Alan Brinkley. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980 marked the convergence of two processes, neither of which would have seemed likely to most Americans even a few years earlier. One was Reagan’s transformation from a fading film actor into the dominant political figure in the nation. The other was the rise of a powerful conservative movement that profited not only from Reagan’s attractive personality but also from a decade of popular disenchantment with politics and government.
Reagan’s many successes as president owed much to his actor’s instincts and much to the popular pessimism that he inherited and that his sunny temperament helped at least temporarily to dispel. The same factors contributed as well to the many shortcomings of his administration: its tendency to emphasize style over substance, its emphasis on short-term economic and political benefits at the price of long-term costs, and its insouciant refusal to acknowledge deep domestic and international problems that might undermine the hopeful picture of the world Reagan consistently presented. His presidency coincided with, and contributed to, a long period of dramatic economic growth and the beginning of a momentous change in international relations. But it failed to address, and in many ways intensified, a series of public dilemmas that had been developing for years before Reagan entered the White House and that continued to plague the nation for years after he left.
Reagan’s rise to eminence moved along a path that, in the beginning, resembled that of many other American politicians but that later diverged sharply from the norm. He was born on 6 February 1911 in the small town of Tampico, Illinois. His parents, Jack and Nelle, named him Ronald Wilson for a great-uncle but always called him Dutch (after his father began referring to the strapping baby as his “fat little Dutchman”). Jack Reagan was an unsuccessful salesman with a serious drinking problem. Nelle Wilson Reagan was a devout farm-woman who raised Ronald and his older brother, Neil, in the Disciples of Christ Church despite their father’s Catholicism. The family moved frequently, sometimes in response to new job opportunities, sometimes after Jack had been fired because of his drinking. In 1920 they settled in Dixon, Illinois, where Jack became the proprietor and part owner of a shoe store.
Nelle did occasional work to supplement the family’s meager income and became intensely active in church functions. She seemed to live a life of almost complete self-denial, devoted to her children, defensive of her unsuccessful, alcoholic husband (whom she taught her children to tolerate and forgive). But on occasion, she showed signs of frustrated ambitions, particularly when she traveled around the county giving dramatic readings of poetry and melodrama to church groups and other gatherings—a popular form of entertainment at the time and one at which Nelle apparently excelled. Her younger son often accompanied her on these outings, although he later denied that they were the source of his attraction to acting.
Ronald Reagan was an outgoing, optimistic, popular, and apparently happy youth despite the problems of his family. He was interested in sports from an early age and particularly liked football and swimming. His nearsightedness, undiagnosed until he was thirteen, made baseball difficult for him. He was a hardworking and modestly successful student, with a talent for memorization. He was active early in school dramatics. As a teenager, he worked during summers as a lifeguard at the swimming area of the local river and put aside much of what he earned for his education.
His greatest childhood challenge may have been learning to deal with his father’s drinking. As an eleven-year-old, he found his father drunk and passed out on the front porch, dragged him inside, and put him to bed. From then on, he joined his mother and brother in compensating for Jack’s “illness,” as Nelle explained it to the children. And he began as well to construct a series of defenses, finding ways to wall off the pain of his father’s alcoholism from the rest of his essentially happy youth—denying unpleasant realities and viewing his world as he wished it to be. When he graduated from the public high school in Dixon in 1928, he wrote in his yearbook, “Life is just one grand, sweet song, so start the music.”
Reagan had been a member of the varsity football team in high school, and his competent if unremarkable performance on the field was enough to win him a scholarship to Eureka College, a small Disciples of Christ school about a hundred miles from Dixon. He was interested in the school in part because one of Dixon’s best football players (and one of Reagan’s boyhood idols) had studied there six years earlier, and also because Reagan’s high school girlfriend, the daughter of the Disciples of Christ minister in Dixon, would be attending.
Entering college, even one as small and provincial as Eureka, was a sign of unusual ambition in Dixon. Fewer than 10 percent of the town’s recent high school graduates (and no other member of Reagan’s own family) had ever done so. But Reagan glided through college without any visible single-mindedness of purpose. His grades were little better than passing (deliberately so, he later implausibly claimed, to keep him from being recruited—as most good students at Eureka were—to be a high school teacher and coach). He played on the football team but rarely started, enjoyed modest success as a varsity swimmer, and was active in the college’s drama society. Even with a scholarship, Reagan had to work hard at several jobs, both during the term and over the summers, to remain in school. But he established himself nevertheless as one of the most visible and popular students on campus.
Reagan’s youth was in many ways oddly similar to that of other provincial Americans who rose to political prominence: a boyhood in a small town, a family struggling precariously on the edges of the middle class, education in small, undistinguished schools. Huey P. Long, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and many others had grown up in comparable circumstances. But unlike most other small-town boys who rose to political greatness, Reagan showed little early interest in politics. Jack Reagan, like most American Catholics of his era, was a staunch Democrat; and Ronald inherited his father’s unreflective enthusiasm for the party even though, throughout the 1920s, it enjoyed little national success. He became a fervent admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, an attachment that grew stronger when New Deal agencies began providing jobs to unemployed men (among them his father) in depression-ravaged central Illinois. But he never became actively involved in Democratic politics in the state. He found himself drawn occasionally into campus politics at Eureka and in his senior year won election as class president. But when he graduated in 1932, with a B.A. in economics and sociology, politics and public life remained far from his thoughts. He was, he later wrote, drawn to “some form of show business,” an interest born in part of his experiences in the Eureka drama society.
