Democratic legislature and began to use and appreciate the power and value of the Governor’s right to the “line-item-veto” to remove unnecessary spending items from a bill. Governor Reagan also learned that the best way to get a stubborn legislature moving was not to go through them, but go over their heads – right to their constituents -- the people of California.
Governor Reagan began to use President Roosevelt’s signature “fireside chats” to go straight to the people on radio and television and tell them what was going on in Sacramento, what was being done, and how the people could become involved in swaying their representatives to support the Governor’s efforts. As a result, the public would write or call their assemblymen and senators and apply pressure on them. The legislators knew that sooner or later they would have to face these voters again and found limits to how far they would go in opposing the will of the people in their districts.
Reagan also learned the value of picking up the telephone and calling legislators himself and telling them why they should vote for a bill the Governor wanted. Although Reagan’s loyalty was always to the people first, not to the political establishment, Ronald and Nancy Reagan both learned the value of socializing with and getting to know their political opponents. In doing so, they realized that often the legislators are not entirely the problem, but rather the inherent rule of a bureaucracy is to protect itself. This had to change and Governor Reagan sought to do just that – and did so with various levels of success during his first term, including returning a state surplus, in the form of a rebate and tax break, directly back to the people of California at the end of 1968.
Just two years into his first term as Governor of California, Ronald Reagan was asked to enter the Presidential race as a “favorite son” candidate. This nominating technique which was formerly used by political parties, nominated a candidate based on their regional appeal and recognition, not necessarily for their specific political views or their likelihood of winning a nation-wide election. As a popular governor from a large state, Ronald Reagan’s “favorite son” nomination from California would give the state’s uncommitted delegation and party leadership time to get behind another candidate. It was intended that Ronald Reagan would stay a candidate only until the national convention, at which time he would free his delegates to support another candidate. However, at the August 1968 Republican Party National Convention, the delegates from California decided to keep his name in as an official candidate and voted for Ronald Reagan anyway.
When the convention balloting concluded, former Vice President, Richard M. Nixon, had a clear majority of votes over New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Reagan, so Reagan jumped on the platform and asked for permission to address the convention. Although at first he was turned down because of a procedural rule, the rule was waived and Reagan was eventually allowed to speak. He made a motion that the delegates nominate Richard Nixon by acclamation -- and they did so with a tremendous roar. Now California’s “favorite son” was known by the nation as well. Reagan had done exactly what had been asked of him and helped the Republican party stay united during that critical 1968 election season. As the years would pass, Reagan would be asked to do even more on the political stage for both his party and for his nation.
August 15, 1969
The late 1960’s were a time of great unrest, especially on college campuses. Students of the University of California’s nine campuses were unhappy with their large classes, often taught by teaching assistants rather than professors and started to protest. What began as a legitimate complaint, evolved into a dangerous upheaval – jeopardizing the safety of everyone on or near these nine university campuses.
The University of California Berkeley was especially volatile and within one eleven-month period there were eight bombings and attempted bombings on this campus alone. Police had confiscated more than two hundred rifles, pistols, shotguns, and nearly a thousand sticks of dynamite and dozens of Molotov cocktails. In the spring of 1969, more than 2,000 rioters charged down a street in Berkeley toward a line of policemen, literally trampeling them underfoot and sending 47 of them to the hospital with injuries. The president of the University, along with the mayor and police chief, called Governor Reagan asking him to declare a state of emergency and send in the National Guard to restore order.
While Governor Reagan supported the Constitutional guarantee to the right of free speech and expression, there was nothing noble about a mob that injured others and burned and destroyed property. This rampaging minority had robbed the passive majority of their right to an education. Reagan often said, “Obey the rules or get out”. The job of enforcing that now lay with the Governor and he did call in the National Guard to restore order at the University of California Berkeley. Following that, there were no more attacks by rioters and peace began to return to the university campuses again.
By the end of 1969, Governor Reagan began to realize that one term in office would not provide enough time to accomplish all the goals he had set. As a result of some special elections, the Republicans had a slight majority in the legislature for one year, and during that time they were able to pass forty anti-crime measures that had previously been buried in committee. Even though there was a likelihood that he would have a Democratic legislature again during a second term, Reagan, with experience in his favor, and the people of California on his side, knew he would not be stopped until he accomplished his most important goal—reforming California’s bloated welfare program.
In November of 1970, Ronald Reagan was elected to a second term as Governor of California. He won by a 53 to 45 percent margin over the Speaker of the State Assembly, Jesse Unruh, a tax-and-spend liberal who from the beginning had been opposed to reforms. Once again the people of California had made their choice clear. They wanted reforms to continue and they wanted Ronald Reagan to lead those reforms and lead their state of California.
At the beginning of his second term as Governor, Ronald Reagan, continuing with his commitment to statewide reforms, turned his sights to the bloated state welfare program. He vowed to reduce the welfare rolls, and in doing so, would save the state money and eliminate fraud and waste in the program. Governor Reagan was in full support of helping those people who, through no fault of their own, couldn’t provide for themselves. What he sought to eliminate was those programs that invited generation after generation of potentially productive people to remain dependent on welfare. By depriving able-bodied individuals of incentive to work, an endless cycle of dependency was being perpetuated and was placing an unnecessary burden on those who were productive. Reagan wanted to rescue those who were physically and mentally capable of working, from what FDR had called the “narcotic” of welfare. By taking them off of the welfare roles and moving them back into the work-force, not only did the state benefit financially, but those individuals were restored the dignity that comes from productivity.
The Welfare Reform Act was signed into law in August of 1971 and included tightening of eligibility requirements for welfare aid and required those who were able to seek work to do so rather than continuing to receive benefits. Reagan said he was concerned that, “Here in California, nearly a million children are growing up in the stultifying atmosphere of programs that reward people for not working, programs that separate families and doom these children to repeat the cycle in their own adulthood.”
Under Reagan, payments through the AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) were reduced and requirements were made through the CWEP (Community Work Experience Program) in order to qualify for aid. The Reagan administration turned the tide of seeing welfare as an “entitlement”, and moved toward the concept of “mutual obligation”. The California Welfare Reform Act under Reagan’s leadership, was called “probably the most comprehensive” such initiative in American history and had a major impact nationwide on future welfare policy in other states, and was the forerunner to eventual reforms at the federal level as well.
Reflecting on his eight years as Governor, Ronald Reagan was proud of all he had accomplished. The state government was smaller, less costly, and more business-like. The quality of people attracted to government employment was upgraded and the government’s growth rate was less than the population growth. The bureaucracy was more responsive to the public and much of the power and taxing authority that had been usurped by the state was returned back to the local communities. The citizens of California were given property-tax relief and had been returned more than $5 billion in tax rebates. Governor Reagan used his line-item-veto authority 943 times over the 8 years and was never over-ridden by the legislature. (This power allowed the governor to cut spending in bills to a reasonable level which fit with the overall priorities and budget of the state.) Although many supporters wanted Reagan to run for a third term, he felt that he had accomplished most of what he had set out to do and kept his promise of only serving for two terms as Governor. In early 1975, Ronald and Nancy Reagan left Sacramento and returned to Los Angeles.
The Ford Administration had offered to appoint Reagan as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, as well as offering to name him Secretary of Transportation or later Secretary of Commerce. Reagan declined all of these offers. Instead, after leaving office, a consulting and public relations firm began to book speeches for Reagan, and provide him with opportunities to write newspaper columns and give radio commentaries. This allowed Reagan to reflect on his past 8 years of public service and contemplate the next chapter of his life. Ironically, his next big decision came not in the form of a job, but in the form of a piece of property.
It was love at first sight when the Reagans toured a cattle ranch near Santa Barbara, California – they purchased it and named it “Rancho del Cielo” – Ranch in the Sky. This 668-acre mountaintop ranch, dotted with oak trees surrounding a beautiful green meadow, overshadowed by rugged hills on one side and views of the Pacific Ocean on the other side, was a place of serenity for the Reagans. Ronald Reagan returned to his love of horseback riding and physical, hard work there – renovating much of the existing home and trails on the property himself. The Reagans found great peace at Rancho del Cielo and may have been content to spend the rest of their lives sharing time between the ranch and their home in Pacific Palisades. However, Reagan also remembered what had happened before, that a candidate doesn’t make the decision whether or not to run for office, the people make it for him.
