Born on February 6, 1911, Ronald Reagan grew up in small towns in northern Illinois. He enjoyed playing sports and acting in plays at the public schools he attended and later at Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois.
After graduating college, Reagan worked as a sports announcer on the radio. In 1937 he moved to Los Angeles, California, to become an actor and appeared in 53 movies over the next 30 years. In his most famous role, he played a dying football player named George Gipp, who on his deathbed asks his team to “win one for the Gipper.” It was a phrase Reagan would later use in his campaign ads for president.
FROM HOLLYWOOD TO D.C.
In 1950, Reagan supported actress Helen Gahagan Douglas in a U.S. Senate election against future president Richard Nixon. Douglas lost the race, but Reagan’s experience as a political volunteer helped inspire him to become more involved in politics. When Nixon ran for president against John F. Kennedy in 1960, Reagan delivered 200 speeches supporting Nixon. (Nixon ultimately lost the election to Kennedy but would later become president in 1969.) Reagan made his last film in 1964 before leaving Hollywood to become a full-time politician.
In 1966, Reagan announced he was running for governor of California. His opponent, Edmund "Pat" Brown, criticized Reagan’s lack of experience in office. But Reagan gave persuasive speeches arguing that being an ordinary citizen made him better suited to help others like him. (Reagan’s speaking skills eventually earned him the nickname "the Great Communicator.") These speeches, plus the fact that he was already well known to the public as an actor, helped him beat Brown by nearly a million votes. Californians elected Reagan to two terms as their governor.
Reagan tried to get the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1968 and 1976 before finally succeeding in 1980. He easily beat his opponent, Jimmy Carter, and took office in January 1981.
A SCARY START
Reagan had been president for only two months when a gunman tried to assassinate him. On March 30, 1981, a man named John Hinckley, Jr., shot the president in the chest as he was walking out of a speaking engagement in Washington, D.C. Hinckley was arrested, and Reagan was rushed to the hospital for surgery on his collapsed lung. He was in good condition just a few hours later and returned to the White House in less than two weeks.
Reagan’s main goal as president was to improve the economy so that more people could become wealthier. His economic program came to be known as "Reaganomics" and was based on the idea that if rich citizens didn’t pay as much money in taxes, then the money they saved could be spent elsewhere, “trickling down” to help ordinary citizens. At the same time, he greatly increased spending on defense by $1.5 trillion over seven years. He was the first president to propose a trillion-dollar federal budget. (The federal budget is an estimate for how much the U.S. government thinks it will spend in a year.)
Reagan created almost 20 million new jobs and cut unemployment drastically during his administration. But the growing national debt—the amount of money the U.S. government owes to other countries and companies—during Reagan’s two terms became a costly concern that would take years for future presidents to solve.
THE IRAN-CONTRA SCANDAL
A series of scandals happened during the later years of Reagan’s presidency. The most important one, called Iran-Contra, involved illegal sales of weapons to the Middle Eastern nation of Iran. Profits from the sales were secretly sent to support rebel forces called the Contras in Nicaragua, a country in Central America. Congress had previously passed a law banning U.S. funding for the Contras, and the U.S. government also had a policy in place saying they would not aid Iran in its war against its neighboring nation of Iraq. Many U.S. citizens were upset that high-level government officials secretly approved the weapon sales and funding, ignoring the laws and policies already in place. Charges of illegal behavior led to several of Reagan’s staff members being forced to resign, including his labor secretary and his attorney general.
THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL
Still, Reagan’s popularity went up in 1988 when he helped bring an end to the Cold War, a long period of tensions between the United States and the former Soviet Union, now Russia. The Cold War had started shortly after World War II ended in 1945. Though the Soviet Union had fought on the side of the United States during the war, relations between the two powers were not good. The United States and many of its allies were worried about the spread of communism, the type of government the Soviet Union was. (In a communist society, all property is public and people share the wealth that they create.) Although no physical fighting occurred, the two countries had been arguing and threatening each other with military actions for nearly 40 years by the time Reagan became president.
Reagan wanted to end the Cold War during his presidency. He got along well with the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who took over in 1985. So on June 12, 1987, Reagan gave a speech at the Berlin Wall in Germany where he made a request of Gorbachev. The wall, which divided citizens of the communist government of East Berlin and the democratic government of West Berlin, had been standing since 1961, separating families (people in East Berlin were not allowed into West Berlin) and seen by many as a depressing symbol of the Cold War. In his speech, Reagan asked Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!" The wall was eventually torn down in 1989 during Reagan’s final year as president. This was seen by many as the beginning of the end of the Cold War, which would continue until 1991.
After his second term as president, Reagan retired to Los Angeles, California, with the highest approval rating of any modern president. In 1994 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, an illness that affects memory, and wasn’t seen in public much. His death 10 years later on June 5, 2004, inspired tributes all over the country.
Reagan has remained popular despite the scandals and criticisms of his presidency. Some credit this to his Hollywood looks and his skill as the Great Communicator. Others called him the "Teflon President" because, just like the non-stick pan surface, nothing bad ever stuck to his image.
• Ronald Reagan was legally blind.
• Reagan worked as a lifeguard for seven years—he saved 77 people in that time.
• Reagan’s favorite flavor of jelly beans was licorice.