Broadway and Hollywood, Reagan recalled, seemed “as inaccessible as outer space.” So after graduation he decided to look for a job closer to home, in radio. After an unsuccessful search for work in Chicago, he applied for a position as a sports announcer at station WOC in Davenport, Iowa, about seventy-five miles from Dixon. He got the job by impressing the station manager with a vivid description, entirely from memory, of a Eureka College football game. His skill and enthusiasm won him a growing reputation and, soon, a position as chief sports announcer on WHO, a much larger station in Des Moines. Dutch Reagan quickly became one of the most popular sportscasters in Iowa. His first love was football, but the heart of his job was broadcasting Chicago Cubs baseball games. WHO could not afford to send him to Wrigley Field, so he relied on the running accounts of the games provided by the wire services and extemporized the rest. Reagan modeled his broadcasting on such accomplished and popular myth-makers as Graham McNamee and Grantland Rice—the leading figures in a generation of sports journalists to whom accuracy was far less important than color and uplift. Reagan was a success as a broadcaster because he was skilled at creating appealing fantasies and making effective use of anecdotes. His radio experiences reinforced the storytelling talents his friends and family had already recognized; it also reinforced his tendency to embellish events for dramatic effect.
In the spring of 1937, Reagan accompanied the Chicago Cubs to their spring training camp in southern California, a trip he arranged in order to explore a possible movie career. His good looks and confi-dent manner attracted the attention of an agent, who set up a screen test for him with Warner Brothers. The studio was impressed with Reagan and offered him a seven-year contract starting at $200 a week—many times his salary in Des Moines. Reagan promptly accepted. Six months later, he brought his parents to California to live with him.
Reagan did not soon become a star, but he worked steadily and achieved a series of small successes playing leads in B movies and minor parts in more significant films. His early screen image did not differ greatly from his own personality: good-natured, easygoing, and sincere. The studio considered him a dependable actor who did whatever he was told. In 1939, he was cast in the film version of Brother Rat, a Broadway play. It was his most substantial role in a major film yet, but its chief significance for Reagan was that he played opposite the actress Jane Wyman, then in the final stages of a divorce. By the time filming ended, they were engaged. They married in January 1940 and had two children, Maureen, born in 1941, and Michael, whom the couple adopted in 1945, a few days after his birth.
So far, Reagan had moved through his movie career relatively passively, taking the parts he was offered and seldom complaining. But Wyman pressed him to be more assertive, and in 1940 he pursued the part of George Gipp, a famous Notre Dame football player and an important character in the Warner Brothers feature Knute Rockne—All American. Reagan was not yet a “name player,” and some studio executives resisted his request. But his enthusiasm for the role and his background as a sports announcer finally won him the part. The success of the film, and the critical acclaim Reagan received for it, propelled his career. He began to receive better parts, and his performances in such front-rank films as King’s Row (1941) and Desperate Journey (1942) earned him more critical praise.
His growing success also won him a series of deferments from military service (at the request of Warner Brothers) once the United States entered World War II, and then—after he was called up and commissioned an officer in the cavalry—an assignment with an army film unit. He spent the war in California making army training movies at a military base in Los Angeles, with time off to make feature films at Warner Brothers (among them the successful 1943 tribute to the military, This Is the Army). Much of the time, he lived at home with his family. Despite his later claims to the contrary, he never left the country and never saw combat. But he cooperated with studio public relations efforts to portray him as a soldier, who, like other soldiers, left his family to go “off to war.” Feature stories described Wyman bravely carrying on, raising the children and maintaining the household while her man was away. Newsreels and magazine photos depicted Reagan “coming home” for leaves and visits. Reagan later sometimes seemed actually to have believed the ruse. Even decades later, he liked to talk about “coming back from the war,” like other veterans, eager to take up family life again (a life that in his case had hardly been interrupted).
Reagan’s postwar acting career never regained the momentum it had enjoyed in the early 1940s. He had some occasional successes (among them The Hasty Heart in 1949), but he found himself working more often now in minor roles or minor films. Jane Wyman’s career, in the meantime, was flourishing, and her absorption with it contributed to what were already growing tensions within the marriage. The couple divorced in 1948.
As his career and his marriage languished, Reagan had begun to become active in politics. His first vehicle was the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the film actors’ union. Reagan had been active in SAG since his first months in Hollywood, and his involvement grew with his marriage to Wyman, who was also an important figure in the organization. In 1946, he chaired a union strike committee and demonstrated an energy and a toughness that his SAG colleagues had not previously seen. In 1947, he became president of the union, a position he held for six years. Reagan still considered himself a liberal Democrat, and he used his new political distinction to campaign for Harry Truman in 1948. There was occasional talk of Reagan himself running for Congress as a Democrat, but party leaders apparently opposed the idea because they considered him too liberal.
In reality, Reagan’s political views were changing more rapidly than his public activities suggested. During the war, he had harshly criticized the waste and corruption he saw in the awarding of military contracts, and his suspicion of government bureaucracies only grew in the following years. He was also now complaining frequently about taxes. He had signed a million-dollar contract with Warner Brothers in 1944, but the very high wartime tax rates (up to 90 percent in the upper brackets) greatly reduced his income. In 1950, after initially endorsing the actress Helen Gahagan Douglas for the United States Senate, he switched his support to Richard Nixon in mid-campaign. And as president of SAG, he became active in efforts to distance the union from Communist influence (driven to do so, no doubt, by the savagely anti-Communist political climate, but also by his own deep and growing aversion to Communists). By the late 1940s, he was cooperating with the FBI and testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities against Communism in the union (although he was not asked to name any individual Communists). Subsequently, he cooperated with the studios as they quietly administered the notorious blacklist of alleged Communists who were to be barred from employment in the movie industry. Reagan later claimed that the effort by Hollywood Communists to “take over the motion picture business,” and the unwillingness of many liberals to confront them, was responsible for his political turn to the right.
