Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

40th President, 1981-1989

Early Life and Pre-presidency

White House photograph of Reagan, 1985

White House photograph of Reagan, 1985

  • Born Ronald Wilson Reagan on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois.
  • Parents: Jack Reagan and Nelle Wilson. Sibling: Neil.
  • Graduated from Dixon High School in 1928.
  • Enrolled at Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois in 1928, graduating in 1932.
  • After graduation, worked as a radio sportscaster in Davenport, Iowa, then became a sports announcer covering football and the Chicago Cubs baseball games.
  • In 1937, while in California to cover the Cubs spring training, he took a screen test that got him a 7-year movie contract with Warner Brothers.
  • Married Jane Wyman (1914–2007) on January 26, 1940, divorced 1948; Nancy Davis (1923–) on March 4, 1952. Children: Maureen Elizabeth (1941–2001), Michael Edward (1945–), Patricia Ann (1952–), and Ronald Prescott (1958–).
  • Enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve in April 1937 and was called to active duty in May 1942. He worked in the First Motion Picture Unit producing training films for the Army Air Force. He left active duty in December 1945 and returned to acting.
  • Elected to the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors in 1941 and became President from 1947 to 1952 and in 1959.
  • Was the President of SAG when the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated Hollywood for its alleged Communist ties in 1947.
  • From 1937 to 1957, he appeared in 52 Hollywood films.
  • Hosted the TV show General Electric Theaterfrom 1954 to 1962, then hosted Death Valley Daysfrom 1964 to 1965.
  • Elected Governor of California in 1966 and served from 1967 to 1975.
  • Campaigned for the Republican Party’s nomination for President in the 1976 election but lost to the incumbent Gerald Ford.
  • Nominated as the Republican Party’s Presidential candidate in the 1980 election. He won with 50.7% of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral votes.


Portrait of Reagan at his California ranch, 1976 Courtesy National Archives

Portrait of Reagan at his California ranch, 1976
Courtesy National Archives

  • Took his oath of office on January 20, 1981 at the West Front, U.S. Capitol.
  • On the day of his inauguration, the remaining 52 American hostages in Iran were released.
  • On March 30, 1981, John Warnock Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate Reagan by shooting him in the chest outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. Reagan recovered and was released from the hospital on April 11.
  • Signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which significantly reduced individual income tax rates, estate taxes, and corporate taxes.
  • In 1981, Reagan ordered a buildup of the U.S. Armed Forces, revived the B-1 Lancer bomber program, and ordered the production of the MX missile in response to the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In a March 1983, he called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.”
  • Signed the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 in September. The law was created to reduce the budget deficit caused by the on-going recession.
  • Signed the Social Security Reform Bill in April 1983. The law made comprehensive changes in the coverage, financing, and benefit structure of the Social Security system.
  • Ran for re-election in 1984 and won by a landslide.
  • In November 1985, Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev held a summit conference in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss arms control. They would meet again in Reykjavik, Iceland in October 1986, and finally in Washington, D.C. in December 1987 where they signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
  • Ordered a massive airstrike against Libya in April 1986 in retaliation for the bombing of a discotheque in West Berlin frequented by American servicemen that was tracked to that country. The attack was called Operation El Dorado Canyon.
  • Signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986 into law in October, which simplified the income tax code.
  • In November 1986, the Iran–Contra affair was investigated by the Tower Commission. In February 1987, the Commission found that Reagan had no knowledge of the affair’s extent. In March 1987, Reagan claimed full responsibility for the affair on national television, even though he had no knowledge of it.
  • Visited West Berlin in June 1987 and made his famous speech at the Berlin Wall challenging Soviet Premier Gorbachev to embrace democracy by saying “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
  • Visited the Soviet Union from May 29 to June 1, 1988, his first time to the country. During the visit, Reagan pressed Gorbachev to address the country’s human rights issues.
  • Reagan created several economic policies during his term to reduce government spending, federal income tax, capital gains tax, inflation, and government regulation. These policies were referred to as “Reaganomics.”


