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Ronald Reagan

Born in Tampico, Illinois, on February 6, 1911, Ronald Reagan and his family moved many times during his childhood. In December 1920, when he was nine years old, they rented a house on Hennepin Avenue in Dixon. Reagan remembered raising rabbits in the back yard with his older brother Neil, and collecting birds’ nests and butterflies. He lived in this northern Illinois town until he was 21. Here he developed the outgoing personality that served him so well in Hollywood and Washington, DC. His mother was an active member of the First Christian Church in Dixon, where he sometimes taught Sunday school. She started him on his acting career by encouraging him to participate in church plays.

After graduating from high school in 1928, Reagan worked his way through Eureka College. In addition to pursuing his studies, he played on the football team and acted in school plays. He got a job as a radio sports announcer after graduation, no small feat in 1932. During a spring training trip to California in 1937, he took a screen test and won a Hollywood contract. Barely 12 months later, Reagan's career was in full flourish. By the end of 1938, he had already made nine pictures. ``Brother Rat,'' the story of cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, is perhaps the best among them.

Over the next 20 years, he appeared in 53 movies. One of his most famous roles was as George Gipp in Knute Rockne—All American; his nickname of “The Gipper” stayed with him for the rest of his life. And the line "Win one for the Gipper" eventually became as synonymous with a politician as "I like Ike". He served in the military during World War II, although he never left the country. His marriage to actress Jane Wyman ended in divorce. In 1952, he married actress Nancy Davis. They were married for 52 years.

Reagan was a Democrat during the 1930s and 1940s, but the disputes over the influence of communism in the film industry he encountered as president of the Screen Actors Guild turned him in a more conservative direction. Contrary to assertions (which Reagan himself often encouraged) that he became a Republican because the Democratic Party abandoned him, Reagan actually went from being a staunch liberal who participated in Communist front groups to a stalwart anti-communist because of his firsthand experiences dealing with Communist Party members.

Reagan's involvement with the Screen Actors Guild spanned more than a decade, and even before he became president of it in 1947 (a position that paid him no salary or benefits), he immersed himself in its work. He would often speak extemporaneously for extended periods on the labyrinthine matters of the industry workforce, impressing professional negotiators with his knowledge of thorny labor issues.

The Conference of Studio Unions, headed by Herbert Sorrell, was trying to force the entire film community to accept an industry-wide union headed by Harry Bridges, leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, who had attained fame from organizing the San Francisco waterfront strike of 1934. Records that have emerged since the end of the Cold War seem to support this claim, and also show that Bridges was a Communist Party member.

Historians on both sides of the political spectrum now estimate there were approximately 300 party members in Hollywood during this era, and some of them have since admitted that while a concerted effort was underway to insert propaganda into films, the more important immediate goal was to seize control of the unions because they held the financial keys to all of the industry.

Famous as the host of a popular TV series, he was soon touring the country as a spokesman for conservatism. Reagan’s political ambitions grew as he became more conservative. Elected governor of California in 1966 as a Republican, he won reelection in 1970 by a million-vote margin. In 1976, Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. He lost, but his strong showing laid the foundation for his success four years later.

In 1979, screenwriter and producer Douglas Morrow, who had connections in the aerospace industry, arranged for Reagan to make a secret visit to the North American Defense Command headquarters deep in the mountains of Colorado. Seeing firsthand that the United States had no defenses against nuclear strikes moved him, and stoked his fire for a missile defense system.

When he became the Republican presidential nominee in 1980, he selected future President George H. W. Bush as his running mate. The election took place in the midst of the long American hostage crisis in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, runaway inflation, and a sagging economy. Reagan asked voters whether they were better off than they had been in 1976, and defeated Jimmy Carter in a landslide victory.

President Reagan took office in January 1981, announcing that “Government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem.” The release of the American hostages in Iran on the day of his inauguration started his administration on a high note. His popularity increased 69 days later when mentally ill John Hinckley Jr. shot him in an assassination attempt. Americans were impressed with his courage and gallantry in the wake of a life-threatening injury—in the hospital emergency room, he told his wife “I forgot to duck.” He continued to carry out his responsibilities as president during his recovery.

President Reagan’s economic policies called for limiting government spending, reducing the burden of regulation, cutting taxes, and strengthening national defense. When increases in defense expenditures created a budget deficit, he continued to cut taxes. The “trickle down” theory espoused by Republican president Ronald Reagan suggested tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy will result in more spending and generate economic growth for the country.

By 1984, the economy was booming, and Reagan won reelection with an unprecedented number of electoral votes. One of the highlights of his second term was the passage of a new tax code eliminating many deductions and exempting many low-income Americans from paying any taxes at all. Some economists say reducing taxes for the wealthy reduces government revenue and adds to income disparity between rich and poor. Reagan declared war on drugs, and witnessed the onset of the AIDS epidemic and the tragedy of the Challenger space shuttle.

Between the end of World War II and the late 1970s, the U.S. median wage grew in tandem with American productivity. Both roughly doubled in those years, adjusted for inflation. But after the late 1970s, while productivity continued to rise at roughly the same pace as before, wages began to flatten.

The record of economic well-being in the 1980s belied Reagan's claim that Americans would be better off if they scaled back the welfare state and cut tax rates. Though the standard of living rose, its growth was no faster than during 1950-1980. Income inequality increased. The rate of poverty at the end of Reagan's term was the same as in 1980. Cutbacks in income transfers during the Reagan years helped increase both poverty and inequality. Changes in tax policy helped increase inequality but reduced poverty. These policy shifts are not the only reasons for the lack of progress against poverty and the rise in inequality. Broad social and economic factors had been widening income differences and making it harder for families to stay out of poverty. Policy choices during the Reagan Administration reinforced those factors.

With Ronald Reagan's tax cut in 1981, taxes on top incomes were slashed, and tax loopholes favoring the wealthy, widened. The implicit promise -- sometimes made explicit -- was that the benefits of such cuts would trickle down to the broad middle class and even to the poor. As has been shown, however, nothing trickled down. At a time in American history when the after-tax incomes of the wealthy continue to soar, median household incomes continue falling.

Reagan took office at the height of Communist expansion around the world. The Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan. Southeast Asia was still experiencing the dreadful repercussions of Pol Pot. Communist insurgents were wreaking havoc all over Central America. The embryonic Solidarity movement in Poland was being brutally repressed.

Reagan’s fierce anti-communism was central to his foreign policy. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified during his first term, with both sides increasing their military expenditures. That changed in his second term, when the Russian economy began to crumble, and reformer Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in 1985. Reagan met personally with Gorbachev to agree on a treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear missiles. He gave strong, sometimes controversial support to anti-communist insurgencies in Central America, Asia, and Africa. He sent bombers to Libya, when he received information tying terrorists from that country to an attack on American soldiers in West Berlin.

Some claim that because of his visionary leadership, the Berlin Wall came crumbling down, democracy spread across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed. The evidence suggests the Soviets collapsed of the own accord.

Reagan left office at the end of his second term in 1989, retiring to his California ranch. In 1994 he revealed that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He died at 93 years of age on June 5, 2004, after suffering for ten years with Alzheimer’s disease.

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Page last modified: 07-10-2017 17:47:47 ZULU