At least as responsible, however, was his marriage in 1952 to Nancy Davis, a young and largely unknown actress whom he had met at a dinner party in 1949. Davis was the daughter of a once-successful stage actress, Edith Luckett. Her natural parents separated when she was an infant, and she spent most of her childhood in the home of her mother’s second husband, Loyal Davis, whose name Nancy took and whose right-wing political views she uncritically absorbed. Her family’s conservatism reinforced Reagan’s own accelerating drift to the right.
Reagan’s second marriage was a happy one. The couple lived in a comfortable home in Pacific Palisades and began to spend time at a ranch Reagan had bought near Santa Barbara. They had two children, Patricia, born in 1952, and Ronald, born in 1958. But Reagan’s film career was now in serious decline. Warner Brothers had not renewed his contract, and he was having difficulty finding steady work elsewhere. He was now in his mid-forties, and major stardom was coming to seem beyond his reach.
Corporate Spokesman and Rising Conservative
In 1954, after several years of sporadic acting in minor westerns, Reagan signed a lucrative contract to become the host of the General Electric Theater, a new television drama series. Reagan introduced each show and acted in some of them. He also became active in GE corporate relations, touring the company’s plants and serving as its “goodwill ambassador” to the public. He spent much time in the company of Earl Dunckel, who handled public relations for the GE Theater and who bombarded Reagan constantly with his deeply conservative political views.
Similar views began to appear more and more often in the increasingly frequent and increasingly political speeches Reagan gave for General Electric in the mid- and late 1950s, when he became not just the host of the company’s television series but, in effect, its most prominent corporate spokesman. His subject was almost invariably the wastefulness and intrusiveness of government (which should, he insisted, “be reduced to the barest minimum”) and the bankruptcy of the “welfare state.” In public, at least, nothing remained of his earlier liberal enthusiasms and his fervent support of the New Deal.
In late 1959, Reagan reluctantly accepted an invitation from the Screen Actors Guild to return as president; he steered the union through a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful strike in which SAG members demanded a share of the profits the studios were receiving for selling film rights to television. But Reagan’s main interests now lay elsewhere, and shortly after the unhappy end of the strike he resigned as both president and board member of SAG and never again took an active role in the organization. Instead, he plunged into Republican politics. Although he was still nominally a Democrat, he worked for Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign (and in 1962 officially changed his party affiliation). But his own politics were, in fact, well to Nixon’s right. His fiery speeches for GE in early 1961 and 1962 were fervently anti-Communist and expressed the unhappiness of the party’s right wing with the bipartisan commitment to “containment” that had shaped American foreign policy since 1948. Reagan, like the right’s great hero of the early 1960s, Barry Goldwater, spoke of the need for “victory” in the battle against Communism.
In 1962, the Kennedy administration launched an antitrust investigation of MCA, one of Hollywood’s most powerful talent agencies, which in the 1950s used heavy and some believed illegal pressure to drive competitors out of business and establish a virtual monopoly over large segments of the film industry. Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild during the period of MCA’s most rapid and ruthless expansion; his own agent was a power in the company; and there were charges that Reagan had used his influence with SAG to help MCA’s rise to dominance. The justice Department subpoenaed Reagan’s tax returns, and rumors of improper behavior that had begun in 1960 grew to new levels. At about the same time, General Electric canceled the GE Theater, and Reagan was suddenly without employment.
But Reagan’s problems did not last long. In September, MCA reached an agreement with the Justice Department to divest itself of some of its divisions; the government then dropped its investigation of Reagan. In the meantime, Reagan found a new role as the host and narrator of Death Valley Days, a television western sponsored by Borax. And he accelerated his political activities, speaking now not as a corporate spokesman but as an independent political figure much in demand by the large and growing Republican right wing.
By 1964, Reagan had been socially friendly for more than a decade with Barry Goldwater, who ran for and won the Republican presidential nomination. Reagan eagerly agreed to help Goldwater’s campaign. One week before the election, at Goldwater’s request, Reagan appeared on national television and gave a memorable speech, “A Time for Choosing,” in which he presented the conservative views on major issues he had been promoting in California for years. “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” he grandiloquently concluded, in a phrase associated with his boyhood idol Franklin Roosevelt. “We can preserve for our children this last best hope of man on earth or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children, and our children’s children, say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.” The speech created a political sensation. David S. Broder of the Washington Post called it “the most successful political debut since Willam Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic convention with his ‘Cross of Gold’ speech.” Almost overnight, Reagan became a national political figure—a hero to those on the right who even before the election were losing faith in Goldwater. After the shattering Republican defeat that fall, the party’s conservative wing began looking to Reagan for leadership.
Governor of California
Reagan moved immediately to capitalize on the momentum of the Goldwater speech and began appearing before Republican gatherings in California and elsewhere within weeks of the 1964 election. By 1965, encouraged by conservative political leaders and right-wing businessmen in California, he had decided to run for governor; he formally announced his candidacy early in 1966. His opponent was the incumbent governor, Edmund G. Brown, a popular politician running for his third term. (He had defeated Richard Nixon four years earlier.) Brown spoke condescendingly of Reagan’s inexperience and ridiculed his film career. But he was no match for Reagan’s homespun magnetism. The Reagan campaign capitalized on popular anger at student demonstrations on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, and it portrayed Brown as an old-fashioned politician out of touch with the people. Reagan, in contrast, presented himself as an ordinary citizen fed up with politics and committed to making government more efficient and accountable. He defeated Brown in a landslide.
