Ronald Reagan rose from Depression-era poverty to Hollywood
fame. He governed California during its most tumultuous era
since World War II. He transformed modern politics and hastened
the fall of communism. And he survived an attempted assassin's
bullets to become one of the most popular presidents in history.
A decade after announcing to Americans in a letter that he
was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Reagan, 93, died
Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Bel-Air home where he had spent his
final years in seclusion with his devoted wife, Nancy. The cause
of death was pneumonia, a spokeswoman said.
The 40th president of the United States leaves a giant
legacy, hardly free of controversy, but marked by a folksy
optimism that captivated America and the world.
``A great American life has come to an end,'' President Bush
said in Paris, where he had traveled to attend today's 60th
anniversary celebration of D-day. ``His work is done. And now a
shining city awaits him.''
Elected at age 69, Reagan was the oldest ever to serve as
chief executive, and he lived longer than any other president.
When asked what his greatest role was, the onetime B-movie
actor told biographer Lou Cannon: ``President. That was the role
of a lifetime.''
Reagan the politician mixed simple but unshakable personal
beliefs with a sunny disposition. He defined his times -- the
go-go 1980s -- better than all but a few American presidents. He
was a fierce Cold Warrior who faced down the Soviet Union and
inspired a conservative revolution. He resuscitated the
Republican Party in the post-Watergate era.
In California, he served from 1967 to 1975 at the helm of a
state that was the envy of the world for its can-do attitude,
even as he cracked down hard on students demonstrating for free
His star shot into the political firmament in San Francisco's
Cow Palace during the 1964 Republican convention. The former
screen actor gave a rousing endorsement of conservatism and
party nominee Barry Goldwater, who went on to be trounced by
It took 16 years for the movement he inherited from Goldwater
to become the Reagan revolution, a political tide that swept him
Critics say his fabulously expensive defense buildup, while
it forced the Soviet Union into bankruptcy and collapse, was a
reckless strategy that nearly bankrupted the United States, too.
They charged that his ``trickle down'' economics -- the idea
that everyone benefits when those at the top of the salary
ladder pay less in taxes and keep more money -- was a sham and a
cynical slap in the face to America's poor. They howled that his
romantic notion of returning America to an earlier, simpler time
hinted at a desire to erase decades of social reform.
Remembering him Saturday, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said,
``I don't think anybody has ever lived more of the American
Dream.'' The Democrat credited him for policies that led to the
fall of the Soviet Union, but said his economic strategy led to
huge federal budget deficits.
``He was not one who believed much in social policy,'' she
said. ``What he always said was the problem was government
For most Americans, Ronald Wilson Reagan was ``Dutch,'' ``the
Gipper,'' the guy who stood in Berlin and demanded: ``Mr.
Gorbachev, tear down this wall!'' -- then watched a few years
later when the wall was torn down.
And, perhaps most important, he was ``the Great
Communicator,'' a president who was so affable and so connected
to the public, even his political opponents found it hard not to
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who molded his campaign for
governor on Reaganesque themes, said in a statement Saturday,
``He had the courage to tell us that it was all right to stand
tall and believe in our country, and believe in ourselves.''
Born poor but blessed with a magnetic personality, Reagan
succeeded at almost everything he ever tried -- sports, radio,
acting, politics -- before twice winning election as president
of the United States.
A ruggedly handsome man who looked as good in denim as in a
tuxedo, he turned charm into a political intoxicant. He loved to
smile and tell jokes. His easy, avuncular manner and his warm,
husky voice helped persuade people to trust and believe in him.
He stood for clear, firm principles -- individual liberty,
small government, free markets, low taxes, anti-communism and
military strength. He presented his views with such seemingly
selfless patriotism that many who disagreed nonetheless
respected his sincerity.
``Reagan was the ultimate hero because he was everything in
one package,'' said Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speechwriter
and now a Hoover Institution fellow at Stanford University. ``He
was a genuine conservative. He was not defensive about being
conservative. In fact, he was joyful about it.''
