Reagan's Life And Times

Ronald Reagan appears in a video still during a getaway to his beloved California ranch. The former president, who turned 92 in 2003, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1994 and hasn't been seen in public since. CBS

Ronald Reagan died after a ten-year battle with the mind-deteriorating effects of Alzheimer's disease.

Mr. Reagan was largely shielded from public view after his disease was revealed in 1994, but has been back in the spotlight in recent years as his health deteriorated and his wife, former first lady Nancy Reagan, began to publicly support stem-cell research as a way to find cures for Alzheimer's and other diseases.

On Nov. 5, 1994, in a handwritten letter, Mr. Reagan told the American people that he had entered the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. "I now begin the journey," he wrote, "that will lead me into the sunset of my life."

"I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience," he said at the time.

As CBS News Correspondent Jerry Bowen reports that just last month at a fundraising dinner, Nancy Reagan spoke of her nearly decade long anguish:

"Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where Ican no longer reach him. We can't share the wonderful memories of our 52 years together. And I think that's the hardest part."

Like all U.S. presidents, Mr. Reagan was celebrated by some and vilified by others. But by any measure, his life was remarkable for its diversity in occupation and in more personal matters.

During his life, Mr. Reagan distinguished himself as a college athlete, a movie star, a leader of actors' unions, governor of California, and, of course, president of the United States. Any one of those achievements could mark the pinnacle of an individual's life. Mr. Reagan did it all.

At age 69, he became the oldest president (and the first divorced man) ever sworn into office.

Mr. Reagan was viewed as a popular president. A Gallup Poll showing overall presidential approval ratings ranks him fifth among all who have held the office. (John F. Kennedy is No. 1, followed by Dwight Eisenhower, George Bush, and Lyndon Johnson.) Mr. Reagan's approval rating average was 53 percent. At its highest, it was 65 percent and, at its lowest, 35 percent.

In 1996, author Garry Wills wrote in The New York Times magazine, "Who else has Reagan's personal qualities: self-assurance without a hectoring dogmatism, pride without arrogance, humility without creepiness, ambition without ruthlessness, accommodation without mushiness? How can you beat that?"

He also had his formidable wife, Nancy, who was like a lioness when it came to protecting her husband and helping him in his endeavors.

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born Feb. 6, 1911, over the store where his father, John, sold shoes in Tampico, Ill. His mother, Nelle, raised her children as Protestants and coached a small dramatic group, which is where Mr. Reagan might have caught the acting bug.

As a student at North High School, he made the varsity football team and worked as a lifeguard during the summer.

During his college years, he lettered in track, basketball, and football, and served as president of the student body. After graduating from Eureka (Ill.) College with a degree in economics and sociology, Mr. Reagan took a job as a radio sportscaster in Des Moines, Iowa, where he was paid $10 per game plus travel expenses.

By 1937, he had moved to Hollywood and was signed by Warner Bros. to a seven-year contract at a salary of $200 per week. In his big-screen debut, "Love Is On The Air" he played a radio announcer. From 1937 to 1941, he appeared in more than 50 films.

He married actress Jane Wyman on Jan. 25, 1940. Later that year, he made a splash in the movie "Knute Rockne: All American," playing George Gipp (the subject of the famous line, "Win just one for The Gipper.") Mr. Reagan's nicknames included "The Gipper," as well as "Dutch" and "The Great Communicator." While such affectionate monikers would follow him into his political career, Mr. Reagan also had to accept frequent references to the movie "Bedtime For Bonzo" (1951), in which his costar was a chimpanzee.

Another memorable Reagan line came from "Kings Row" (1942), in which his character, Drake McHugh, has both legs amputated. Upon awakening after the operation, he screams, "Where's the rest of me?" That line became the title of his 1965 autobiography. He wrote a second autobiography, "An American Life," in 1990. Also, a collection of his speeches was published in 1989, under the title "Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches."

Before their divorce in 1948, Mr. Reagan and Wyman had two children, daughter Maureen and an adopted son, Michael. Although neither Mr. Reagan nor Wyman ever publicly spoke about their split, there was speculation that the marriage was strained by Mr. Reagan's increasing involvement in politics within the movie industry. Friends also have said that as he became wealthier, his viewpoints became more conservative.

During World War II, Mr. Reagan (who was rejected for combat because of poor eyesight) served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, making training films.

After the war, in 1946, he signed his second seven-year contract with Warner Bros., earning $3,500 a week. He also was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), serving from 1947 to 1952. He would later serve another term as SAG president in 1959.

In 1947, Mr. Reagan testified as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities as they investigated alleged Communist influence in Hollywood. Also in the '40s, Mr. Reagan was an informant for the FBI, giving them the names of people in the movie industry whom he suspected of being communists. (His FBI code name was T-10.)

Mr. Reagan remarried on March 4, 1952, to Nancy Davis, an actress whose father, Dr. Loyal Davis, was an outspoken conservative. The couple made one movie together, "Hellcats of the Navy" (1957). They had two children together: Patti Davis, an actress and writer, and Ron Reagan, who has dabbled in television.

In 1954, he accepted a job as host of the TV show "General Electric Theater" at an annual salary of $125,000. His duties included speaking engagements on behalf of General Electric, where his theme usually centered on the advantages of free enterprise over big government. When GE cut back his lecture schedule in 1962, Mr. Reagan left the company.