Reagan entered office surrounded by conservative political outsiders from southern California, fueled with ideological fervor. But the pressures of politics quickly forced the new administration to compromise. In the end, Reagan’s governorship was symbolically radical but substantively conventional. Having inherited a substantial budget deficit from the previous administration, Reagan ordered an across-the-board 10-percent reduction in state spending, only to have to restore funds to a host of programs that were already so lean they could not survive the cuts. Within a year he was pressing for a major tax increase—in part to address the budget deficit, in part to give him a fiscal cushion so that he would not have to ask again. Shaped in the end by Democrats in the legislature, the final bill produced a highly progressive tax increase, the highest in the history of California (or of any other state). Reagan signed it, blaming the irresponsibility of his predecessor. When the tax increases produced a budget surplus in subsequent years, he attributed it to his administration’s managerial skill.
In the end, Reagan’s budget was, in fact, more than twice as high as Brown’s; and while much of that growth was a result of inflation, some of it was because of spending increases in the same programs that conservatives had once vowed to cut or abolish—many of them programs important to some of Reagan’s critical constituencies. He worked effectively with the Democratic legislature on a series of tax and welfare reforms that were not at all consistent with the more radical agenda of Reagan’s most conservative supporters. He oversaw one of the largest (and most expensive) water projects in the nation’s history. And despite his harsh rhetorical attacks on the University of California for its alleged coddling of radicals, his administration was generally supportive of the system and helped it to grow. State government under Reagan, according to Gary G. Hamilton and Nicole Woolsey Biggart, did not “shrink and allow private citizens to handle their own affairs,” as Reagan had once promised. “Instead government entrenched itself in many ways as a strong, effective force in California society” (Governor Reagan, Governor Brown [New York, 1984], p. 214).
Reagan’s governing style in California was much like the style he would later adopt in the White House. He was an effective communicator of his administration’s broad goals (vague though they often were), and he relished the ceremonial aspects of his job. But he was oddly passive in the day-to-day running of the government. His days were rigidly organized around the typed schedule his assistants always prepared for him and from which he rarely departed. He ceded operating responsibility for his office to a series of energetic aides, many of whom were as inexperienced as he was. (Lyn Nofziger, his first chief of staff in Sacramento, later claimed that the Reagan administration had “materialized out of thin air with no political background, no political cronies and no political machine,” and that the new governor was surrounded by “novice amateurs,” among them Nofziger himself.)
Reagan disliked bureaucratic conflict, so he permitted his aides and cabinet officers to work out their disagreements among themselves; the governor would then usually ratify a compromise he had played no role in creating. He also relied heavily on existing state agencies. That was one reason his record was so much more moderate than his rhetoric. He left control of education and the environment, for example, to Democrats of progressive inclinations, and his record in both areas pleased many liberals. Reagan won reelection comfortably in 1970 over the Democratic Speaker of the California House, Jesse Unruh, but his victory margin was considerably smaller than it had been four years before. Perhaps that was because he was by then no longer a crusading outsider. He was an incumbent governor with an essentially moderate record.
But state politics was never Reagan’s principal interest. Almost from the beginning of his governorship, he had his eye on national leadership. In 1968 he made a brief foray into presidential politics, entering the race for the Republican nomination shortly before the convention—essentially as a favorite son. From then on, he and his supporters planned for another national campaign in 1976, after Nixon’s second term. But Watergate ended the Nixon presidency prematurely, and when Reagan left the governorship at the end of 1974, he unexpectedly found an incumbent Republican president, Gerald R. Ford, standing between him and his hopes. Unwilling to wait, Reagan crafted a harsh conservative critique of Ford’s policies and appointments and challenged him with surprising effectiveness in the 1976 Republican primaries. Ford hung on to win re-nomination by a narrow margin, but Reagan emerged from the campaign the clear leader of the growing Republican right. He hardly paused before beginning preparations for the 1980 campaign.
Only a few years earlier, so many Americans had considered Reagan to be a man of such extreme views that thoughts of him as a potential president had seemed absurd. But much had changed by the late 1970s, both in Reagan’s own political credibility (a result of two reasonably successful terms as governor of the nation’s most populous state) and in the character of national politics. The booming prosperity and ebullient optimism of the late 1950s and early 1960s had disappeared in the maelstrom of Vietnam; the tumult of racial conflict, urban disorder, and student radicalism; the shambles of Watergate; and perhaps most of all the jarring changes in the American economy after 1973, which did much to increase insecurity and resentment. The American Right, which had appeared so thoroughly repudiated as recently as 1964, profited enormously from these changes and from its own successful efforts at rebuilding.
By the time Reagan began his campaign for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, conservatives were the beneficiaries of a remarkable communications and fund-raising organization, developed originally by conservative activist Richard Viguerie from a list of twelve thousand Goldwater contributors and expanded to more than 4 million contributors and 15 million names by the mid-1970s. Gradually, these direct-mail operations came to be accompanied by a much larger conservative infrastructure, designed to match and even exceed what the right saw as the powerful liberal infrastructure. There were now right-wing think tanks, consulting firms, lobbyists, and foundations, staffed by talented, committed men and women eager to promote the conservative cause. There was also a substantial and rapidly growing group of evangelical Christian conservatives who were becoming politically active and developing organizational strength of their own.