Ronald and Nancy Reagan, 1992 Courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation

Ronald and Nancy Reagan, 1992
Courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation

  • Retired to a newly purchased house in Bel Air, Los Angeles.
  • Published his autobiograpy, An American Life, in November 1990.
  • The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California was dedicated on November 4, 1991. The dedication ceremony was attended by five U.S. Presidents, a first.
  • Established the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award in 1992 to honor “those who have made monumental and lasting contributions to the cause of freedom worldwide.” Mikhael Gorbachev was the recipient of the first award, which was presented by President Reagan.
  • Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on January 18, 1993 from President George H.W. Bush. It is the highest honor bestowed by the United States.
  • Delivered his last public speech in February 1994 and made his last major public appearance on April 27, 1994 at the funeral service for former President Nixon.
  • In November 1994, Reagan announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Due to his illness, Reagan slowly retreated from public life and was put in semi-isolation by his wife Nancy Reagan.
  • Suffered a broken hip from a fall in January 2001 and had to undergo physical therapy.
  • Died on June 5, 2004 of pneumonia resulting from his disease.
  • His body lay in repose at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on June 7, 2004 where a funeral service for the family was held. His body was then flown to Washington, D.C. on June 9, where it lay in state at the U.S. Capitol.
  • Reagan’s state funeral was held on June 11 at the Washington National Cathedral. Many world leaders were in attendance, including former Soviet Premier Gorbachev.
  • Reagan was flown back to California and interred at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
  • Reagan is the second longest-lived U.S. President after Gerald Ford.
  • Reports circulated that Reagan may have been suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s disease during his Presidency. But the doctors who saw him while in office denied that Reagan exhibited such symptoms.


Detailed Biography


Born on 6 February 1911, Ronald Wilson Reagan was a Hollywood actor and politician who served two terms as the 33rdGovernor of California and then two terms as 40thPresident of the United States of America from 1981-1989.

Ronald was born and raised in Illinois by his family who were of Irish descent and were shopkeepers.



Childhood & Education

 Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on 6 February 1911, in Tampico Illinois to parents, John Edward “Jack” Reagan and Nellie Wilson Reagan. In his childhood, he was referred to as “Dutch” because his father claimed he resembled a “fat little Dutchman.”

Ronald’s father, Jack Reagan was born in Fulton Illinois in July 1883 and was second generation American Irish. Jack’s paternal grandfather Michael O’Regan, was a native of Tipperary in Ireland. O’Regan worked as a tenant farmer during his early years in Ireland, before he moved to London in 1852. O’Regan married an Irish refugee, Catherine Mulcahey in London and anglicised the family name to Reagan. Following a change in name, and wishing to seek a new, better life, the Reagan’s moved to Carrol County, Illinois in the US in 1856. John Michael their son, became a grain-elevator farmer and married Jenny Cusick in 1878. Cusick was born in Canada, but like John Michael, her parents came from Ireland. Their son, John Edward “Jack” was born five years later.

We don’t know much about Jack’s upbringing, but it must have been usual of a small-time farming family. Jack met his future wife Nellie in 1904 when he was twenty-one. Nellie Clyde was a local girl, also born in Fulton Illinois, and also born in July 1883, although she was born eleven days after her future husband Jack. Nellie was the eldest of seven children and her parents were an American father of Scottish descendent, Thomas Wilson and an English mother born in Epsom in Surrey.

Nellie and Jack were married in November of 1904 and they had two children together, John Neil Reagan, born in 1908, and Ronald, born in 1911. After giving birth to Ronald, Nellie was told that she should not have any more children, presumably due to health risks associated with pregnancy.

Nellie and Jack brought their children up in a strict religious household. Ronald wrote about his mother, saying that she “always expected to find the best in people and often did.” She attended the Disciples of Christ Church regularly and was active, and very influential within it. Her strong commitment to the Church is what induced her son Ronald to become a Protestant Christian rather than a Roman Catholic like his father. He also said that she strongly influenced his own beliefs. For example, he attended Eureka College, founded by the Christian Church in 1855. Many local churchgoers even believed that Nellie had healing powers.

Before attending Eureka college, Ronald had attended Dixon High School in Illinois where he excelled as an athlete, scholar, served as the student body president and acted in school plays, showing an early talent for acting and performance. He gained an athletic scholarship to Eureka College and whilst studying Economics and Sociology, he also played football, ran track and was captain of the swim team. He continued to develop his governing and acting skills as he had done in high school as the college’s student council president and acting in school productions. He graduated in 1932. After graduating college, Ronald very briefly worked as a radio sports commentator before moving to California where there were many more opportunities for work, especially for actors.

Ronald’s brother Neil, described as boisterous in his youth, also attended Eureka College but must have had a break between high school and college, because, despite being three years older than Ronald, he actually graduated after his younger brother, in 1933 with a degree in economics. After graduating, he followed his brother Ronald to California and established a career as a television producer and advertising executive. From the 30s to the 50s he directed the radio series “Dr. Christian” starring Jean Hersholt. In between, he was a supporting actor in a number of films. He also directed his brother Ronald in the television series “Death Valley Days.”