Reagan became such an icon of modern conservatives that few
remember he was once a liberal Democrat who supported President
He survived the Iran-Contra affair, one of the most serious
political scandals after Watergate, almost unscathed. While
critics blamed him for aggravating the nation's divide between
rich and poor, he left office with the highest public-approval
rating of any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Born in 1911 in a small Illinois town, Reagan grew up with an
alcoholic father. Determined to escape his roots, he won a
sports scholarship to Eureka College, where he majored in
economics and sociology. He washed dishes to pay bills. He
turned a Depression-era radio sports-announcing job into a
springboard to Hollywood fame and fortune.
Graduating in June 1932, Reagan didn't let the Depression
stop him from finding a part-time radio job announcing sports in
nearby Davenport, Iowa. Soon he was working full time, and
before long was winning regional attention at a station out of
Des Moines. In 1937, he went to Southern California to cover the
Chicago Cubs in spring training. Upon his arrival, a friend
introduced him to an actors' agent, who got him a screen test,
which won him a $200-a-week movie contract. He was on his way.
His athletic good looks and Midwestern sincerity helped make
him a leading man. Among his most notable films were ``Kings
Row'' (his favorite), ``Brother Rat,'' ``Dark Victory,'' ``Knute
Rockne -- All American'' and ``Bedtime for Bonzo,'' the latter
making him the butt of a running joke when he reached political
Weak eyesight kept him out of combat in World War II. He made
Army training films while living at home with his first wife,
actress Jane Wyman, whom he had married in 1940. After giving
birth to daughter Maureen in 1941 and adopting son Michael in
1945, Wyman slowly grew distant from Reagan, divorcing him, to
his great regret, in 1948.
One reason for their estrangement was Reagan's growing
immersion in union politics. In 1947, he began serving as
president of the Screen Actors Guild, a post he held for six
terms. It put him in the center of union rivalries involving
both mobsters and communists, and fueled his interest in public
affairs beyond movies.
A Democrat then, he campaigned for Truman in 1948.
He found the great love of his life, actress Nancy Davis, in
1951, and married her the following year. Daughter Patricia was
born in 1952, son Ronald in 1958.
After a successful 29-year career in movies and on
television, at age 53 he turned his energies to politics full
time, and quickly became the inspirational leader of
conservative Republicans nationwide.
Reagan combined his interests in theater and public affairs
in a new role with General Electric from 1954 to 1962, which
spurred his transformation into a conservative. Every Sunday
night, he hosted ``General Electric Theater'' on television. As
a GE spokesman, he toured company plants and communities around
the country. Always staunchly anti-communist, he increasingly
championed core conservative values in his speeches, based on
rescuing people from big government.
By the late 1950s, he was the second-most-sought-after
speaker in the country, behind only Dwight Eisenhower.
Biographers have written that Nancy Reagan's conservatism also
influenced her husband. With her, he met conservative Barry
Goldwater in 1960 at a party and began to warm to his ideas. It
came as no surprise when he switched to the Republican Party in
1962, about the time California Republicans were casting about
for a challenger to Gov. Edmund G. ``Pat'' Brown.
Reagan's steep trajectory from political novice to president
relied on the serendipity of timing and a cache of California
millionaires, who broke new ground in the packaging and selling
of their candidate. The Los Angeles group behind him became his
``kitchen cabinet,'' and many of its members followed Reagan to
Washington, taking ideas tested in California to a national
From his first step into political prominence -- the
televised 1964 speech for Republican presidential nominee
Goldwater -- Reagan was crystal clear about his agenda:
emasculating big government. It was a radical notion in a time
when many Americans remembered New Deal largess as their
lifeline out of the Depression and were confident that the Great
Society could end poverty in their lifetimes.
``No government voluntarily reduces itself in size,'' he said
in the speech. ``A government bureau is the nearest thing to
eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!''
Reagan won his first try at public office, beating Brown to
become California's governor in a 1966 landslide. Efforts to
portray him as a dangerous conservative, a Vietnam hawk, failed,
as they did later when he reached the national stage. He was as
much centrist as conservative as governor -- restraining
spending, reforming welfare, expanding parkland and liberalizing
California's abortion law.