August 19, 1976
Midway into the Ford presidency, Ronald Reagan was already being talked about as the frontrunner to challenge President Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976. Although President Ford had graciously offered Reagan a choice of virtually any position in his cabinet, Reagan preferred to continue with the work he had started as Governor of California, and share time between his Santa Barbar ranch, Rancho del Cielo, and his home in Pacific Palisades.
Ronald Reagan had not sought to run for President of the United States, he felt it was not a decision that a candidate should make – the people should make the decision and then let that person know. It became clear to Ronald Reagan that people nationwide wanted him to run for President, so he agreed to seek the nomination. His goal was to go after the Democrats and big government, not Gerald Ford. Reagan remained steadfast in his commitment to what was called the “Eleventh Commandment” – which stated “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican”. Reagan, as a Washington outsider, campaigned on the issues of reducing the size of the federal government, lowering taxes and government intrusion into private life, balancing the budget, and returning freedoms to the people which had been usurped by bureaucrats in Washington.
On August 19, 1976, Ronald Reagan addressed delegates at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, hoping to secure his party’s nomination. When the balloting was over, Reagan was 70 votes shy of Ford, so President Gerald Ford became the party’s nominee. Many asssumed that Reagan would become President Ford’s vice-presidential nominee, but Reagan wasn’t interested in being V.P. Instead, Reagan asked his delegates to pledge their support to Ford to make the vote for him unanimous. Although Ronald Reagan lost the nomination in 1976, as he traveled the country in support of Ford’s candidacy, it became clear that Reagan was going to be the frontrunner for the 1980 presidential election – and this time he was ready for it. He wanted to be President and would agree to the nomination if the people of America wanted him to run.
November 13, 1979
Throughout the Carter administration, Ronald Reagan became increasingly concerned about things that were happening – and not happening – in Washington, D.C. Cuts in defense spending, distribution of wealth, national economic planning, faltering national security, rising unemployment, increased inflation and climbing interest rates were leading the nation into a serious recession. Worst of all, Americans were losing faith in themselves and in their country and were growing increasingly frustrated with excessive taxation and oppressive government regulations. With a public outcry for change, and confidence that Ronald Reagan would be the agent of that change, Reagan agreed to run for President of the United States and declared his intention in a speech at the New York Hilton Hotel on November 13, 1979.
Even though Reagan agreed to abide by the “Eleventh Amendment” and not speak out against his fellow Republicans, he agreed to a series of debates with the other candidates. The first was in New Hamshire, followed by debates in Chicago and Houston. Shortly after the New Hampshire primary, all of the other candidates besides George H.W. Bush had dropped out of the race. By late May, Bush also pulled out.
Behind the scenes, conversations were taking place with Gerald Ford’s aides, exploring the possibility of Ford accepting the Vice Presidential nomination. As talks proceeded though, it became clear that his advisers were seeking more of a co-presidency than a vice presidency. Ultimately, Ford made the decision that it just wouldn’t work and took himself out of consideration. With Ford no longer an option for V.P., Ronald Reagan decided that the obvious choice was George Bush. Their primary battle had been competitive and rough at times, but Reagan liked Bush personally, had great respect for his abilities and breadth of experience and knew he had wide support within the party. George Bush agreed to be on the ticket, so together they addressed the convention of delegates in Detroit. On July 16, 1980, the Reagan-Bush ticket announced its intention to defeat Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.
When all the campaigning concluded, Ronald and Nancy Reagan returned to their home in Los Angeles for election day to await the voting results. It had become a tradition for the Reagans to have dinner on election night with a small group of friends, then drive over to the campaign headquarters and wait out the returns. The afternoon of November 4th, Ronald Reagan was showering, in preparation for his evening schedule when the phone rang – it was President Carter. After listening for a few minutes, Ronald Reagan said, “Thank you, Mr. President”. President Carter had called to concede and to congratulate President-elect Ronald Reagan. Although the polls wouldn’t even close in California for another two hours, the people of America had made their choice clear and had elected Ronald Reagan as their president in a landslide victory. Ronald Reagan, standing in his bathroom, wrapped in a towel, still dripping with water, had just learned that he was going to be the 40th President of the United States.
Soon Ronald Reagan would be heading to Washington, D.C. and already had his mind set on what needed to be done. With the weight of his new job coming down upon his shoulders, he said a prayer asking for God’s help. Since his childhood, Reagan had shared a reverence which most kids have for their president and for the White House, and now he would become part of that history. Only in America would this be possible – a poor kid from a small town in the rural midwest could grow up to lead a great nation. America was the land of endless possibility and Ronald Reagan had just proven that to be true. After the inaugural celebrations were over, there was much work to be done and Ronald Reagan was ready and eager to begin.
January 20, 1981
At the request of Ronald Reagan, the presidential inauguration was held for the first time on the west side of the Capitol – facing his beloved home state of California. Standing before massive crowds gathered on the Capitol Mall, Ronald Reagan placed his hand on his mother’s Bible and took the oath of office, becoming the 40th President of the United States. As the sun burst through the clouds and shone, Reagan gave his inaugural address, outlining a desire to return to the idea that government should serve the people, not the other way around. He focused on reigning in the growth of government, freeing individuals and businesses from the burden of excessive regulations, and inspired Americans to unleash their entrepreneurial spirit and believe in themselves and their great nation again.
Immediately following the inaugural ceremonies, the new President signed an executive order removing price controls on oil and gasoline – his first effort to stabilize and restore the struggling American economy. He also announced that the 52 American hostages who had been held captive in Iran for 444 days had just been released. The inaugural parade included a band from Dixon, Illinois, where Ronald Reagan himself had attended high school. What a journey he had made – from a small mid-west town to the White House. Ronald and Nancy Reagan attended ten inaugural balls that evening and ended their day as residents of the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The inauguration day was full of pomp and celebration, but Ronald Reagan was anxious to get to work – there was much to be done.
President Ronald Reagan inherited a nation in crisis. Taxes and interest rates were both at record levels, unemployment was high and national morale was low. The economy was struggling, so soon after his inauguration, Reagan implemented a plan, called by some “Reaganomics”. His economic plan called for a cut in taxes, control of government spending, and a repeal of federal regulations which were stifling productivity. Reagan knew that if people had money in their pockets and incentives to invest and create jobs, the economy would right itself and return to stability and growth again. Although Reagan initially had a tough time convincing Congress to support him, his plan showed promise and in August, the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 was signed into law. The Reagan Recovery had begun.
March 30, 1981
On the morning of March 30th, 1981, Ronald Reagan put on a brand-new blue suit for his speech to the Construction Trades Council at the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. The speech was well received and at its conclusion, the President exited a side entrance, passing a line of press photographers and TV cameras. Approaching his car, President Reagan heard what sounded like two or three firecrackers -- pop! pop! pop! He was grabbed around the waist by the head of the Secret Service and literally hurled into the back of his presidential limousine. The agent jumped on top of him and ordered the driver to head toward the White House. As President Reagan sat up, he felt intense pain and thought he had broken a rib when he landed on the armrest in the backseat. The pain was nearly paralyzing and he began coughing up blood. Afraid that the president had punctured a lung, the secret service agent ordered the driver to head for George Washington University Hospital instead of the White House.
Upon his arrival at the hospital, President Reagan was the first one out of the limo and headed for the emergency room, telling a nurse that he was having trouble breathing. He was placed on a gurney and heard the sound of his brand-new suit being cut off of him. Miraculously, the hospital had been hosting a doctors’ meeting that afternoon, so specialists from nearly every field of medicine were already there. When one of the doctors told the President they were going to have to operate, President Reagan said, “I hope you’re a Republican.” The doctor replied, “Today, Mr. President, we’re all Republicans.”