Acting Career and Marriage

In 1937, Ronald was signed to a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers movie studio and over the next three decades, he appeared in over 50 films and tv shows. His most notable roles were of George Gipp, Notre Dame football star, in the movie “Knute Rockne: All American” in 1940, and in the 1942 film “Kings Row” where he played an accident victim who wakes up to find both his legs have been amputated.

By 1938, Ronald and Neil had made enough money to be able to purchase a home in California for their parents, Nellie and Jack, the first home that the couple had ever owned. Following Jack’s death in 1941, Nellie continued to be involved with her church and worked at a tuberculosis sanitorium.

In the late 30’s Ronald met a beautiful Hollywood actress known at the time as Jane Wyman. Jane was born in 1917 in Saint Joseph, Missouri as Jane Mayfield. Her professional career began when she was signed by Warner Bros. Studio in 1933 when she was just 16, although as was common practice at the time, she added three years to her age upon signing the contract so that people commonly thought she was 19years old. Between 1933 and 1938 she was married twice, firstly to Ernest Wyman, and secondly to Myron Futterman, although she retained the name Wyman after the second marriage. In 1938 she acted alongside Ronald in the movie “Brother Rat” and they began dating not long afterwards. In January 1940 they married at Wee Kirk o’the Heather Church in California.

Their first daughter, named Maureen Elizabeth Reagan, was born on 4 January 1941.

During the second world war, Reagan was disqualified from combat duty due to his poor eyesight, but still served in the army making training films until he left the army in 1945 where he was ranked as Captain.

Ronald and Jane adopted a son, Michael in March 1945 and had a second daughter together in 1947 named Christine, although she was born prematurely and died young. This caused a great emotional strain on the couple, and alongside a difference in Ronald and Jane’s political views, the marriage was soon struggling and in 1948 Jane filed for divorce. The couple did, however, remain friends and continued to co-parent their children together.

From 1947 until 1952, Ronald served as the President of the Screen Actors Guild. It was in this capacity that, in 1949 he met a young actress called Nancy Davis.

Nancy was born Anne Francis Robbins on 6 July 1921, although shortly after birth she was given the nickname Nancy, a name that would stick with her for the rest of her life. According to Patti Davis, “Edith Davis [Nancy’s mother] was a working actress who had gotten divorced shortly after her child was born. She tried taking the baby on the road, putting her backstage in a trunk that served as a cradle while she was on stage. But it became too hard, so she let the child with her older sister’s family in Bethesda, MD., and she would visit occasionally” [TIME magazine article, 2016]. Whilst living in Bethesda, Nancy attended Sidwell Friends School and was lovingly raised by her maternal aunt and uncle.

In 1929, Edith married a prominent Chicago neurosurgeon called Loyal Davis who she had met whilst supposedly on a cruise. Nancy left her aunt and uncle’s home and moved to Chicago to live with her mother and new father where she lived happily in the new family, later noting that her stepfather, was “a man of great integrity who exemplified old-fashioned values.” Nancy was exposed to a life of privilege and wealth, attending the Girls’ Latin School and studying drama at Smith College.

After college, she worked for a short time in a department store and also as a nurse’s aide. She then moved into acting full time, taking small parts in stage productions. Her big break came in 1949 when she was signed to MGM Studios on a seven-year contract. Her career was slow to start but eventually, she landed roles in prominent films such as “The Doctor and The Girl” starring Glen Ford, and “Night into Morning,” starring Ray Milland, which Nancy later claimed was her favourite role.

By 1949 Nancy had found that roles were drying up and eventually discovered that her name had been added to a blacklist for suspected communist sympathisers. It was a mix up due to there being two Nancy Davis’s in the acting world. Nancy, therefore, approached the President of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan, for assistance in clearing up the misunderstanding.

The couple were instantly attracted to each other and briefly dated, but Ronald was particularly reluctant to get too deeply involved in another relationship so soon after his divorce, and so the couple dated casually for a number of years before they realised that they were a good match. Eventually, Ronald proposed, and the couple were married on 4 March 1952, three years after meeting. The couple had two children together, a daughter Patricia Ann, known as Patti, born in October 1952, and a son Ronald Prescott, known as Ron, born in May 1958.


