» Ronald Reagan Bust

“I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”

- Ronald Reagan

Critical Essay By
Dr. Lori Cox Han
Professor, Doy B. Henley Chair of American Presidential Studies
Director, Presidential Studies Program
Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences
View Bio

Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004) served as the 40th president of the United States (1981-1989). Considered by supporters and critics alike to be a transformational political figure, Reagan left a lasting mark on presidential politics. However, his legacy is a combination of policy successes and failures dictated by the political circumstances in which he attempted to govern as well as his own strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

Born in Tampico, Illinois, Reagan grew up in a modest, working-class environment. He was baptized in the Disciples of Christ Church, and attended Eureka College, a small liberal arts college in Illinois affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. After graduating in 1932, Reagan began working as a radio announcer, and in 1937 moved to California to begin his acting career. During World War II, he served in the Army’s film production unit, acting in and narrating military training films. He would appear in more than 50 movies, and by the 1950s, he also began regular appearances on television, most notably as the host of General Electric Theater.

Reagan married actress Jane Wyman in 1940; together they had two children (Maureen and their adopted son, Michael). The couple divorced in 1948. Reagan married actress Nancy Davis in 1952, and together they had two children (Patricia and Ronald Jr.). Reagan served as president of the Screen Actors Guild for several terms in the late 1940s and 1950s, most notably during the Hollywood Blacklist era that denied employment to those suspected of communist sympathies.

A Democrat who admired President Franklin D. Roosevelt, by the 1950s, Reagan’s political views began to shift and in 1962, he became a Republican. In 1964, he delivered a nationally televised address in support of Republican nominee Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign titled “A Time for Choosing,” which solidified his position as a leader of the growing conservative movement within the U.S.

Reagan served two terms as governor of California (1967-1975), and ran on a platform of limited government, fiscal responsibility, welfare reform, and restoring law and order in the wake of student protests. His record as governor was nuanced; he increased spending on education and raised taxes to deal with a budget deficit but returned some funds to taxpayers when tax revenues created a surplus. He maintained a consistent conservative view on such issues as advocating for the death penalty and the need for welfare reform (achieving the latter during his second term as governor), but also signed into law the California Environmental Quality Act that increased environmental standards and protections. He remained a leading conservative voice during his years as governor, even considering a run for president to challenge incumbent Republican Richard Nixon in 1972, but governed more as a pragmatist who was able to compromise with Democrats in Sacramento to get things done.

In 1976, Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Despite Reagan’s victory in several primaries, Ford won the nomination but lost the general election to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Reagan won the Republican nomination four years later and defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election. He ran on a conservative platform that embraced lower taxes, smaller government, returning power to state governments, and a strong national defense. The latter was particularly salient with voters as the Iranian hostage crisis continued to dominate national news. Reagan won a substantial victory over Carter, with 489 Electoral College votes to Carter’s 49, and by nearly a ten-point margin in the popular vote. Reagan’s electoral coattails also extended to the U.S. Senate, as Republicans took control of the chamber for the first time since 1952 and cut into the Democrat’s majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Following his inaugural address in which he stated that “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem,” Reagan’s first term policy agenda focused on cutting taxes, cutting domestic policy spending, and increasing defense spending. Often referred to as Reaganomics, his supply-side approach led to several years of deficit spending and, at the time, a record increase in the national debt. He solidified his credentials with conservatives in 1981 with his proposal for a constitutional amendment allowing school prayer and his firing of more than 10,000 air traffic controllers who were on strike. He also kept his campaign promise to nominate the first woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, although Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s legacy as a moderate, swing vote on the Court would help to protect policies to which Reagan was opposed (including abortion rights and affirmative action).

The Cold War, and especially U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations, dominated Reagan’s first term foreign policy agenda. In 1983, he called the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” signaling the clear end to the détente that had been established between the two superpowers in the early 1970s. Reagan also promoted his plan for a Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed “Star Wars,” though many doubted the ability of create a defense shield against nuclear attacks.

