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Family legend says John “Jack” Reagan looked at his newborn son, Ronald Wilson Reagan, and said, “He looks like a fat little Dutchman. But who knows, he might grow up to be president someday.”
Little did he know what the future held for the ambitious boy born on Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill. The son of a shoe salesman and a homemaker, Reagan learned early the value of hard work, determination and ambition from his father, who told him that every man is responsible for his own destiny. His mother, Nelle, who was very involved with her church, instilled in her son the power of prayer and optimism.
After graduating from high school, Reagan attended Eureka College in 1928. He began working as a sportscaster for the Chicago Cubs, which led him to Hollywood when he followed the Cubs to their spring training camp in Southern California. He decided to try his hand at movie acting in 1935.
“In a world wracked by hatred, economic crisis and political tension, America remains mankind’s best hope.”
Over the next 27 years, Reagan appeared in more than 50 films. He also enlisted in the Army Reserve and was assigned to produce Army Air Force training films and documentaries. During his service, Reagan saw footage from foreign war zones that awakened a newfound passion for political causes.
After being discharged from the army as a captain in 1945 and returning to his acting career, Reagan joined the Hollywood Democratic Committee and served on the board of the Screen Actors Guild (SA G). He allied himself with the big Hollywood studios and the FBI during the strike by the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), an allegedly communist-led organization, and participated in breaking the strike and the CSU. Reagan was elected president of the SA G in 1947.
“You knew that in the end it was free enterprise, not government regulation, not high taxes or big government spending, but free enterprise that has led to the building of a great America.”
In 1954, two years after marrying actress Nancy Davis, Reagan became a corporate spokesperson for General Electric, promoting their appliances and their conservative political ideas. He also hosted General Electric Theater, a Sunday evening television show, for eight years.
Through his visits to GE research and manufacturing facilities, he spoke to more than 250,000 employees about the value of hard work and not waiting on the government to provide solutions.
“We in the government should learn to look at our country through the eyes of the entrepreneur, seeing possibilities where others see only problems.”
Ten years later, in a 1964 televised speech supporting presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, Reagan not only praised American individualism and the free-enterprise system, but also inspired hope and determination in the nationwide audience. Ultimately, the speech paved the way for the political and public support he needed to secure an eight-year run as California’s governor in 1966. He continued to represent conservative ideology while dedicating himself to the needs of the people and expressing growing concern about big and expensive government.
His success as governor made him a prime candidate for president just two years into his term. While he ultimately lost in the primaries to Richard Nixon, the publicity he obtained while stumping was invaluable.
“Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
In 1980, Reagan made a successful run for president, defeating Jimmy Carter with almost 51 percent of the popular vote.
Reagan’s so-called “revolution” began with the most massive military expansion in American peacetime history, with a budget of more than $300 billion. By expanding U.S. military presence throughout the world to fight Soviet communism, Reagan eventually helped to bring the Cold War to a close without bloodshed.
But it may have been his ability to communicate and connect with people that was his greatest legacy. Throughout his career, he studied not only his speeches, but the effect they had on audiences, making improvements as needed.
As president, Reagan was gifted in his ability to speak about substantive issues in clear and simple terms understood by Americans, as well as people around the globe. He often used folksy anecdotes and phrases that evoked emotions—which sometimes prompted criticism from detractors. But through his speaking style, Reagan was able to express his optimism and to inspire it in others.
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
On a trip to Berlin in 1978, Reagan heard the story of Peter Fechter, an East German boy who died trying to crawl over the Berlin Wall in 1962. “Reagan just gritted his teeth,” said Peter Hannaford, an aide who accompanied Reagan on the trip. “You could tell from the set of his jaw and his look that he was very determined that this was something that had to go.”
Reagan tried many times to open communications with the U.S.S.R., but it was not until Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party that things began to change. In 1987, after Reagan and Gorbachev had developed a level of mutual trust, Reagan addressed a crowd of 20,000 near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, where he challenged Gorbachev to demolish the wall. Many, including Reagan’s closest advisors, thought his plea unrealistic, but Reagan, an eternal optimist, never wavered from his belief.
On Nov. 9, 1989, the East German government permitted thousands of East Berliners to pass into West Berlin as border guests, and the destruction of the Berlin Wall began.
“Well, one of the worst mistakes anybody can make is to bet against Americans.”
Five years after Reagan finished his two-term presidency, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and ultimately succumbed to the disease at age 93. “He always told us that for America the best is yet to come,” President George W. Bush said of Reagan after his death. “We comfort ourselves by telling ourselves that the same is true for him. We know a shining city is waiting for him.”