The failure of Gerald Ford’s presidency did much to damage the fragile equilibrium that had enabled the right wing and the moderate wing of the Republican party to coexist, and convinced many conservatives that they must insist on a candidate true to their beliefs. Unwittingly, perhaps, Ford touched on some of the right’s rawest nerves. He appointed as vice president Nelson A. Rockefeller, whom conservative Republicans had reviled for more than a decade. (Goldwater delegates had tried to boo Rockefeller off the podium at the 1964 Republican convention.) Richard Viguerie attributed the birth of the “New Right” to this event alone. Ford proposed an amnesty program for draft resisters, embraced and even extended the Nixon-Kissinger policies of détente, presided ineffectually over the fall of South Vietnam to North Vietnam in 1975, and agreed to cede the Panama Canal to Panama. All of these decisions became potent issues in Reagan’s primary campaign against him in 1976. To stave off Reagan’s challenge, Ford had to drop Rockefeller from his ticket and accept a solidly conservative platform written largely by one of Reagan’s allies, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Reagan hailed that platform by saying that the party “must raise a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all the issues troubling the people.”
But the phenomenon that may ultimately have done the most to propel Reagan’s rise, and also to shape his presidency, was one that began in 1978. In that year, the conservative activist Howard Jarvis launched the first major, successful citizens’ tax revolt in a generation by organizing an elaborate campaign behind Proposition 13, a referendum question on the California ballot rolling back property tax rates. At a time of slow economic growth and stagnating incomes, the revolt against taxes suddenly had a tremendous appeal. Proposition 13 passed easily, and a dozen other states passed similar referenda over the next several years. The tax revolt moved rapidly from local to national politics. Articulate popular economists such as George Gilder and Jude Wanniski created a new, inverted version of Keynesianism, which they called “supply-side” economics (to differentiate it from liberal Keynesianism, which emphasized consumer demand). By cutting tax rates (and offering particularly large cuts to wealthy people), the supply-siders claimed, government would encourage investment and help produce enough growth to generate higher total tax revenues. “There are always two tax rates that yield the same revenues,” the economics writer Arthur B. Laffer liked to argue, explaining his briefly famous “Laffer curve.” A lower rate could generate as much income for government as a higher one by stimulating growth and increasing taxable income. In 1979 Representative Jack Kemp of New York and Senator William Roth of Delaware proposed a 30-percent reduction in federal income tax rates, without suggesting that such a cut would require any significant reduction in government services. And in 1980 Ronald Reagan—who little more than a decade earlier had pushed the largest state tax increase in American history through the California legislature—accepted the advice of his campaign managers and made a major tax reduction one of the economic centerpieces of his presidential campaign.
Other events helped the Reagan cause as well. The hapless campaign of George Bush, his principal challenger in the Republican primaries, gave Reagan an important boost just before the critical New Hampshire primary. (Bush once referred to Reagan’s supply-side program as “voodoo economics,” a phrase that haunted both men for years, especially once Bush became Reagan’s running mate and vice president.) More important was the deep unpopularity of Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president and Reagan’s opponent in the fall campaign. Disenchantment with Carter was so great that Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts challenged him in the Democratic primaries—ultimately unsuccessfully, but effectively enough to do serious harm. Particularly damaging to Carter was a crisis that began in November 1979 in Iran, where a fiercely anti-Western Islamic regime, led by the fundamental-ist cleric Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, had recently seized power. At almost the moment Kennedy announced his candidacy, Islamic militants loyal to Khomeini seized the American embassy in Tehran and took fifty-two Americans hostage. The fate of the hostages soon became a national preoccupation and, over time, a political disaster for the president. A military rescue mission in April 1980 ended in shambles, reinforcing the charges Reagan and other conservatives were making about the dismal state of the nations’ defenses. The Soviet Union, in the meantime, had launched an invasion of Afghanistan, raising Cold War tensions to their highest point in years.
In the end, though, popular frustration with the troubled economy was probably Reagan’s greatest political ally. Soaring inflation and high interest rates—driven in large part by dramatic price increases in Middle Eastern oil—combined with stagnation and high unemployment to create an unusually sour political climate. The most memorable statement of the campaign was Reagan’s question to the American people: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”
Election day 1980, then, marked the intersection of many powerful trends: the successful rebuilding of a national conservative movement; growing economic anxiety; rising insecurity about America’s place in the world; Jimmy Carter’s spiraling unpopularity; and perhaps most of all, the apotheosis of Ronald Reagan. Once a minor film star and a politician whom many Americans considered an extremist, he had emerged as the most magnetic public figure in the nation. His victory in the presidential race was substantial. He won 50.7 percent of the popular vote to Jimmy Carter’s 41. (John Anderson, a moderate Republican congressman from Illinois running as an independent, received 6.6 percent; and Ed Clark, the candidate of the Libertarian party, received a surprising 1.1.) Reagan won 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. Hours before the polls closed, President Carter called Reagan in California to offer his congratulations. Reagan had been taking a shower, and as he later recalled it: “Standing in my bathroom with a wrapped towel around me, my hair dripping with water, I … learned I was going to be the fortieth President of the United States.”
Perhaps equally important to the future of Reagan’s administration as the decisiveness of the presidential vote, Republicans won control of the U.S. Senate for the first time in twenty-eight years; and Democrats retained control of the House by such a narrow margin that, for a time at least, there was an effective pro-Reagan majority composed of Republicans and conservative Democrats (known to many as “boll weevils”). Reagan would be the first Republican president since Eisenhower to enter office with a relatively pliant Congress.
Presidential Style and Leadership
Reagan’s first term began dramatically. He later recalled that, as he stood to take the oath of office on 20 January 1981 on the West Front of the Capitol (the first president ever to do so), “the sun burst through the clouds in an explosion of warmth and light.” A much more important symbol of change, however, was Iran’s decision to release the fifty remaining American hostages at almost the moment of the swearing in; Reagan was able to announce the news at a luncheon just after the ceremony, as Jimmy Carter, who had negotiated the release in the last hours of his presidency, was flying home to Georgia.