Initially, they thought the President had broken a rib or punctured a lung when Secret Service agent, Jerry Parr, had bravely thrown his body over the President to protect him. They soon learned, however, that a bullet had ricocheted off the door of the Presidential limousine and had punctured the president’s lung, then tumbled perilously close to his heart. The lone gunman, a disturbed young man named John Hinckley, Jr. had not only shot the president, but had seriously injured Press Secretary Jim Brady, Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy, and policeman Tom Delehanty. As the injured President lay awaiting surgery, he prayed for the recovery of each of these other brave men, he prayed for the gunman to get the help he needed, and thanked God for sparing his own life.
President Reagan’s doctors released him to return to the White House on April 11, 1981. In his diary entry that night the president wrote, “Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can.” While still recovering, he summoned Congressional leaders to the White House to continue pressuring them to support his economic plans. The business of the American people couldn’t wait – and he wanted them to know he meant business, even if he was the first President to ever host a bipartisan meeting of Congressional leadership in his bathrobe!
August 3, 1981
In late July 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, whose members manned the Federal Aviation Administration control towers and radar centers around the country, were threatening to strike due to the Department of Transportation’s inability to meet their demand for a huge salary increase. PATCO argued that due to the unusual stress, pressure and demanding nature of their occupation, that they were entitled to a significant raise. The increase they were demanding would have cost the taxpayers $700 million a year, and the union was threatening to strike.
As a former union president, Ronald Reagan was sympathetic to their request, but was unable to accept an illegal strike by Federal employees, nor negotiate while a strike was in progress. Government employees do not have the right to strike against public safety – ever. Congress had passed a law forbidding strikes by government employees, and every member of the controllers’ union had signed a sworn affidavit agreeing not to strike. President Reagan told the union leaders that he expected their membership to abide by their oath. After much negotiation, the union’s executive board rejected a tentative agreement and more than seventy percent of the FAA’s force of nearly 17,000 controllers went on strike.
The PATCO strike became a national emergency, endangering the safety of millions of passengers on thousands of daily flights. Although this was his first major crisis he faced as president, Ronald Reagan had no doubt how to respond. He instructed the FAA to above all, maintain the safety of the airways, reducing flight operations to a level that the system could safely handle. From the Rose Garden, President Reagan then read a hand-written statement he had drafted which cited the pledge that controllers made never to strike. He said if they did not return to work within 48 hours, their jobs would be terminated and they would not be re-hired. Although he didn’t want to fire anybody, President Reagan would not tolerate their strike and felt that if they chose not to return to work with full knowledge of what he had said, that he wasn’t firing them, but they were giving up their jobs based on their individual decisions.
Whether they underestimated President Reagan’s resolve, or the ability of the remaining controllers to handle the additional workload, many members of PATCO did forfeit their jobs and their careers. Although the airlines and the traveling public temporarily endured some difficult times, the resulting control system emerged safer and more efficient than ever, in spite of operating with 6,000 fewer controllers. This crisis, which came at the beginning of the Reagan Administration, sent an important message to those who may have doubted President Reagan’s commitment to keeping his word that he undoubtedly would respond with authority and conviction whenever necessary.
Ronald Reagan was determined to be a “good neighbor” and paid special attention to friends and neighbors of the U.S. both to the north and the south – Canada and Mexico. Not wanting to waste any time in reaching out, Reagan took the unprecedented step of visiting Mexico as President-elect, and visited six more times while in the White House. President Reagan made it a priority to establish strong relationships with all of the Mexican and Canadian leaders during his presidency.
Reagan made his first foreign visit as President to Canada, traveling there less than two months after assuming office. He would make four additional trips to Canada and developed a valued personal friendship with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who was also a staunch ally on political and economic issues. After their first meeting in 1984, Reagan wrote in his diary about Mulroney, “He has just won a tremendous victory. He’s a super fellow. We got along fine and will continue to do so.” Though they were known for their united stance on many issues, Reagan and fellow Irishman, Mulroney, were also known to stray from policy talks and break into storytelling, which was enjoyed by anyone in earshot. The Prime Minister’s wife, Mila, and Mrs. Reagan became close friends as well and so the Reagans and Mulroney's enjoyed close political and personal relationships, hosting each other in their respective country on several occasions.
Outside of the political realm, Ronald Reagan also placed a priority on pursuing a personal relationship with Pope John Paul II. Beyond the usual ceremonial events between a President and a Pope, the two came to know and respect each other on a deeper level. They realized that they shared similar views on Communist domination of Eastern Europe and quietly worked together to support the Solidarity movement which, under the leadership of Lech Walesa, led Poland to becoming a free nation. Their unity and friendship was a great force for the cause of freedom, especially in Poland.
Ronald Reagan had a way with people – especially in the political arena he had a great ability to pull people together, bring them to the side of peace and freedom and inspire them to encourage others to do the same. Reagan’s contagious enthusiasm and optimism for democracy was spreading, and he was recruiting allies in the cause of freedom everywhere he traveled or spoke.
September 25, 1981
The nomination in July of 1981 of Sandra Day O’Connor to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court symbolized Ronald Reagan’s view of people. Gender, race, ethnicity or religion never factored into the President’s decision making, except to ensure that they were not criteria for discrimination. Ronald Reagan was a tenacious defender of equal rights and for his Supreme Court appointments in particular, he wanted judges who were known for their honesty and judicial integrity and would faithfully interpret the Constitution, not attempt to legislate from the bench. Reagan had great confidence in Sandra Day O’Connor and watched proudly as she became the first female to ever sit on our nation’s highest bench – The Supreme Court. President Reagan described her as a distinguished woman of great legal intellect, fairness and integrity. In his mind, she was forthright and convincing and was the right woman for the job.
Ronald Reagan would have the opportunity to make two other appointments to the Supreme Court during his two terms as president. When Chief Justice Warren Burger resigned in June of 1986, it allowed the President to nominate William Rehnquist as Chief Justice and Antonin Scalia to the Court. Following their confirmations, they were sworn in on September 26, 1986. In November of 1987, Reagan would make his final nomination for the Supreme Court – Anthony Kennedy, who was sworn in on February 18, 1988. With these judicial appointments, Reagan hoped that the people of our great nation would continue to be served by those with wisdom and a commitment to preserve the precepts of our forefathers.
January 26, 1982
In his January 26, 1982 diary entry, Ronald Reagan wrote, “I wonder if I’ll ever get used to addressing the joint session of Congress. I’ve made a million speeches in every kind of place to every kind of audience. Somehow there’s a thing about entering that chamber—goose bumps and a quiver.” During every year of his presidency, Ronald Reagan used his State of the Union address to remind America of the journey the country had taken together during the previous year, and chart the path for the upcoming year.
During his first State of the Union Address, Reagan recalled his presidency’s first year – the largest tax reduction and most sweeping changes in tax structure, effectiveness of a federal strike force combating government waste and fraud, reduction of federal regulations, increased military funding to ensure peace, returning power and resources to the states and local communities and mobilization of the private sector to solve many of America’s social programs.
The following year, in 1983, President Reagan’s State of the Union Address would call for a 4-part federal spending freeze to increase economic growth and reduce deficits. He felt strongly that this was the only path to a strong, sustainable recovery and urged Congress to lend their support. Reagan’s address in 1984 outlined four great goals for America – stimulating vigorous economic growth, building on America’s pioneer spirit, strengthening our communities and families, and pursuing a meaningful peace around the world. The Second American Revolution of hope and opportunity was the theme for 1985 – showcasing America’s increased productivity and competitiveness, restoring military strength through re-equipping and training a professional corps ready for response, the reduction or elimination of costly government subsidies, pushing on to new possibilities in the frontier of space, and rediscovering the values of faith, freedom, family, work and neighborhood. By 1985, signs of American renewal were evident everywhere.
