Ronald Reagan, Former U.S. President, Dies at 93
June 5 , 2004
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who championed shrinking government at home and ending communism abroad, died after a lengthy struggle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 93.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that Bush was informed while having dinner with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris. Fred Ryan, former Reagan chief of staff, called White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card at 4:09 p.m. Washington time, McClellan said. Reagan died at his home in Los Angeles, ABC reported.
Reagan came to politics after a career as a movie actor and went on to become one of the most popular U.S. leaders of the 20th century. He served two terms as California's governor and two terms as the 40th U.S. president, winning re-election in 1984 with majorities in 49 of 50 states and the most electoral votes ever tallied.
After leaving the White House in January 1989, Reagan remained active as a speaker for Republican causes. In 1994, the former president, who survived being shot by John W. Hinckley in an assassination attempt and a bout with colon cancer, announced in a letter to the American people that he had Alzheimer's disease.
``I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,'' he wrote. ``I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.''
He then withdrew from public life.
To a generation of Republicans, Reagan was the ``Great Communicator'' who saw America as ``the shining city on the hill.'' His impact on American politics endures, as politicians continue to couch their rhetoric in his language of fiscal restraint.
Central to Reagan's domestic agenda were tax cuts based on ``supply-side'' economics, which asserts that when tax rates are excessive, lowering them increases the money available for investment, ultimately increasing growth and government revenue.
Reagan's tax cuts reduced the top rate on income from 70 percent in 1980 to 28 percent in 1988. To help government ``get out of the way'' of free enterprise, he slashed social programs and industry regulations, and unsuccessfully tried to do away with the Energy Department.
``He changed the economic agenda and debate,'' said Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington. ``The question was no longer, `What can the government do?' It became, `How can the government get uninvolved in the private sector so it can operate more freely and more effectively?'''
`Won the Cold War'
Reagan predicted communism would be left ``on the ash heap of history'' in a 1982 speech to the British parliament. Seven years later, free elections had been held in the Soviet Union, democracies had been declared in five Soviet bloc nations, and the Berlin Wall had been reduced to rubble.
Reagan's policy united harsh rhetoric against the Soviet ``evil empire'' with a military buildup designed to prove the U.S. could win any arms race.
His brinkmanship included installing intermediate-range missiles in Europe and funding the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars, a space-based system intended to destroy any nation's warheads in midair.
After his reelection, Reagan and new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began negotiations that yielded the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which for the first time eliminated an entire class of nuclear arms.
In a 1987 speech next to the Berlin Wall, he issued a challenge, saying, ``Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!'' On Nov. 9, 1989, down it came.
In the words of Margaret Thatcher, whose tenure as U.K. prime minister spanned his presidency, Reagan ``won the Cold War without firing a shot.''
Illinois to Hollywood
Reagan was born Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. His path to the presidency that led from small towns in central Illinois to a career in sports broadcasting and films.
While working as a radio broadcaster for WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1937, Reagan traveled to California to cover baseball spring training. While there he had a screen test that landed him a seven-year contract with Warner Bros.
He appeared in more than 50 films in the next 15 years. These included ``Knute Rockne -- All American,'' in which he portrayed inspirational Notre Dame running back George Gipp, and ``Bedtime for Bonzo,'' where he appeared opposite a chimp. The nickname ``The Gipper'' stuck with him.
His 1940 marriage to actress Jane Wyman ended in divorce in 1948. He married actress Nancy Davis in 1952.
Democrat to Republican
Reagan's transformation of the American political landscape came after his own transformation. A Democrat from boyhood, Reagan considered Franklin Roosevelt his political hero. By 1947, Reagan had become a labor leader, serving the first of five terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild.
Frank Mankiewicz told Reagan biographer Lou Cannon that Los Angeles Democrats considered asking Reagan to run for Congress in 1952 but deemed him ``too liberal.'' Meanwhile, Reagan began giving speeches as a Democrat for Eisenhower.
His conservative leanings became clearer in the mid-1950s when, as host of ``General Electric Theater'' on television, he began traveling to GE plants as a spokesman, honing a speech praising the benefits of the private sector over big government. By 1964, Reagan was California co-chairman of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater's Republican presidential campaign.
A week before the November elections in 1964, he attacked communism and defended free enterprise in a nationally televised speech that asked voters ``whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.''
The speech sparked $1 million in donations to Goldwater's campaign, and Reagan emerged as a galvanizing figure among Republicans. ``He became the patron saint of conservatism,'' said Stephen Hess, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Two years later, Reagan drew 51 percent of the vote to beat the incumbent, Edmund ``Pat'' Brown, for California's governorship, prefiguring the sudden rise of another celebrity, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to the same office.
Over two terms the rookie politician eliminated the state budget deficit by allowing a tax increase, created a surplus he returned to taxpayers in the nation's first rebate, and crafted welfare reform with the Democratic legislature.
Reagan unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. Then, in 1980, amid daily coverage of the American hostages held in Iran, Reagan trounced the incumbent Carter and independent John Anderson in a three-way race, winning 44 states. On the day of his inauguration, Iran released the hostages.
The economy slowed late in the first year of his presidency and fell into a yearlong recession in 1982 that was the worst since the Great Depression. By January 1983, Reagan's approval rating had dropped to 35 percent, 11.5 million Americans were unemployed, and his placement of nuclear missiles in Europe had protesters calling him the biggest threat to world peace.
Reagan forged ahead with tax cuts and defense spending, retreating only from promises to erase the deficit. Government never got smaller. Though recession gave way to the U.S. economy's longest peacetime expansion until that point, defense outlays helped push spending to $1.06 trillion by fiscal 1988 from $678 billion in fiscal 1981. The U.S. went from being the world's largest creditor to its largest debtor.
Reagan's backers argue the tax cuts during his time in office helped spark the economy's recovery in the 1980s. From 1983 through 1988, the U.S. gross domestic product grew an average 4.4 percent.
``Here was a principled conservative who cut the heck out of taxes and started the prosperity that's still going on,'' said Arthur Laffer, chairman of Laffer Associates in San Diego, and one of the architects of Reagan's economic strategy.
The worst scandal of his administration was the Iran-Contra affair. Congressional investigators concluded that the administration sold arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages in Lebanon. It was later disclosed that the administration diverted proceeds from the sales to help fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels fighting the communist government.
Staffers said Reagan remained upbeat throughout the crises of the presidency, disarming visitors with a bowl of jellybeans on his desk. He often told a folksy anecdote about two boys, an optimist and a pessimist: The pessimist is put in a room full of new toys. ``If I play with these, they'll break!'' he wails. The optimist is put in a room full of manure. He digs in gleefully with his bare hands. ``With all this,'' he says, ``there must be a pony in here somewhere!''
Reagan left office with the highest approval rating of any president since Franklin Roosevelt. A 2001 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll asked Americans to name the nation's greatest president. Reagan won with 18 percent, finishing ahead of John F. Kennedy (16 percent) and Abraham Lincoln (14 percent).
Republican control of the White House continued for four years after his exit under the presidency of George H.W. Bush, who was Reagan's vice president and is the father of the current president.
In addition to his wife, Nancy, Reagan is survived by three children, Ron and Patricia from his marriage to Nancy, and Michael, an adopted son from his marriage to Jane Wyman. His daughter Maureen died in 2001 from cancer.