The public aspects of presidential leadership benefitted Reagan tremendously while he was in office. Nicknamed the “Great Communicator,” his prior experience as a radio announcer and Hollywood actor allowed him to appear at ease in front of the cameras, and while on script, he excelled rhetorically. Off script, he was prone to gaffes, so his communications team developed strategies that minimized his direct interaction with reporters yet promoted the powerful symbolism of the office. For example, he held few press conferences, but would them in the stately East Room of the White House for a primetime television audience to maximize the imagery of presidential leadership.

Surviving an assassination attempt in March 1981 pushed Reagan’s public approval rating to 73 percent and provided an image of strong presidential leadership despite being the oldest president (70) to ever serve at that time. However, according to Gallup, Reagan averaged a 53 percent job approval rating during his presidency, slightly below average for all U.S. presidents for which Gallup has tracked job approval.

In 1984, Reagan won a landslide reelection victory over Democrat nominee Walter Mondale, sweeping all but Minnesota and the District of Columbia in the Electoral College and winning the popular vote 58 percent to Mondale’s 40 percent. The Reagan reelection ad campaign highlighting the phrase “It’s morning again in America” provided an effective narrative about how economic conditions and the overall quality of life had improved for Americans since 1980, when he had asked American voters to consider if they were “better off now” than four years ago.

Reagan’s second term was dominated by foreign policy, including his relationship with Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and efforts in nuclear arms reduction agreements. Perhaps the most memorable line of any speech he delivered came in 1987, at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin when he told Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” The reunification of Germany would occur in 1989, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union would follow in 1991, both during the George H. W. Bush presidency. Reagan is nonetheless credited with helping to “win” the Cold War despite the escalation of tensions during his first term as his tough rhetoric and buildup of the U.S. military helped to get Gorbachev to the bargaining table during four summits between 1985 and 1988.

Stopping the spread of communism in Central America—most notably in Nicaragua—was also on the second term agenda, along with international trade issues. The Iran-Contra scandal occurred in 1986, after the discovery that senior administration officials secretly had sold arms to Iran, despite an arms embargo, and funneled the proceeds to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Under the Boland Amendment, Congress had banned such funding. Despite his initial public declaration that funds had not been funneled and no laws had been broken, Reagan would later admit publicly that it had occurred, and that while he had no recollection of approving the plan, took responsibility nonetheless. After a high-profile congressional investigation and threats of impeachment, Reagan survived the scandal, which served as an example of why his critics often called him the “Teflon” president.

Reagan would also pursue tax reform, deficit reduction, and a reform of the budget process, and constitutional amendments for both a balanced budget and a line-item veto, during his second term. Despite his promises to reduce the size of the federal government, the number of federal employees and agencies grew throughout the Reagan years. The AIDS crisis unfolded in the U.S. beginning in 1981, though it would take Reagan until 1987 to address the epidemic publicly, by which time more than 20,000 Americans had already died of the disease. Critics point to the lack of funding provided to the Centers for Disease Control throughout the Reagan years.

When Reagan left office in 1989, he had left an indelible mark on the Republican Party and the modern conservative movement. Many of the congressional Republicans elected during Reagan’s administration would contribute to the party’s success in winning both houses of Congress in 1994; social conservative issues had also gained prominence on the national policy agenda. His personal style and skill as a communicator, coupled with his pragmatic approach to politics, often belied the strong ideological shift to the right that occurred during Reagan’s presidency. While many Americans often disagreed with his policy positions, they tended to like Reagan as a person. As such, he is remembered as a once-in-a-generation leader within the Republican Party and has cast a long shadow over Republican presidents who followed.

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Ronald Regean bust

October 10, 2007

Doy and Dee Henley

Designation Name
The Edgar and Elizabeth Pankey
Chair in Media Arts

Miriam Baker

Campus Location
Walkway between The
Fish Interfaith Center
and Hutton Sports
Center, Orange Campus