As Cold War tensions increased and the pursuit of improved U.S. – Soviet relations intensified, President Reagan’s State of the Union Address in 1986 focused on national security and a strong defense– his desire to promote freedom, democracy and peace both in the Soviet Union and around the world. Reagan compelled the legislature to agree that freedom’s path must be guided by realism, and not guided by politics. In 1987 he urged that plans for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) go forward and that arms reduction talks continue.
President Reagan’s 1988 State of the Union address may have been his most memorable as he chided Congress for their inability to produce a balanced budget. Reagan challenged Congress to change their view of deficit spending proclaiming, “we can’t spend ourselves rich”. Plainly spoken, “The federal government is too big and it spends too much money.” President Reagan then gave a visual example of what he was talking about – a 1,053 conference report, a 1,186-page reconciliation bill, and a 1,057-page long-term continuing resolution, totaling 43 pounds of paper and ink. Reagan stacked these up, set them forcefully on the podium and said, “Congress shouldn’t send another one of these . . . and if you do, I will not sign it.” He urged Congress to give the President the same power which 43 governors have -- that of the line-item veto. Reagan also asked them to pass a constitutional amendment mandating a permanent balanced budget and forcing the government to live within its means. As Reagan often did, he used humor to effectively make a serious point.
Prior to his 1980 nomination for President of the United States, Ronald Reagan made a trip to England. During his visit he was introduced to Margaret Thatcher, the first woman elected as head of the British Conservative Party. Though their meeting was scheduled to last only a few minutes, it turned into two hours as they discovered they were soul mates in their commitment to reducing government and expanding economic freedom. Reagan liked Thatcher immediately and described her as warm, feminine, gracious and intelligent. When asked what Reagan thought of her, he replied, “I think she’d make a magnificent prime minister.” Though at the time his suggestion was unthinkable to those in Parliament, she proved her leadership ability and a few years later, both she and Reagan would be sitting across the table from each other again – this time as heads of their respective governments.
Throughout Reagan’s presidency, no alliance was stronger than that with the United Kingdom under the leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Not only did Reagan and Thatcher share similar philosophies about government and democratic values, but they became close personal friends and allies. Their mutual respect is evidenced in Reagan’s own diary, where Thatcher is mentioned over 60 times. In these entries, Prime Minister Thatcher is described by Reagan as, “a tower of strength and a solid friend of the U.S.” and was appreciated for her efforts to, “get allies to be more forceful in their actions.” Thatcher, in turn, admired Reagan and asserted that he “won the Cold War without firing a shot.” Together, Thatcher and Reagan not only supported each other, but provided leadership and vision to the rest of the world.
The strength and resolve of the Thatcher-Reagan friendship was put to the ultimate test in March of 1982 when Argentine marines wearing civilian clothes landed on South Georgia Island, a British territory in the South Atlantic, about 600 miles east of the Falklands. Margaret Thatcher told Reagan that she would never submit to a takeover of one of its crown colonies and asked Reagan to call Argentina’s military leader Leopoldo Galtieri and reaffirm Britain’s commitment to defending her colony. Galtieri felt his country’s national honor was at stake and stood firm in his desire to establish sovereignty over the island. Argentina invaded and The British Royal Navy steamed for the Falklands. Both sides asked for U.S. help and support, but Reagan said he would not provide military help to either side, but that U.S. sympathies were on the British side and he agreed with their right to defend their colony. As the conflict escalated, Thatcher threatened to invade the mainland of Argentina, though Reagan thought that would be dangerous and ill-advised, and told her so. Thatcher, often referred to as “The Iron Lady”, demonstrated her iron will and stood firm in reserving the right to invade. Though an invasion never came, and the Falkland Island was reclaimed by British troops, Thatcher proved once again her commitment to moral rightness and her nation’s obligation to guarantee a handful of people living in the Falklands to the right of self-determination. As a result of her handling of this conflict with Argentina, within a year, Galtieri was ousted and democracy came to Argentina.
One year later, in October of 1983, a bloody coup started a build-up of Cuban-sponsored military forces on the island of Grenada. The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, who feared Marxist advancement to their countries as well, had asked the U.S. to intervene before it was too late. President Reagan decided to order a secret operation to secure Grenada, and protect 800 Americans who attended medical school there. Since Grenada was a British commonwealth, Margaret Thatcher saw no reason for the U.S. to interfere in its affairs, and was angry that Reagan had ordered a military operation there without her knowledge. Fortunately, the operation quickly succeeded in gaining control of the island’s two airports, and securing the campus where the American students were. Reagan wrote in his diary that night, “Success seems to shine on us and I thank the Lord for it.”
The friendship between Reagan and Thatcher could have been strained as a result of these two crises, but it emerged stronger than ever, with each respecting the other’s position, as well as supporting the other to act in their own coutry’s best interest. Though they sometimes pursued different courses of action, the two were united in their core beliefs and principles for freedom to be defended at all cost, no matter where it was being jeopardized.
In June of 1982, President Reagan became the first U.S. president to address both houses of Parliament. He spoke of the belief in liberty and the rejection of the arbitrary power of the state, a refusal to subordinate the rights of the individual to the state and realization that collectivism stifles the best human impulses. Reagan and Thatcher believed that they needed to sell their vision of freedom and help others embrace democracy. They needed to “become evangelists” worldwide for freedom, individual liberty, representative government, free press, self expression and rule of law. They both held fast to the belief that, “Freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.” Reagan hosted both his first State Dinner in 1981 and his last State Dinner in 1988 in honor of Prime Minister Thatcher, symbolizing the vital role their relationship played throughout his administration.
The special relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain was not exclusively limited to the Prime Minister, but extended also to the British Royal family. The Reagans and the Royal Family developed a close friendship as well, which led to an invitation for President Reagan to go horseback riding with Queen Elizabeth II on the grounds of Windsor Castle. Mrs. Reagan was an honored guest at two Royal weddings, and in addition to official visits to the White House, the Queen also visited the Reagans at Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara, California
The U.S. and U.K. shared common Anglo-Saxon roots, a common language, and had fought two world wars side by side, so naturally there was a deep mutual respect, but during the Reagan years, that formal relationship became more personal through the strong bonds of friendship the Reagans developed with the British Royal Family and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
October 23, 1983
Ronald Reagan saw the 1984 presidential election as pivotal – not just because he wanted to be re-elected, but because he believed the gains which had been made during the previous four years would be in jeopardy if someone else took office. Reagan announced his candidacy for re-election in January of 1984 and hoped to preserve what had already been accomplished, and continue to press for cutting the deficit and balancing the budget. Reagan accepted the party’s nomination on August 23, 1984 in Dallas, Texas and went on to win the election over his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, and his running-mate, Geraldine Ferraro. Reagan’s landslide victory took 49 states, with an Electoral College vote of 525–13. Reagan saw the election as approval of what he had been trying to accomplish, and a mandate to continue.
President Ronald Reagan was privately sworn in for his second term in the Rotunda of the Capitol on Sunday, January 20, 1985. The public inauguration and parade had been scheduled for the following day, but had to be canceled due to outdoor temperatures of twenty degrees below zero. Reagan and his Vice President, George Bush, were formally sworn in before about a thousand people in the Capitol rotunda on January 21, 1985.
Reagan’s goals for his 2nd term on the domestic front were to continue to reduce federal spending and bring down the deficit, implement tax reform, and modernize the military. Internationally, Reagan wanted to negotiate a solid arms reduction agreement with the Soviets, improve relations with Latin neighbors, resist Communist penetration of Central America, and curb violence and unrest in the Middle East. Much of this was accomplished in Reagan’s second term, including the Tax Reform Bill of October 1986, The Economic Bill of Rights in July of 1987, and increased awareness and funding for drug education, treatment and prevention, thanks to Mrs. Reagan’s efforts with her “Just Say No” campaign.
President and Mrs. Reagan personally faced health crises during the second term as well. The president underwent surgery to remove a cancerous polyp in his colon on July 13, 1985 and Mrs. Reagan underwent surgery for breast cancer on October 16, 1987. Although these were private health issues, both President and Mrs. Reagan wanted to discuss them publicly to encourage the American people to have regular health screenings and learn how to lower their own risk for disease.