Two other dramatic events punctuated Reagan’s first months in office, both of them important in shaping the powerful image he quickly came to assume in the imagination of many Americans. On 30 March, as the president left a Washington hotel after delivering a speech, he was shot in the chest by John Hinckley, Jr., a deranged young man (later found not guilty by reason of insanity) who had been waiting in the crowd outside. Rushed to the hospital, Reagan joked with the surgeons as they wheeled him into the operating room. “I hope you’re all Republicans,” he reportedly said. He left the hospital eleven days later; and the White House staff arranged a series of carefully crafted public appearances that convinced most Americans that he had recovered from his wounds with remarkable speed. In fact, his injuries were serious, and he followed a sharply curtailed schedule for several months. Disguising that fact was the first of many successes by Reagan’s skillful media advisers.
Four months later, on 3 August, thirteen thousand air traffic controllers (members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or PATCO, a union that had supported Reagan in 1980) walked off their jobs. The controllers were federal employees and, by law, forbidden to strike; but their leader, Robert Poli, believed that their ability to shut down the nation’s airports would intimidate the administration into accepting their demands. On the advice of Drew Lewis, the new secretary of transportation, Reagan refused to negotiate with the strikers. He gave the controllers forty-eight hours to return to work and then fired those who did not. The government hastily hired replacements, and the disruption of air traffic was brief. The strike was, as Reagan recalled in his memoirs, “an important juncture for our new administration. I think it convinced people who might have thought otherwise that I meant what I said.”
The assassination attempt and the PATCO strike, critical as they were to shaping the new president’s image, were unexpected events. Much more important to his political successes were the everyday efforts of the administration to capitalize on Reagan’s engaging personality and make it, and not his sometimes harsh policies, the defining feature of his presidency. Schooled by years in Hollywood, Reagan was a master of self-presentation. He was the most gifted public speaker to occupy the presidency in a generation, and a talented staff of speechwriters ensured that his State of the Union addresses, his televised statements on important events, and ultimately his speeches during his reelection campaign in 1984 were suffused with emotional symbols and powerful, patriotic imagery; statements that would have seemed stilted and in-authentic from a less talented speaker became exhilarating oratory when Reagan spoke them.
Reagan turned seventy years old a few weeks after his inauguration. From his first day in office, he was the oldest man ever to serve as president, and his age was almost certainly an important factor in the way he governed. He worked relatively short hours, sometimes dozed off in meetings, and spent more time on vacations than any president in generations. But through most of his eight years in the White House, Reagan managed to appear energetic, resilient, even youthful—an image his outwardly rapid recovery from the 1981 shooting did much to reinforce. Later, his staff ensured that even his many vacations would seem evidence of his vigor. The most prominent images of Reagan at leisure consisted of pictures of him riding horses and chopping wood at his Santa Barbara ranch.
The principal figures on Reagan’s White House staff were James A. Baker III, Edwin Meese III, and Michael K. Deaver. For the first four years of his presidency, they formed a tightly knit triumvirate that ran the daily workings of the White House. They carefully cultivated sympathetic members of Congress of both parties and thus had much to do with the president’s early legislative successes. Perhaps more significant, they understood the political importance of the president’s image; and they worked energetically, and often brilliantly, to craft that image. They carefully planned the president’s every public appearance, chose appropriate backdrops, worked to shape media coverage of him, and tried above all to insulate him from situations where he might speak spontaneously. (Reagan’s unscripted remarks were often ill-considered; and when the staff failed to prevent them, it often had to spend considerable energy limiting the political damage they caused.) They received important assistance in their efforts from Nancy Reagan. Her public role in the administration was limited, mostly traditional, and highly social; among other things, she brought a new level of opulence and ceremony to the White House. Privately, however, she was very active and very powerful in shaping public perception of her husband. At times, she played a major role in more substantive decisions as well.
Reagan’s enforced absence from the daily business of the White House after his attempted assassination established a pattern that continued in many ways well beyond his convalescence. He was never very interested in, or very well informed about, the details of governance; and his public statements often revealed a startling ignorance of his own policies and the actions of his subordinates. Just as he had while governor of California, he preferred to leave specific decisions to his advisers and to ratify compromises that they forged without him. Just as in California, he reveled in the ceremonial aspects of his job. And just as in California, he rigidly adhered to the daily schedule—a copy of which was neatly typed each day and placed on his desk in a silver frame—and rarely deviated from it. He took great pleasure in checking off meetings and events as he moved through the day.
Many critics of the president, and even some of his own advisers writing later in their memoirs, considered Reagan shockingly aloof from the business of government, a figurehead who played no more than a symbolic role in his own administration. They cited his fondness for anecdotes, his self-deprecating humor, his tendency to tell irrelevant Hollywood stories, and his frequent citation of fictional episodes in his own, or the nation’s, past as if they were true; and they argued that together, they revealed a basic lack of interest in, even an unfitness for, his job. But others, including Reagan himself, insisted that he was highly effective in his most important task: establishing broad themes for his administration and keeping his subordinates focused on them despite the immediate pressures of politics. “It was striking how often we on the staff would become highly agitated by the latest news bulletins,” one of Reagan’s aides later recalled. “Reagan saw the same events as nothing more than a bump in the road; things would get better tomorrow. His horizons were just not the same as ours.”
