The All-American

For Ronald Reagan, the presidency was the peak of a long life in the public eye, Correspondent Dan Rather reports for CBS News' Sunday Morning.

The oldest man ever elected to the White House, he was re-elected in 1984, with the greatest landslide in American history. People believed in his dream of restoring America's strength and pride in a time of doubt. And he had success.

The presidency was the role of a lifetime. But it was only one of many he played. They all had one thing in common: Ronald Reagan was all-American. He was a handsome lifeguard as a teenager in Illinois. After college, he became a radio sportscaster, known as Dutch Reagan.

But his dream was to be a Hollywood actor, a star. He passed a screen test in 1937 and became a star in the role of George Gip, "The Gipper," in "Knute Rockne: All-American." A line from that film would stay with him for life: "Win just one for the Gipper."

Later, he won praise in "King's Row," as a young man who wakes to find his legs amputated.

Ronald Reagan's first brush with politics came as president of the Screen Actors Guild. The hot issue then was alleged communism in the film industry. Mr. Reagan took a moderate line before the Investigating House Committee on Un-American Activities: "I will be frank with you that as a citizen I would hesitate, or I would not like to see any political party outlawed on the basis of its political ideology. Because we've spent 170 years in this country on the basis that democracy is strong enough to stand up and fight for itself against the inroads of any ideology, no matter how much we may disagree with it."

In the mid to late 1950s, his politics began moving to the right. Later, as a spokesman for one of the country's biggest corporations, General Electric, he toured the country speaking on the evils of big government and high taxes.

During this time, he divorced one Hollywood actress, Jane Wyman, and he married another, Nancy Davis, who became his close adviser and most ardent political supporter. In 1964, his T.V. speech for Barry Goldwater was the high point of an otherwise disastrous Republican campaign.

Mr. Reagan emerged as the hope of self-described conservatives all over America.

First, he ran for governor of California and won big, while blasting what he called hippies and student radicals.

After two terms as governor, he took his first serious shot at the presidency in 1976, falling just a few votes short of possibly taking the nomination away from President Gerald Ford. Four years later, he swept the Republican primaries and the convention.

Then he dueled successfully in debate with Democratic president, Jimmy Carter.

And on Election Day, he beat Mr. Carter at the polls.

Mr. Reagan's inauguration was a watershed for America. As he took the oath, a suddenly and only briefly cooperative Iran released 52 American hostages Iran had held for more than a year. His first order of business was what he saw as a revolution in the American economy.

But barely two months into his first term, President Reagan was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. Only a quick dash to the hospital saved his life. Just four weeks later, he addressed Congress. He was more popular than ever -- and what became known as the Reagan revolution was under way.

While cutting taxes, the Reagans themselves spent lavishly to restore an aura of glamour and glitz to the White House. Breaking with the past, President Reagan nominated the first woman to the United States Supreme Court. He dealt a devastating blow to union labor when he broke the Air Controller's Strike, by setting a deadline, then firing them all.

In world affairs, he launched a huge U.S. military build-up. He rejected detente with the Soviet Union, which he called an evil empire.

To the dismay of the Soviets and many who described themselves as peace lovers in America, Mr. Reagan proposed his Star Wars scheme, a multi-billion dollar effort which he called a defensive shield against nuclear weapons in space. It wasn't until his second term that he met with the Soviet leader. But in 1985, he and Mikhail Gorbachev began a partnership that culminated in the first arms treaty to actually reduce the number of nuclear weapons.

And, a few years later, when communism began to crumble, many gave credit to longstanding policies accelerated by President Reagan.

Elsewhere his foreign policy was dogged with confusion and tragedy. He sent U.S. troops to Lebanon, only to withdraw them after 241 service men died in an Iranian-sponsored suicide bombing. Still, he was praised for his warmth and dignity as he comforted the servicemen's families.

Later he was embarrassed by a national security aide, Oliver North, and others who admitted secretly trading arms to Iran, diverting the proceeds, via Swiss banks, to the Nicaraguan contras and lying to Congress to cover it all up. Investigators said President Reagan approved at least some of these secret dealings, but he pleaded ignorance.

What became known as the Iran-Contra scandal tarnished his second term, but did not destroy his popularity. Riding horseback and doing chores on his ranch, he kept his all-American image intact and his optimism never flagged:

"My fellow citizens, our nation is poised for greatness. We must do what we know is right and do it with all our might. Let history say of us, 'These were golden years when the American revolution was re-born, when freedom gained new life and America reached for her best.'"

Ronald Reagan left office with the economy booming. A recession was around the corner, but as he left, the economy was up, the deficit was soaring, and his public approval rating was higher than any other modern president.

He retired to California where he dedicated his presidential library along with four other living presidents. A firm believer in happy endings, his own last scenes were touched by sadness.

In 1994, he revealed he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He wrote a farewell letter to the American people, saying, "I now begin the journey that will take me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America, there will always be a bright dawn ahead."
  • Ellen Crean

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