By May of 1988, Vice President Bush had announced his candidacy for President and Reagan lent his endorsement. President Reagan gave his farewell address to the Republican National Convention in August of 1988. In November of that year, Reagan participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for his presidential library in Simi Valley, California. Reagan’s final press conference and farewell address to the nation lead up to the inauguration of George Bush as the 41st President of the United States on January 20, 1989.
After 8 challenging and rewarding years in Washington, D.C., Ronald and Nancy Reagan descended the steps of the Capitol hand in hand and began their journey together back to their beloved California. On board the plane they had flown as Air Force One for the past 8 years, which was being called SAM (Special Air Mission) 27000 for their last flight home, champagne was poured and glasses were raised. “Mission accomplished, Mr. President,” someone called out, “mission accomplished”. Not yet, Reagan thought to himself, not yet. He looked forward to his return to California and felt it would symbolize the start of a new chapter, not the end of the book.
November 16, 1985
When it came to communism or any other oppressive regime, President Reagan was unwavering in his commitment to bringing freedom to people everywhere. Nowhere was this determination more evident than in the changes Reagan brought to U.S. – Soviet relations. Reagan believed that the previous policy of détente, which allowed Communism expansion and aggression to go unchallenged, must change and that America must once again stand firmly as a beacon of hope and democracy for freedom-seeking peoples around the world.
Reagan’s desire for peace through strength took several forms. He spoke frankly about the Russians – calling them an “evil empire” – saying their expansionism must end, and their weak economy could never win an arms race over the U.S. Reagan also wanted to diffuse the dangerous and futile nuclear arms standoff. Reagan said, “We don’t mistrust each other because we’re armed; we’re armed because we mistrust each other.” He believed that if the mistrust was eliminated, then so would the dangerous arms standoff. President Reagan was confident that if he could meet face to face with his Soviet counterpart, that the mistrust would diminish.
Steps needed to be taken to reduce tensions and President Reagan had an idea of how to accomplish that. Against the advice of the State Department and his own Secretary of State, and while still recovering from the assassination attempt on his own life, Reagan sent a hand-written letter to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, seeking to find common ground and establish a better tone of relations between the White House and the Kremlin. Unfortunately, Reagan’s goals were not to be accomplished with Brezhnev, who died later that year. Brezhnev was replaced by Yuri Andropov, who died less than two years later and was replaced by Constantin Chernenko. Unbelievably, Chernenko died just 13 months later and the Soviet high command chose a younger man, Mikhail Gorbachev, to lead the Kremlin. It was with Gorbachev that President Reagan would finally have the long-sought opportunity to form a new relationship with, and establish a new U.S. – Soviet arms policy.
On November 16, 1985, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met face to face for the first time in Geneva, Switzerland. Reagan and Gorbachev walked down to a small, plain boathouse and sat in two comfortable chairs in front of a roaring fireplace and with only interpreters present, began to forge a relationship that would not only improve U.S.-Soviet relations, but would be the beginning of the end of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union itself.
Reagan and Gorbachev met again in Reykjavik, Iceland on October 11, 1986, and continued their discussions on arms reduction. Although great progress was initially made, Gorbachev ultimately decided that no agreement on reductions could be reached without the U.S. giving up its Strategic Defense Initiative program (SDI). Reagan knew that SDI was the very reason that arms reduction was ever being discussed and so he refused to give in. Reagan’s diary entry after Reykjavik sums it up, “He (Gorbachev) wanted language that would have killed SDI . . . I’d pledged I wouldn’t give away SDI and I didn’t, but that meant no deal on any of the arms reductions. He tried to act jovial but I was mad and showed it.” Reagan hoped that the world’s reaction would put pressure on Gorbachev to reconsider.
On June 12, 1987, President and Mrs. Reagan flew to West Berlin and stood at the Berlin Wall, witnessing firsthand the stark contrast between two different political systems: on one side, people held captive by a failed and corrupt totalitarian government, on the other, freedom, enterprise and prosperity. Standing at the Brandenberg Gate, where a massive crowd of Berliners were gathered, President Reagan delivered a memorable address outlining the inescapable conclusion that freedom leads to prosperity and freedom is always the victor.
Although the Soviet Union had made token gestures toward change and openness through new programs of perestroika and glasnost, Reagan felt that was not enough, “There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.” Then, with a voice full of anger and frustration, Reagan uttered his famous challenge, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gobachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Gorbachev did, ultimately, return to the negotiating table with Reagan and met him in Moscow, Washington, D.C. and in New York to eventually sign the most significant arms reduction treaty in history. On December 8, 1987, in the East Room of the White House, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty, which for the first time in history, would eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. Through the INF Treaty, as well as establishing the framework for the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement, and their personal commitment to lessening tensions and establishing a lasting peace, “Ron and Mikhail” as they eventually came to call each other, found a way to end the Cold War and make the world a safer place.
Neither President Reagan, nor Mikhail Gorbachev could have imagined the changes that would come as a result of their relationship. Within three years of President Reagan leaving office, the Berlin Wall did come down and a six-thousand pound section of it would be sent as a token of gratitude to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. The political supremacy and domination of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would come to an end and eventually would lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union altogether. Ronald Reagan through sheer will and determination had succeeded in his goal of ending Soviet domination and bringing peace and freedom to oppressed people all over Eastern Europe.
March 4, 1987
Throughout his presidency, Ronald Reagan was known as “The Great Communicator”. In his autobiography, An American Life, Reagan wrote, “one of my greatest frustrations during those eight years was my inability to communicate to the American people and to Congress the seriousness of the threat we faced in Central America.”
For Reagan, as problems in Central America escalated, not only did his frustration increase, but what became known as the Iran-Contra affair evolved into the most discussed and investigated challenge he faced during his presidency. At its root, Iran-Contra was really two separate and independent initiatives. The first was a very public and well-supported commitment to help the Contras in Central America who were engaged in a resistance movement against the Communist Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Reagan felt strongly that the survival of the Contras as a democratic force in Nicaragua was essential.
The purpose of the second initiative was to engage the more moderate wing of the Iranian government in order to secure the release of American hostages who were being held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon, an effort that President Reagan was deeply and personally committed to resolving. In 1982, despite strong opposition by President Reagan and his administration, a Democratic-controlled Congress enacted legislation known as the Boland Amendment, which prohibited any government agency from providing military aid to the Contras. Several officials and personnel in the Reagan administration, acting independently and without the President’s direct authorization, circumvented these limitations by using the National Security Council (NSC), which was not explicitly covered by the law, to supply covert military aid to the contras. Many of the same personnel also became central figures in a plan to secretly ship arms through Israel to Iran, despite a U.S. trade and arms embargo. In exchange, they hoped to finally secure release of the American hostages.
On March 4, 1987, Reagan addressed the nation in a nationally televised speech, taking full responsibility for any actions that he was unaware of, and admitting that "what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages.” After lengthy inquiries and formal investigations, there was no evidence that Reagan ever had knowledge of, or authorized the plan. In the end, three hostages were ultimately released, and 11 Reagan administration officials were charged with crimes, but were pardoned in the final days of the Bush presidency.
In his autobiography, Reagan wrote, “Because I was so concerned with getting the hostages home, I may not have asked enough questions about how the Iranian initiative was being conducted. I trusted our people to obey the law. Unfortunately, an initiative meant to develop a relationship with moderate Iranians and get our hostages home took on a new shape I never expected and was never told about. Mistakes were made and I tried to rectify them.” Although pundits tried to “paralyze” the administration with the Iran-Contra Affair, Reagan was determined to proceed with other domestic and foreign policy programs as well and continued to press on, reaching other goals he had laid out for his administration.
January 20, 1989
After watching his former Vice President, George H.W. Bush, be sworn in as the 41st President of the United States, Ronald and Nancy Reagan returned to their beloved home state of California. The Reagans were met at Los Angeles International Airport by a crowd of enthusiastic supporters who welcomed them home. On the drive back to their home in Bel Air, they were stopped at an intersection. Reagan leaned forward and asked the Secret Service driver why they were stopped. “The stoplight is red, sir”, was the Secret Service response. As president, Reagan hadn’t stopped at a red stop light in eight years! There would be much to adjust to in the days and months ahead, but the Reagans were looking forward to settling back into life with family and friends on the west coast.