Reagan was, he insisted, more than the Great Communicator (as he was often described)—more than simply a gifted speaker, although he knew that his oratorical skills, and even his avuncular charm as a storyteller, did much to burnish his image and insulate him from criticism. His most important achievement, he insisted, was not how he communicated, but what. He spoke, he said, of “great things,” and his words and actions helped the nation move along a fundamentally new course, a course in which he deeply believed and from which he tried not to waver. His most important legacy, he believed, would transcend the particulars of policy. It would be to convince Americans “to believe in themselves again.” And for a time, at least, he seemed to succeed in that goal.
The most significant element of Reagan’s first months in office, however, was not the crafting of his public image or the shaping of his style of governance—as important as both those things were to the future of his presidency. It was his bold effort to transform the nation’s economic policies. Relying on the arguments of the supply-side theorists who had been so important to his campaign, he proposed a three-year, 30-percent reduction in both individual and corporate income tax rates—the biggest single tax reduction in American history. The tax cuts affected people in all income groups; but the greatest beneficiaries were people in the highest brackets—those who, according to the supply-siders, would be most likely to use the surplus income to invest in the economy. Congress approved the president’s proposal in late July 1981, after lowering the reduction slightly, to 25 percent.
Cutting taxes, Reagan insisted, would stimulate economic growth much more effectively than the traditional liberal approach of increasing government spending. But Reagan, in fact, increased spending too. He proposed an enormous increase in the military budget ($1.5 trillion over five years) to rebuild armed forces that he claimed had been allowed to deteriorate badly in the 1970s. Congress approved that increase, although it was later scaled back significantly. At the same time, the administration set out to make substantial cuts in domestic spending. David A. Stockman, Reagan’s talented budget director, supervised an effort to squeeze more than $41 billion out of the government’s nonmilitary “discretionary” spending. The task was extremely difficult. The administration could not reduce the 10 percent of the budget committed to paying interest on the national debt (which reached $1 trillion during Reagan’s first year in office) and had already agreed to actual increases in the 25 percent of the budget that went to the military. It was not willing to make any significant changes in spending on Social Security, Medicare, and several other broad-based programs. That left a host of much smaller programs, constituting about 10 percent of the budget, many of which were designed to help the poorest Americans. Almost by definition, the bulk of the cuts Stockman proposed came from these programs.
The administration increased the already tight spending restrictions on Medicaid, the major program of medical assistance for the poor, which the federal government financed jointly with the states. It reduced federal subsidies for low-income housing, cut spending on food stamps, reduced federal aid to education and federal contributions to state governments, and placed new restrictions on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (the principal program of direct assistance to the poor). It also substantially reduced spending on government itself—forcing staff and service cuts in almost all departments and agencies. In some cases, the cutbacks eliminated the waste and inefficiency that Reagan argued was characteristic of many government programs. In other cases, they impaired the ability of agencies to function effectively and contributed to the growing popular belief that government could not be trusted to do anything well.
The administration did not win congressional approval of all the budget reductions it requested, but it did much better than most observers had expected. Even many programs that had once seemed unassailable experienced significant reductions. It became clear early in 1981 that the results of the 1980 election had sent shock waves through Congress. Republicans and Democrats alike were scrambling to respond to what they thought the voters had demanded. But they were also responding to evidence of the president’s growing popularity. The administration pushed its legislative package through Congress in part through skillful lobbying by the talented White House staff. But equally important were the president’s effective television addresses to the nation, which aroused groundswells of popular support for his proposals.
Men and women whom Reagan appointed fanned out through the executive branch of government, committed to reducing the role of government in American economic life. Deregulation, an idea many Democrats had begun to embrace in the Carter years, became the religion of the Reagan administration. Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt had been a major figure in the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement among western conservatives to fight federal environmental regulations, which they believed had a particularly devastating effect on their region’s economy. Watt opened up public lands and water to development and tried to ease other restrictions on the private use of public lands. The Environmental Protection Agency (before its directors were indicted for corruption) relaxed or entirely eliminated enforcement of critical environmental laws and regulations. The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department eased enforcement of civil rights laws. The Department of Transportation slowed implementation of new rules limiting automobile emissions and imposing new safety standards on cars and trucks. By getting government “out of the way,” Reagan officials promised, they were helping to ensure economic revival.
The Reagan administration also transformed the federal judiciary. By the time he left office, Reagan had named more than half of all the federal judges in the nation and three justices of the Supreme Court, among them Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman ever appointed. Reagan’s court appointments, like his appointments to regulatory agencies, had the effect of reversing many of the judicial trends that had been gathering force for over twenty years. The conservative judges and justices who took office in the 1980s set about limiting the effect of some of the decisions of the Warren Court in the 1960s—tempering the strict protections of criminal rights, softening some civil rights measures, and perhaps most notably, weakening (although never eliminating) the right to abortion established by the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. Symbolic of the conservative shift was Reagan’s elevation of William H. Rehnquist, one of the most conservative Supreme Court justices, to chief justice; and his appointment to the Court of Antonin Scalia, a brilliant legal scholar of exceptionally conservative views. Reagan attempted to appoint Robert H. Bork, another fervently conservative judicial activist, to the Supreme Court but was stymied in that effort after a well-organized campaign by liberals and feminists against Bork’s controversial views.
Reagan’s policies were seldom as radical as his rhetoric (and never as radical as the agenda of the militantly conservative Republican Congress of the mid-1990s). But taken together, the achievements of Reagan’s first term represented a significant shift in the direction of public policy. That was visible above all in the administration’s economic policies. For the first time since the 1920s, the government was shaping its fiscal policy (its taxing and spending) to promote investment more than consumption and to reduce the tax and regulatory burden on corporations and wealthy people. For the first time since the 1950s (and much more energetically than then), an administration was attempting to stop the growth of many areas of government and to reduce, at times even to eliminate, programs that many Americans had come to consider timeless and unassailable. So distinctive was the new economic program that many began describing it as the Reagan Revolution or, even more frequently and enduringly, Reaganomics.