After two terms as California's governor, Reagan rolled over
George Bush, John Connally and Howard Baker to win the
Republican nomination for president in 1980. That autumn,
President Jimmy Carter portrayed him as a reckless would-be
warrior, but Reagan's genial warmth blunted the attack when they
met in a face-to-face debate a week before the election.
After one hyperbolic Carter attack on his character, Reagan
replied mildly and memorably, seemingly more in sorrow than in
anger: ``There you go again.''
The Californian clinched the debate, and probably the
election, with his summary question to voters: ``Are you better
off now than you were four years ago?''
Reagan's presidency was almost cut short on March 30, 1981,
when would-be assassin John W. Hinckley Jr., a 25-year-old
drifter, shot him in the chest. A bullet came to rest an inch
from his heart and caused massive internal bleeding.
As his life hung in the balance, Reagan's gallant
emergency-room wit won the hearts of his fellow citizens.
``Honey, I forgot to duck,'' he told his worried wife, Nancy.
``Please tell me you're Republicans,'' he cracked to doctors
preparing him for surgery.
Early highlights of his presidency included his ambitious
1981 tax-and-spending cuts; his appointment of the first woman,
Sandra Day O'Connor, to the Supreme Court; and his breaking of
an air-traffic controllers' strike by outlawing their union.
Four years later, he swept to a landslide re-election,
winning 49 of 50 states over Walter Mondale. He left office in
1989 with the highest public-approval rating -- 63 percent in
the Gallup Poll -- of any departing president since Roosevelt in
Reagan's popularity may have been uncontested during his
presidency, but his record is getting mixed reviews in the
He cut taxes and spending sharply upon taking power, but by
the time he left office the government was bigger and spent more
than ever -- and the national debt had tripled.
He calmly counseled patience through the nation's worst
recession since the 1930s, then presided over one of the richest
periods of prosperity in history, but did little to shrink the
growing gap between rich and poor.
He greatly strengthened the military, then helped end the
Cold War by boldly striking agreements with the Soviet Union to
reduce nuclear arsenals for the first time.
Reagan's greatest achievements are arguably symbolic, perhaps
even spiritual. He renewed the American spirit of can-do
optimism after almost 20 years of doldrums from Vietnam,
Watergate, economic stagnation and weak leadership.
He reinvigorated the Republican Party and led it to an era of
dominance, and his conservative values reshaped American
politics. Democrats could not win the presidency again until
Bill Clinton amended liberal ideology in 1992 to echo such
Reaganesque themes as cutting taxes, fighting crime, reforming
welfare and shrinking government.
Like the sign on his Oval Office desk -- IT CAN BE DONE --
Reagan returned optimism to a nation worried over gas shortages
and double-digit inflation, humiliated by foreign terrorists who
held American hostages in Iran for more than a year, and humbled
by a decade of racial and intergenerational tumult. While Carter
spoke of ``an erosion of our confidence in the future,'' Reagan
said it was ``morning in America.''
``Over time, he converted much of the country to his own
views and values. His more important legacy is how much he
changed our minds,'' suggested David Gergen, formerly Reagan's
Reagan's aides called him ``the Great Communicator.'' Reagan
didn't invent the presidential radio chat, but he used it more
effectively than anyone since its inventor -- FDR.
But his masterful public leadership was not matched by
Reagan's gravest error as president was the Iran-Contra
affair. It involved repeated sales of weapons to Iran from
mid-1985 to late 1986, directly violating his prominent stand
against arming nations that sponsor terrorism, especially Iran.
He hoped the arms sales would help free U.S. hostages held in
Lebanon by pro-Iranian terrorists, and also might ease relations
with Iran, a hostile power. Instead, they led to more hostages
being kidnapped than released.
The other half of this double-barreled scandal involved
diverting profits from the weapons sales to help finance
anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua -- the Contras -- despite a
law ruling out U.S. aid to them.