America is unique in the way it honors its former presidents. The federal government establishes an office for them and provides staff and Secret Service protection. In turn, former presidents are expected to continue to represent America and its people with integrity, wisdom and pride. Ronald Reagan embraced this new role and enjoyed hosting visiting dignitaries, meeting average Americans, speaking out on issues of importance, sharing his experiences, and expressing his gratitude for having been entrusted with the confidence of the American people for eight years. Ronald Reagan’s post-presidential office in Century City, California was constantly deluged with phone calls, mail, faxes, photo requests and meeting requests by literally thousands of people who were thrilled to have him back in Southern California. Reagan himself was equally happy to be home.
February 16-17, 1990
On February 5, 1990, former President Ronald Reagan was ordered to give testimony on the Iran Contra controversy for the trial of John Poindexter, one of the key individuals being investigated for wrong-doing. From February 16-17, 1990, Ronald Reagan gave 7 hours of videotaped testimony which was used in the Poindexter trial. Following the trial, once classified and secret information was removed, much of Reagan’s testimony was released to the media and to the public. Though prosecution of several previous Reagan administration officials continued for the next few years, no charges were ever filed against Reagan, and he was completely cleared of any involvement or wrong-doing in the Iran-Contra controversy.
In his dedication address at the opening of the Reagan Library, President Reagan said, “Proverbially, old men plant trees even though they do not expect to see their fruition. So it is with Presidents.” Though that is typically the case, Ronald Reagan was blessed to live long enough to see the seeds of democracy which he had planted during his administration, bloom into flowers of freedom all over the world. On September 12, 1990, Ronald Reagan returned to the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin, Germany and saw firsthand the remaining portions of the Berlin Wall. What once stood as a symbol of Soviet domination now lay crumbled as a testimony to the strength of the people and their will and determination to overcome oppression and tyranny. When Reagan challenged General Secretary Gorbachev in 1987 to “tear down this wall”, he was confident that freedom would eventually prevail, but no one, including him, would have ever imagined how quickly this would take place. Nothing in Reagan’s post-presidency years could compare to the satisfaction and pride he felt in seeing the Berlin Wall become a relic of the past. The people of the east were once again free, and Germany was united under one flag. In Reagan’s lifetime, great progress had taken place, and the world had Ronald Reagan to thank for much of that change.
Following his trip to Berlin, Reagan traveled to Poland, a newly-free democracy as well, and addressed the Polish Parliament in Warsaw on September 14, 1990. The next day, Reagan spoke to the trade union “Solidarity” shipyard workers in Gdansk, Poland, who under the leadership of Lech Walesa in 1989, managed to erode Communist dominance in Poland. Despite persecution and suppression under martial law, the Solidarity movement pushed for parliamentary elections and Lech Walesa won the presidency. The Solidarity victory was key to advancing the collapse of communism all across Eastern Europe. Ronald Reagan was proud to stand before these brave freedom fighters and applaud their effort
Due to the friendship he had built with Secretary Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan was invited to address The International Affairs Committee of the Supreme Soviet in Moscow on September 17, 1990. While in Russia, he also visited Leningrad and met with Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin. Only a few decades earlier, Ronald Reagan had tried to begin the establishment of a cordial relationship with Russia’s leaders. In just a few short years, that initial contact had grown into a solid friendship of mutual trust and respect. Reagan brought great change not only to U.S. – Soviet relations, but to the world. How blessed he was to fulfill that dream in his lifetime and be able to enjoy the results of his efforts.
Former President Ronald Reagan was granted an audience with Pope John Paul II and on September 19, 1990, he and Mrs. Reagan visited the Vatican to continue the friendship which had been built during the Reagan administration. Reagan always knew that his success as President was built upon relationships he established and nurtured. In his post-presidency years, he was able to continue many of those diplomatic friendships on a more personal level, which he deeply enjoyed.
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher continued in their close friendship and Reagan made several trips to the U.K. in his early post-presidency years. He delivered the annual Winston Churchill Lecture to the English Speaking Union, addressed the Cambridge Union Society, and spoke to the Oxford Union Society, each time continuing his friendship with long-time ally, Margaret Thatcher, and maintaining close personal ties with the British Royal Family as well.
Reagan’s international travels also took him to Paris, France, where in June of 1989 he attended the 100th anniversary celebration of the Eiffel Tower. He also traveled to Tokyo and Osaka, Japan in October of 1989 to deliver speeches to huge, enthusiastic crowds. Although he enjoyed traveling overseas, Reagan always looked forward to getting back on his airplane, eating a hamburger, french fries and chocolate chip cookie and returning to his beloved U.S.A.forts and praise their success and their example for oppressed people everywhere.
Ronald Reagan thoroughly enjoyed his post-presidency years. He accepted numerous invitations to receive awards and give speeches all over the world. Of special interest and fun for Reagan was when in July of 1989, he had the opportunity to return to the announcer’s booth as he helped call the first inning of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game held in Anaheim, California. Later that month he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and opened the Goodwill Games in Seattle, Washington the following summer.
Reagan participated in many historic milestone events after he left the White House, including a meeting with General Secretary Gorbachev in San Francisco, California on June 4, 1990, and speaking at the dedication of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California on July 19, 1990. Reagan gave an address at the Eisenhower Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kansas on July 27, 1990, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s birth and helped re-dedicate the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa on August 8, 1991. He helped the USO commemorate its 50th anniversary at a celebration in Universal City, California on April 5, 1991, and addressed the Captive Nations Week Conference in Los Angeles in July of that same year.
There were many occasions which celebrated Reagan’s life and legacy, like the November 1990 dedication of a sculpture at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, which marked the first anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the March 28, 1991 dedication of the Reagan Institute for Emergency Medicine at George Washington University, in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of his assassination attempt. His return to his boyhood home in Dixon, Illinois and his return to Eureka College to receive an honorary degree were especially memorable trips. What a long way Ronald Reagan had roamed from the small mid-west towns he called home the first two decades of his life. Though Ronald Reagan was welcomed by crowds everywhere he went, no place was more thrilled to welcome him than those small towns in Illinois and Iowa who claimed Ronald Reagan as their own.
While receiving an award from The National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas, Nevada on April 13, 1991, an audience member rushed on stage and smashed President Reagan’s award. Although the disturbed young man received momentary attention, he also received an immediate tackle from Secret Service. Unphased, Reagan returned to his remarks and the NAB had another award made and sent it to him later. Nothing brought Reagan more pride that standing before a group of young people and challenging them to do their best and dare to make a difference in the world. On May 15, 1993, Reagan had that opportunity when he delivered the commencement address to graduates at the Citadel Military College in Charleston, South Carolina, challenging them to, “live each day with enthusiasm, optimism, hope and honor. If you do, I am convinced that your contribution to this wonderful experiment we call America will be greater than we ever imagined.”
As President Reagan’s travel schedule slowed down, he and Mrs. Reagan made their final annual visit to the Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage, California where they welcomed in the New Year 1995 with close friends. They had enjoyed traveling this great nation, but the Reagans always treasured time together close to home with loved ones. What a fitting end to their life’s journey.
November 4, 1991
On a crisp, clear, beautiful Southern California day in November of 1991, a hilltop in Simi Valley, California became a gathering place for dignitaries and honored guests from near and far. Ronald Reagan addressed a large crowd as he dedicated The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, “the doors of this library are open now and all are welcome. The judgment of history is left to you, the people. I have no fears of that, for we have done our best. And so I say, come and learn from it.” After years of design and construction, The Reagan Library was ready to open its doors to the world – to academic researchers and ordinary people of all ages, backgrounds and political persuasions.