Political Beginnings

As Reagan’s acting career began to wane, he landed a role as the host of a television show called “The General Electric Theatre” in 1954. Part of this role required Reagan to tour the US as a PR representative for the company. It was at this time that he found his political views changing away from a liberal democrat, and eventually, he changed to become a conservative Republican, speaking out publicly about excessive government regulation and wasteful spending.

It was around this time that his mother Nellie began to have problems physically and with Alzheimer’s. Speaking of her illness she said, “I just kept my mind on God.” She died from complications of the disease in July 1962.

Reagan was first noted within the political sphere in 1964 when he made a televised speech for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. He began to get more and more involved in politics, eventually choosing to run for the governorship in California in 1966. He defeated the Democratic incumbent Edmund “Pat” Brown Sr. by almost one million votes, becoming the 33rdGovernor of California in 1967. Nancy, Ronald and the family initially moved into the Governor’s mansion, but Nancy quickly moved herself and the children to another home in an exclusive Sacramento neighbourhood, claiming that the mansion was in a bad state of repair. The media targeted her for it, calling her “snobbish.” Reagan was subsequently elected to a second term as Governor and served until 1974.

In 1968 and again in 1976, he campaigned for the presidential nominee for the Republican party but was unsuccessful. Despite these setbacks, he continued to work towards this goal, campaigning again in 1980 when he finally got the nod from the Republican party. In the general election of that year, he defeated Democratic incumbent, President Jimmy Carter, winning the electoral college with 489 votes, and capturing almost 51% of the popular vote. At age 69 this made Reagan the eldest person in history elected to the US Presidency, until Donald Trump in 2016, and made Reagan the 40thPresident of the United States of America.


Two Terms as President of the United States of America

In his inaugural speech on 20 January 1981, Reagan said: “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” He called for an era of national renewal and hoped that America would again be “a beacon of hope for those who do not have freedom.” [from].

When Ronald was elected President, Nancy became a full-time wife and homemaker, and whilst her reputation for snobbery was mitigated by her community work during their time in California, the accusation was to rear its head again when the family moved into the White House, and Nancy claimed that it too was outdated and in need of repairs. The family began redecorating, but this was heavily criticised as the country was in a recession and so she was seen as spending frivolously, whilst the poor of America starved, despite the fact that she raised the money for the repairs, rather than taking it from a government pot.

Her public image was again mitigated by Nancy’s work in the local communities, and in national campaigning for drug abuse awareness and education around drug use. She hosted an international conference at The White House in 1985 on youth drug abuse and launched a campaign called “Just Say No” which, whilst it was called “simplistic,” did result in legislation called the National Crusade for a Drug-Free America act being signed into law by Reagan in October 1986.

In 1987, Nancy was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy.

On the day Reagan was inaugurated, 20 January 1981, fifty-two American hostages held in Iran since November 1979, were released, ending a 444-day hostage situation which had begun in Carter’s presidency.

Just three months later, the drama which marked the beginning of Reagan’s presidency would continue when he was the focus of an assassination attempt on 30th March as he left the Washington Hilton Hotel with several of his advisors. John Hinckley Junior, suffering from mental health issues, approached the President and shot a number of times in his direction. Reagan was shot once in the chest, with the rest of the bullets hitting members of the president’s secret service. Quick thinking on the part of one of his secret service members, meant Reagan was placed into the presidential car and taken straight to the hospital. This would prove to be a crucial move, as the injury, which was initially thought to be minor, actually turned out to be a lot more serious. The President walked into the hospital before he collapsed, and it was discovered that the bullet had pierced his lung and narrowly missed his heart. The nation significantly warmed to the president when his courage and humour became publicised, especially when he was overheard saying to wife Nancy, “honey, I forgot to duck.” Within several weeks he was back at work.

During his first term as president, Reagan worked on several important issues both at home and abroad, advancing a number of conservative policies, implementing tax cuts in an effort to stimulate the economy, and advocating increases in military spending. In 1981, he made history by appointing Judge Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman to the US Supreme Court. By 1983 the nation’s economy had begun to recover and was limping out of recession into what supporters would later dub a ‘seven-year period of prosperity,’ but what critics would say was a policy which hurt the middle class and the poor, whilst protecting the wealthy.

The biggest concern of Reagan’s foreign policy during his first term in office was the Cold War, and he dubbed the Soviet Union “the evil empire.” To try and combat the might of the Soviet’s he began building a massive reserve of US troops and weapons. In 1983 he announced the Strategic Defence Initiative which aimed to develop space technology which would protect America from attack by its enemies.

