Photograph of President Ronald Reagan in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1982. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan
Photograph of President Ronald Reagan in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1982. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Reagan (1911–2004)

Fortieth U.S. President

The president who demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin first discovered the power of his voice as a radio sports announcer. He had previously worked as a lifeguard in his native Illinois (saving 77 people from drowning) and, after five years at the microphone, he became an actor for Warner Bros. studios. Reagan starred in many films and later became president of the Screen Actors Guild. Once a liberal supporter of the New Deal, Reagan gradually adopted more conservative views, motivated especially by anticommunism. He supported Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, and later campaigned for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. A speech he delivered on behalf of Goldwater, “A Time for Choosing,” made him a conservative favorite. He was elected governor of California in 1966 and served two terms. In 1976, he challenged the incumbent Gerald R. Ford for the Republican presidential nomination and was narrowly defeated. Four years later, he won the nomination and was elected president, defeating Jimmy Carter. The country was mired in recession and still suffering aftershocks from the Vietnam War; the long Iranian hostage crisis made America seem tired and demoralized. Americans responded to Reagan’s sunny optimism and conservative message, and his program of tax cuts and increased military spending was popular. He was reelected in 1984, winning every state except his opponent’s native Minnesota. Reagan’s anticommunist rhetoric and continued military expansion helped drive the Soviet Union to its eventual collapse, and he played a pivotal role in the West’s Cold War victory. His second term was marred by the Iran-Contra scandal, but he left the White House as one of the most popular presidents in modern history. In later years, Reagan suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, a diagnosis he shared with the American people in a moving letter that inspired and comforted many sufferers and their families.