Before the library’s official opening, Ronald Reagan had visited the site numerous times to observe first-hand its construction and progress. While still President, on November 21, 1988, Reagan attended a ground-breaking ceremony, turning a shovelful of earth on the hilltop which would eventually become the site of his Presidential Library. On April 12, 1990, Ronald Reagan spoke at a ceremony dedicating a section of the Berlin Wall which had been donated to the nearly-completed Reagan Library. In his remarks, Reagan said, “We accept this piece of the Berlin Wall with justifiable joy at recent events in Eastern Europe and with great hope for the future. And we accept it with somber remembrances of the past and the resolution that what happened must never happen again... Let our children and grandchildren come here and see this wall and reflect on what it meant to history. Let them understand that only vigilance and strength will deter tyranny. Let them join with us in a solemn pledge to never give up the fight for freedom – a fight which, though it may never end, is the most ennobling known to man.”
Reagan was so proud of his presidential library and enthusiastic about its opening, that he would take visiting heads of state to see it – even in its early stages. On February 4, 1991, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was given a tour of the unfinished library by Reagan, and one month later he brought Polish President, Lech Walesa, to see the library construction in progress as well.
Once it was completed, the Reagan Library began to host a full schedule of visiting dignitaries and special events. On May 4, 1992, President Reagan presented the first Ronald Reagan Freedom Award to Mikhail Gorbachev, and dedicated the Center for Public Affairs in a ceremony at the Reagan Library. Awarded for his commitment to freedom for citizens of Eastern Europe and his own country, Gorbachev proudly stood beside Reagan again in celebration of their friendship and their mutual efforts to promote democracy around the world. The Reagan Library played host to a variety of conferences and forums on political topics and welcomed former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada, General Colin Powell and countless other dignitaries and government officials during the first years of its opening. In addition to special events at the Reagan Library, the day to day tours by individuals and groups continued – allowing visitors to examine the past and explore history in a new and meaningful way.
After a yearly visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Ronald Reagan was told that he had Alzheimer’s Disease, possibly accelerated by his fall off a horse in Mexico a few years earlier. That injury on July 4, 1989, was followed by a surgery to remove fluid on his brain on September 8, 1989. Although Alzheimer’s is typically a genetic condition, trauma to the brain can spur on its progression, which is what doctors speculate happened to Ronald Reagan. After a few months of privately accepting the reality of this diagnosis, President and Mrs. Reagan decided to release a letter to the American people making this private matter public. They believed that “In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.”
The following year, in October 1995, President and Mrs. Reagan established the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute dedicated to studying Alzheimer’s Disease and finding a prevention and cure for it. The Reagans became involved in the National Alzheimer’s Association by supporting fundraising events and raising awareness of this disease and the devastating effects on those who suffer from it and their families.
As President Reagan’s health began to decline, a decision was made to sell his beloved Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara, CA. Although it was heartbreaking to let it go, the sale to the Young America’s Foundation in April of 1998 meant that it would be preserved as a living monument to Reagan's lasting legacy and accomplishments and would still stand as a place of learning, encouragement, and inspiration for generations to come. Thankfully, the beauty and serenity of Rancho del Cielo, formerly known as “The Western White House”, lives on and the spirit of Ronald Reagan endures there.
Ronald Reagan’s last few years were spent primarily at home, sharing quiet times with his wife, Nancy, enduring the long goodbye that would ultimately separate them. Their life’s journey together had been remarkable and Reagan, in his letter telling the public he had Alzheimer’s, said, “I only wish I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.” Nancy Reagan was a pillar of strength throughout her husband’s long illness and decline. She continued bravely on, raising money for Alzheimer’s research, promoting the Reagan Library, and representing her husband at Republican Party events, all the while attending to her husband’s daily needs. In addition to Alzheimer’s, Ronald Reagan fell and broke his hip in a fall at his home in January of 2001, and on February 6, 2001, Reagan’s 90th birthday, he became only the 3rd U.S. President to reach that age.
As with every trial in his life, Ronald Reagan faced Alzheimer’s Disease with courage and optimism, trusting that the Lord who had always been faithful to sustain him would do so, even in this. His letter to the American people concluded in this way, “... let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”
Many look to Ronald Reagan as the father of the modern conservative movement in the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan, however, preferred to quote an eloquent statement by Abraham Lincoln to sum up the party’s ideals, "You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves." In Reagan’s address to the Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas on August 18, 1992, he left the delegates with these encouraging words, “ And whatever else history may say about me when I'm gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty's lamp guiding your steps and opportunity's arm steadying your way.”
Although his early life he spent as a Democrat, in later years, Ronald Reagan’s name became synonymous with the Republican Party. Party leaders listened when Reagan asked them to support the Brady handgun control bill in 1981, and in 1984 when he urged their passage of a bill banning the domestic manufacture of military-style assault weapons, again, the party listened and responded with their support. Ronald Reagan was seen as a strong rudder, steering the Republican ship of principles and ideals into the future. He was called upon to make remarks when President Nixon passed away in April of 1994 and provided comfort to the mourners. During election years, Republican candidates from the local to the national level coveted his support of their candidacy. When George Bush ran for re-election, Reagan lent his support to a Bush-Quayle rally in Orange County, California in September of 1992, and made another campaign stop on behalf of Bush in October 1992 in Roswell, New Mexico.
Ronald Reagan’s leadership helped return the Republican Party to its fundamental principles—a foundation of smaller government, less taxes and decreased government regulation. As a champion of these principles, Reagan led his party by example and inspired future Republican leaders to proudly embrace their conservative heritage as well. Little did the delegates, candidates and Americans know at that time, but 1992 would be the last time Ronald Reagan would address the Republican National Convention. After announcing his battle with Alzheimer’s, the Republican National Party called their 1996 convention in San Diego “A Salute to Ronald Reagan”. Mrs. Reagan attended the convention on behalf of her husband and gave a moving address which she concluded by saying, “Ronnie’s optimism, like America’s, still shines very brightly.” Ronald Reagan’s leadership was deeply respected and has been a vital part of the Republican Party to this day. Even now, “the party of Lincoln” is sometimes referred to as “the party of Reagan”. Ronald Reagan made a profound impact on Republican conservatism. His legacy is alive today – and his presence is still missed.
During his 8 years as president, Ronald Reagan worked very hard to push forward the objectives he wished to achieve. Though while in office he sometimes faced great opposition, Reagan knew the direction he wanted the country and the world to head in, and wouldn’t rest until his goals were accomplished. During his post-presidency years, Ronald Reagan was able to enjoy much of the fruit of his labor and received numerous well-deserved awards and honors after he left office. On June 14, 1989, in London, Reagan received an Honorary Knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. The Order of the Bath is the highest of the British Orders of Chivalry and has only been given to two U.S. Presidents.
On June 15, 1989 in Paris, Reagan was inducted into The Academy of Moral and Political Science, a French learned society committed to the discussion of philosophy, law, politics, history, and economics. During a visit to Japan in October 1989, Ronald Reagan was awarded The Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum, the highest possible award given by the Japanese government. It was bestowed upon him as a symbol of friendship between the U.S. and Japan.
Reagan’s first visit back to the White House after leaving office was for the unveiling of his official Presidential Portrait on November 15, 1989. He returned again to the White House on January 13, 1993, when President Bush awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President and Mrs. Reagan were both awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bush in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol on May 16, 2002.
Although former President Ronald Reagan traveled extensively and continued to participate in “presidential” duties – giving speeches, receiving visitors, accepting awards and honors, and involving himself in political issues, Reagan also was able to enjoy a slower pace of life and a return to normalcy in many ways during his post-presidential years. He was happy to be able to attend church again and could be found most Sunday mornings with Mrs. Reagan sitting in a pew at Bel Air Presbyterian Church, close to his home.
A typical week day for Ronald Reagan would begin in his Century City office mid-morning where he would keep a full schedule of meeting visitors, writing letters and speeches, signing autographs and planning future events or travel. In the early afternoon, Reagan would often return home to enjoy reading, swimming or taking walks, or he would drive down to the beach for lunch and a stroll along the oceanfront boardwalk. During his White House years, Reagan only played golf once a year. Now, post-presidency, he could return to playing more regularly and he tried to play once a week.