A big failure during this time was to do with the US presence in Lebanon in the middle-east. In June 1982, Reagan had sent 800 American troops to Lebanon, hoping to stabilize a country ravaged by years of civil war. The Miller Centre states that ‘their mission was to support a government friendly to the Us interests and to Israel, and to help end the cycle of violence.’ On 23 October 1983, suicide bombers attacked the Us marine troops at their barracks base in Beirut, killing 241 American soldiers. ‘The US was supposed to play the part of an “honest broker” between competing interests. Hezbollah, the militant Islamic group, claimed responsibility for the bombing. The ability of the US to remain detached and play the role of honest broker became more difficult.’ American troops were eventually asked to leave the country by the Lebanese government, and just two years after the bombing, Reagan removed all troops and ships from the area. Reagan was devastated by the events in Lebanon and as a result, he vowed never to send US troops back to the middle-east, a policy which he remained staunchly to throughout the rest of his presidency.

In 1984, Reagan was re-elected to continue as the President into a second term in a landslide victory, defeating Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale, carrying 49 out of 50 states and receiving 525 out of 538 electoral votes.

In July 1985, Reagan had a malignant polyp removed from his colon. Due to the nature of the surgery, Reagan’s Vice President, and future 41stPresident, George HW Bush stood up into the role of acting President for eight hours whilst the surgery was ongoing.

His second term in office was marred by the Iran-Contra affair which occurred between November 1986 and November 1987. The affair consisted of bringing to light a series of deals between the US and Iran to sell arms to the country, whilst funnelling the funds to the Nicaraguan Contras. Reagan was the person who brought the issue to the attention of the Congress, claiming that between $10 and $30 million dollars had been raised from sales and redirected to the Contras, although he said that he did not know anything about the affair. A group was set up, known as the Tower Commission, to investigate the matter, and whilst they eventually concluded that there was no criminal wrongdoing in the deals, Congress stated that Reagan should take ultimate responsibility for the affair.

On a more positive note, Reagan’s second term as president was marked by the improvement in relations between the US and the Soviet Union, with him forging a diplomatic relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, chairman of the Soviet Union. In 1987 a historic agreement was signed, where the US and Soviet’s agreed to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. In the same year, Reagan visited the Berlin Wall and challenged Gorbachev in a public speech, to tear down the wall. Just two years later, Gorbachev agreed to let the people of Berlin take the wall down. Reagan would visit after his presidency was over, just weeks before the country was reunified, and would take a symbolic swing at one of the remaining chunks of the wall.


Life After the Presidency

In 1989, Reagan’s Vice President, George HW Bush was elected as the 41stPresident of the United States, and Nancy and Ronald were able to return to California and retired to a home which was known as “Reagan Ranch.”

The former first lady established the Nancy Reagan Foundation which supported after-school drug prevention programmes, whilst Ronald worked on establishing his Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library which was opened in 1991.

Ronald and Nancy’s two children, Ron and Patti grew up in a loving household, which Ron later stated was full of love and understanding. Ron had very different political views from his father and was a noted atheist from the age of 12. He gave up an education at Yale University to dance with the Joffrey Ballet company. He has worked in later years as a journalist and radio presenter and was married to wife Doria Palmieri, a clinical psychologist from 1980 until her death in 2014. Daughter Patti changed her surname at a relatively young age to Davis which was her mother’s maiden name, in an effort to separate her career from that of her parents. She was an actress for a number of years before moving into a career in writing, publishing several novels, as well as a number of memoirs and books about her family life.

Ronald’s two children through his first marriage, Maureen and Michael continued to be part of the family. Maureen pursued an acting career in her young adulthood with moderate success, before attempting unsuccessfully to launch a political career. She was married three times and adopted a daughter Rita who was born in Uganda in 1994. Michael Reagan, Ronald and Jane’s adopted son had a rockier career, often being noted as being in the wrong crowds, but eventually settled down with his second wife Colleen Sterns, an interior decorator in 1975. He has had a career as a salesperson and the couple have two children, Cameron and Ashley.

In November 1994, Ronald announced that he had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and Nancy became his primary caregiver as well as spending time with her husband advocating research into the disease, lending their support to the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

Ronald W. Reagan died on 5 June 2004 at his home in California, aged 93 years old. At the time it made him the nation’s longest-lived President, although this accolade was later taken in 2006 by Gerald Ford.

After his death, Nancy continued to campaign for stem cell research, and other research, as well as continuing her husband’s legacy. She died in March 2016 of heart failure at the age of 94.