There was a time when Mr. Reagan was registered as a Democrat and known as a liberal. But his views had changed over the years and, in 1962, he changed his party affiliation to Republican and never looked back.

In 1964, he made a huge splash in the world of politics when, as co-chairman of California Republicans for Goldwater, he gave a speech on behalf of Sen. Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy.

The speech lasted 30 minutes. It raised $8 million.

(In 1960, while still registered as a Democrat, Mr. Reagan delivered about 200 speeches in support of Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon. He would later prove a strong Nixon supporter during the Watergate scandal in the early '70s.)

In 1964, the same year he was stumping for Goldwater, Mr. Reagan starred in "The Killers," his final film. Until he mounted his own successful campaign for the governorship of California in 1966, Mr. Reagan kept his hand in show business as host of the syndicated series "Death Valley Days" (1962-66).

He swept into the office of California governor, winning 51 percent of the vote, defeating Democratic incumbent Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr.



Highlights of Mr. Reagan's governorship:


  • Eliminates the state budget deficit

  • Institutes welfare reform

  • Opposes war protesters on the state's college campuses

  • Vetoes bills to establish bilingual education and to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana

  • Signs a liberalized abortion bill

  • Fights a state proposition that would have banned homosexual teachers in state schools

  • Helps establish the Redwood National Park Midway in his first term as governor, Mr. Reagan made his first bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He came in third, behind Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. In 1970, Mr. Reagan ran for his second term as governor, winning 52 percent of the vote and handily defeating challenger Jess Unruh.

    After serving as California's governor, Mr. Reagan worked as a commentator on radio and in a newspaper column. Also, once again, "The Great Communicator" hit the lecture circuit.

    It was not long before he announced that he would challenge President Gerald R. Ford for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. And he was nearly successful, too, coming within 60 votes of winning the GOP nod at its convention.

    It was a different story four years later. In 1980, Mr. Reagan won the GOP nomination for president on the first ballot with 1,939 votes. Competitor John B. Anderson got 37 votes, and George Bush, who would later join the ballot as Mr. Reagan's vice president, got 13 votes.

    In the election, Mr. Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter by a margin of 10 percent. He claimed his victory as a mandate to cut domestic programs and strengthen the military.

    Only a couple of months after assuming office, in March 1981, Mr. Reagan was the target of an assassination attempt by John W. Hinckley Jr. While one bullet punctured the president's lung, another slammed into his press secretary, James Brady, leaving him with severe head injuries.


    Some highlights of his presidency:


  • Nominated Judge Sandra Day O'Connor, 51, as the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. (1981)

  • As part of "Reaganomics," Mr. Reagan pushes through Congress a large tax cut that he hopes will result in an economic boom for the country. He also beats the drum for more defense spending and cuts to domestic programs. (1981)

  • Ordered an invasion of Grenada after a leftist military coup resulted in the killing of Marxist Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. Mr. Reagan said the invasion of the West Indies island was to protect the Americans who lived there and to help restore democratic institutions. — (1983)

  • Wins reelection in the largest presidential victory in history. Mr. Reagan drew 59 percent of the popular vote and 525 electoral votes. Democrat Walter F. Mondale got 41 percent of the popular vote and 13 electoral votes. (1984)

  • A secret administrative initiative to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages is revealed, quickly followed by the discovery that the administration diverted proceeds from the arms sales to fund the Nicaraguan contras. (1986)

  • Signs Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The treaty bans ground-based nuclear missiles with a range of 300-3,500 miles. "Reagan's view of the past was largely shaped by the movies he saw or made, with their celebratory approach to American exceptionalism," wrote Garry Wills in The New York Times in 1996. "As Jules Feiffer once said, when dealing with Reagan's defense of religious creationism: 'If Reagan had played Darwin in a movie, he would believe in evolution'."

    Wills also observed "Reagan was a great communicator because he was a great storyteller. That is why he preferred the Bible's story of creation to Darwin's lineup of fossil charts. That is why he liked prophecies and astrological assurances. Somebody up there likes us."

    During the latter part of his presidency, Mr. Reagan's lapses in memory were widely reported by the media. When it was revealed in November 1994 that Mr. Reagan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, his four main White House doctors said that, while Mr. Reagan was in office, they never found his reasoning to be significantly impaired.

    Furthermore, said one of the physicians, mental-status tests did not detect the disease until 1993, more than four years after Mr. Reagan left office.

    As his health deteriorated, Mr. Reagan became increasingly shielded from the spotlight. In October 1997, in an article by Lawrence K. Altman, The New York Times reported that the former president still was playing abbreviated games of golf and that he liked to sit in the park and watch children at play.

    Nancy Reagan spent most of her time during her husband's illness coordinating his activities, with the goal of keeping him stimulated as much as possible, with the help of the household staff and the Secret Service agents assigned to guard the former president.

    "She carries the torch, and she is the main thing in his life, as she has been," Dr. John E. Hutton Jr. told the Times in 1997.

    Mr. Reagan's last public speech and last visit to Washington probably was in February 1994, when 2,500 people gathered to celebrate his 83rd birthday.

    On Mr. Reagan's 87th birthday in 1998, President Bill Clinton signed a law which allowed the Washington National Airport to be renamed the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

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    • David Hancock

      David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.

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