After months of public denial, on March 4, 1987, Reagan
admitted in a TV address that he had tried to swap arms for
hostages. He termed it ``a mistake.'' He always denied knowledge
of the Contra connection, however, and investigations never
proved he knew of it. Nevertheless, the Iran-Contra affair
wounded his credibility and undermined his second term.
Critics said the Iran-Contra scandal revealed a Reagan flaw.
Both as governor and as president, Reagan was highly dependent
upon his staff, to whom he delegated an unusual degree of
responsibility for running the government. He set the broad
thematic agenda and made the big decisions, but he knew few
details about the government he headed.
Desire to delegate
``He thought of himself as the leading man, not the producer
or the director, and he usually counted on his aides and
sometimes on his wife to know what was best for him,'' wrote Lou
Cannon, his most authoritative biographer. ``Reagan thought in
terms of performance, and those closest to him approached his
presidency as if it were a series of productions casting Reagan
in the starring role.''
Unlike many of the nation's chief executives, the presidency
did not burden him.
He typically slept eight hours a night and worked 9 a.m. to
5:30 p.m., with Wednesday afternoons off. ``Show me an executive
who works long overtime hours, and I'll show you a bad
executive,'' he said more than once.
In that spirit, Reagan spent 183 weekends over the years at
the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md., and 345 days of his
presidency at Rancho del Cielo, his rustic home outside Santa
But from his inauguration, Reagan doggedly made sure his
agenda survived. He realized his tax-reduction dream with a
three-stage tax cut -- the largest in history -- early in his
The cuts, according to ``Reaganomics,'' would free up money
for business and individual investment, and the resultant
prosperity would ``trickle down'' to the more modest levels of
society. He also began beefing up the military in preparation
for a showdown with the Soviet Union.
In practice, cutting taxes while simultaneously mounting the
biggest peacetime defense buildup in history meant slashing
social programs for the poor and lower middle class while
creating an unparalleled national debt. Social programs
continued to suffer after Reagan left office as his successors
struggled to balance the federal budget he had upended.
As the consequences of the domestic policies became evident,
critics said Reagan was turning a blind eye to the suffering of
everyday Americans and either did not, or would not, recognize
the problems before him. But for many, all that mattered less
than his leadership.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher summed up
Reagan's legacy this way as he prepared to step down from power:
``You have changed attitudes and perceptions about what is
possible -- the most difficult thing of all in politics. And you
have done it not by bowing to the wishes and whims of others,
but by standing firm in your beliefs.''
``It's as if you had said at the beginning of your life in
politics: `This I believe. This I act upon. This I will always
believe. This I will always act upon.' And thank goodness you
have,'' said Thatcher, his fellow conservative, great friend and
Reagan left the presidency to George Bush, his vice
president, in January 1989 and avoided public life thereafter.
Two years later, special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh
interviewed Reagan about the Iran-Contra affair. He was saddened
to find that Reagan could not remember many of the people who
had worked for him for eight years. Neither could he remember
heads of state or important diplomatic trips he'd made.
``It's like I wasn't president at all,'' Reagan said,
according to Bob Woodward's book ``Shadow.''
The strapping Reagan, always the picture of vigor, shocked
the nation in 1994 with the release of a handwritten letter from
him to ``My fellow Americans.'' In the letter, he announced he
had Alzheimer's disease, an incurable brain affliction.
Alzheimer's is an irreversible neurological disorder that
causes progressive memory loss, impairment of judgment,
disorientation and personality change. Reagan had displayed
striking gaps of memory and occasional befuddlement since early
middle age, but a statement his doctors released along with his
letter said an annual exam had revealed that he was ``entering
the early stages of this disease.''
Reagan's letter expressed hope that by disclosing his malady,
people might better understand the illness and people afflicted
``I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from
this painful experience,'' Reagan wrote. ``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
Mercury News archives, Staff
Writers Jim Puzzanghera, David E. Early, retired political
editor Harry Farrell and Knight Ridder contributed to this
report. Contact Howard Mintz at email@example.com
or (408) 286-0236.