Upon their return to L.A., President and Mrs. Reagan were also able to spend much more time at their ranch and enjoyed extended visits once a month to Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara. Sometimes they would entertain friends or visiting dignitaries there, but most often just the two of them would enjoy the peace and solitude found only at their beloved mountain-top retreat. They would ride horses, row out on the lake, take walks, enjoy the ranch dogs, read and cherish their unscheduled time together.
Ronald Reagan thoroughly enjoyed visiting his Presidential Library and would go there often to see new displays, to dedicate temporary exhibits, welcome visiting dignitaries, host forums and primarily enjoy meeting visitors who came there. Imagine the surprise of someone who came to visit the Reagan Library and wound up meeting Ronald Reagan himself. Talk about “bringing history to life”!
As a former President, Ronald Reagan was now much more accessible to the people around him and went out of his way to make himself available to those who wanted to meet him. He was patient and gracious in shaking hands with and signing autographs for anyone who asked, and he genuinely enjoyed meeting people from all walks of life. Reagan delighted in hearing the personal stories of his visitors and spending time with his guests. Often people were overcome with emotion when they met Reagan, but he would always put them at ease and reassure them with his kindness. Whether he was hosting a visiting head of state, meeting the building’s janitor, or being entertained by a group of school children, Reagan was always gracious and cheerful, truly energized by interacting with people of all kinds. He was grateful that he had been elected President of the United States by the American people. They had entrusted him with that position, and he wanted to express his gratitude to them everywhere he went, not out of duty or obligation, but out of a sincere heart of thankfulness and genuine interest in others.
June 5, 2004
After a long, slow decline in health, due primarily to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, Ronald Reagan passed away in his Bel Air, California home on June 5, 2004, with his beloved wife Nancy by his side. He was 93.
Following the passing of President Reagan, a timeline of ceremonial events began to take place in rapid succession, as dictated by presidential protocol. A private ceremony was held at the Reagan Library for close relatives and friends on June 7th, and then President Reagan lay in repose for the next day and a half at the library so the public could pay their respects. Over 100,000 people from all walks of life, young and old, from every ethnic background, waited in line for hours to walk past Reagan’s flag-draped coffin. Their presence, many with teary eyes, expressed unspoken gratitude for Reagan’s service to our nation and a deep respect for his leadership.
On June 9th, accompanied by Mrs. Reagan, President Reagan’s body was flown to Washington, D.C. on Air Force One tail number 28000 where there was a formal procession down Constitution Avenue to the U.S. Capitol. The procession route was lined with tens of thousands of respectful mourners who silently watched the flag-draped coffin roll by on a horse-drawn military cession.Military honor guards led, flanked, and followed the somber procession. Once in the Capitol rotunda, President Reagan lay in state for 48 hours so the public and government officials could pay their respects to their former President.
The National Funeral Service was held on the morning of June 11th, a day which had been declared a national day of mourning by President Bush. The Washington National Cathedral was filled to capacity for Reagan’s memorial, and was attended by government officials and heads of state from all over the world. Ronald Reagan was eulogized and honored by many who had served alongside him or worked tirelessly with him as he championed for freedom, democracy, and reform both in America and abroad. Following this service, Reagan was flown back to California on Air Force One and made a low circle over the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library before landing at Point Mugu Naval Air Station. From there his motorcade proceeded slowly toward the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. All along the motorcade route, pedestrians lined streets and sidewalks, waving flags and paying their respects. On the 118 Ronald Reagan Freeway, motorists actually came to a complete stop and parked on the freeway to watch as Reagan’s motorcade passed by.
Later on June 11th, a private interment service was held on the hilltop of the Reagan Library overlooking the beautiful valley below. The evening was a fitting and deserving tribute, and the conclusion of a week-long sequence of ceremonial events. As the sun set and the flags seemed to wave in time to the military band’s music, a lone bagpiper, playing a solemn hymn, led the funeral procession to President Reagan’s final resting place. As the cannons sounded, the guns saluted and the military planes flew overhead, the audience was filled with pride in America and honored to have lived in the era and under the presidency of this beloved man, Ronald Reagan.
July 16, 1980
On July 16, 1980, when Ronald Reagan took the stage at the Republican National Convention in Detroit, the throng of delegates crowded into the arena rose to their feet with a tremendous roar. Not only had a ticket been assembled for the party, but it was almost as if the Republican Party was being put back together – united in its desire to re-set the course of our nation. Americans were coping with double-digit inflation, soaring interest rates and high unemployment. Our military was falling behind other world powers due to uneducated personnel and lack of funding for proper equipment or repairs. Ronald Reagan and George Bush were united in their desire to restore America to its former greatness – to bring hope to the people that America’s best days were not behind them, but were still ahead.
Ronald Reagan traveled the nation talking to people about revivial in America – about recapturing their dreams, their pride in themselves and in their country, regaining that unique sense of optimism that had always made America different from any other country in the world. Reagan wanted Americans to look at the things that had made America the greatest, richest, most progressive country on earth in the first place, evaluate what had gone wrong and put it back on course. The time for “malaise” had passed – it was time to pursue together all that was possible.
Jimmy Carter had refused to meet Reagan in a nationally televised debate, but one week prior to the election, he gave in to tremendous public pressure and agreed. The debate went well and came to a significant, memorable conclusion when Reagan asked people if they thought they were better off now than they had been four years earlier. If they were, he said, they should vote for his opponent. If not, they should agree with him and vote that it was time for a change.
Just one week later, Americans went to the polls and overwhelmingly agreed that it was indeed time for a change. Ronald Reagan was the change that America needed.
July 19-21, 1981
In July of 1981, President Reagan attended his first G-7 summit. This annual meeting of the heads of seven industrialized nations (Great Britain, Canada, Japan, West Germany, France, Italy and the United States) was held on a rotating basis in each country. As the “new boy in school” at the summit in Ottawa, Canada, President Reagan came under fire for the high interest rates in the U.S. which some claimed were causing economic troubles in their own nations. After a free-wheeling discussion about the state of the world’s economy, Reagan outlined the economic recovery program he was trying to get through Congress. The other leaders wished him well, but were skeptical about its chances for success.
The 1982 summit was held in Versailles, followed by the 1983 summit in Williamsburg, Virginia. At this summit, with the American economic recovery in full swing, the host, President Reagan, was asked by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, “Tell us about the American miracle”. He wanted to know how Reagan had managed to turn the tide of inflation and unemployment in the U.S. so quickly while the rest of the industrialized nations were still gripped by recession. Reagan proudly explained how by lowering taxes, reducing the size of government, eliminating unnecessary regulations and interference in the free market and turning over to private enterprise some of the functions of government, that greater revenue was generated, incentive to produce increased and economic growth ensued. Soon after that summit, President Reagan began to hear about a wave of tax cutting in other countries and that the reduction of government regulation was stimulating economic growth around the world.
In addition to economic talks, the group of G-7 leaders would often discuss security measures for their own national defense as well as foreign policy and international boundary issues. By and large, the G-7 Summits were productive forums for frank discussion. One issue that always came up was trade protectionism. Ronald Reagan wanted free competition and was in firm support of allowing the laws of supply and demand to determine prices and the winners and losers in a competitive environment. For the free market to work however, everyone has to compete on an equal footing. The G-7 worked to fairly denounce trade barriers and keep their own protectionist tendencies in balance.
In later summits in London, Bonn, Tokyo, Venice and Toronto, the leaders continued with their discussions, and did so under an air of familiarity. Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, had instituted the practice of the leaders calling each other by first names rather than formal titles. While still done in an environment of respect, it did wonders to break the diplomatic ice and instead of two government officials having a meeting, there were two people sitting across from each other having a discussion. It was a wonderful custom which created an environment of respect and cordiality at the G-7 summits and was a tradition which Ronald Reagan carried back to Washington and used in his own face to face meetings with visiting heads of state whenever possible.