Both in his campaign and in his early presidential speeches, Reagan had promised not only to reduce taxes and cut spending, but to balance the federal budget. He never did. Instead, his policies contributed to the largest budget deficits in American history and a tripling of the national debt during his eight years in office. Indeed, one of Reagan’s most important legacies was his contribution to an enduring fiscal crisis. He helped create a federal budget that was structurally, and radically, unbalanced; and he launched an era in which the national debt grew steadily and dramatically for many years.
The fiscal crisis did little to erode Reagan’s popularity. Even though his administration never proposed, let alone achieved, anything approaching a credible balanced budget, the public apparently did not care very much, or accepted the president’s explanation that the deficit was the fault of Congress. But the fiscal crisis had a profound and lasting effect on American politics. Over time, it deeply eroded the already weakened faith of the American people in their government and their leaders. And it placed an enormous, even insuperable, obstacle in the way of future leaders who wished to use government to address domestic or international problems. By the mid-1990s, the federal deficit, and efforts to reduce it, had become one of the central facts of American political life.
Reagan had not intended to explode the federal deficit, but his decisions as president led inevitably to that result. He cut taxes substantially and continued to support those cuts even when they did not produce the increase in government revenues that supply-side advocates had promised. He increased the military budget by much more than he was able to cut domestic spending. He refused to consider taking the politically difficult steps of finding savings in popular entitlement programs, most notably Medicare and Social Security, despite strong pressure from members of Congress to do so. His budget officers based their economic projections on dubious, at times even preposterous, assumptions that they themselves knew were false. David Stockman delivered a sharp blow to the administration’s image late in 1981 when, in a remarkably candid interview in the Atlantic Monthly, he suggested that the Reagan Revolution had failed. The president’s tax cut, he claimed, was a “Trojan horse,” promising reductions for everyone but really designed to reduce the rates at the top. The administration had never made a serious effort to balance the budget and never had a reasonable idea of how to do so. “None of us really understands what’s going on with all these numbers,” he conceded.
By the end of Reagan’s third year in office, funding for domestic programs had been cut nearly as far as Congress (and, apparently, the public) was willing to tolerate, and still no end to the rising deficits was in sight. Congress responded with the so-called Gramm-Rudman bill, passed late in 1985, which mandated major deficit reductions over five years and provided for automatic budget cuts in all areas of government spending should the president and Congress fail to agree on an alternative solution. Under Gramm-Rudman, the budget deficit did decline for several years from its 1983 high. But much of that decline was a result of a substantial surplus in the Social Security trust fund. (The administration had helped engineer a dramatic increase in Social Security taxes, which for people of low and moderate incomes more than offset the effects of the 1981 income tax reduction.) By the late 1980s, many fiscal conservatives were calling for a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget—a provision the president himself claimed to support but did little to promote. (Congress came within one vote of passing such an amendment in 1995)
Much more damaging to the president’s political fortunes was a steep recession that began late in 1981 and soon became the most severe since the Great Depression. Reagan’s economic policies were not responsible for the downturn; few of them had yet had a chance to have an impact on the economy. But the administration did little to fight the recession once it began. Reagan took his lead in part from Paul Volcker, the strong-willed chairman of the Federal Reserve Board (appointed by Jimmy Carter), who considered inflation a more serious threat to the economy than recession. Volcker’s policies of high interest rates had been one of many causes of the recession, and his slowness to reduce the rates was one reason the recession became so severe. The recession was particularly devastating to American industry. Manufacturers had been suffering from the high interest rates for several years. High rates made it difficult to borrow and invest; they also made the dollar expensive in world markets and sharply reduced American exports. The nation’s trade deficit rose from $25 billion in 1980 to $111 billion in 1984. Once the recession began, businesses closed plants and eliminated hundreds of thousands of jobs. Unemployment in 1982 reached 9.7 percent, its highest point in more than forty years. Farmers, even more dependent on exports than manufacturers, fared worse. Hundreds of thousands of them lost their land in the course of the 1980s.
Reagan expressed sympathy for victims of the recession, but he never seriously considered changing course. He supported Volcker’s commitment to the anti-inflation strategy even as the economy slid further downward. He refused to alter his economic program, insisting that if the nation would “stay the course” it would emerge healthier and more prosperous at the end. And in fact, the recession lifted more rapidly and impressively than almost anyone had predicted. By the end of 1983, unemployment had fallen to 8.3 percent, and it continued to decline for the next five years. The gross national product had grown 3.6 percent in a year, the largest increase in nearly a decade. Inflation had fallen to below 5 percent. The economy continued to grow, and both inflation and unemployment remained low (at least by the more pessimistic standards the nation seemed to have accepted) for the rest of the decade.
The recovery was a result of many factors. The Federal Reserve finally eased interest rates early in 1983. A worldwide “energy glut” and the virtual collapse of the powerful cartel of Middle Eastern oil producers stopped the upward spiral of energy prices that had done so much to fuel inflation and inhibit economic growth in the 1970s. And the staggering levels of deficit spending pumped billions of dollars into the sagging economy. Reagan’s policies had not worked as their initial advocates had expected, and much of his administration’s contribution to the economic recovery was inadvertent. The recovery itself, moreover, was less robust than the major economic indicators revealed. The benefits of the economic growth flowed disproportionately to those in the upper income categories, and the boom did not create jobs or increase incomes for working-class and lower-middle-class people in any way comparable to what earlier booms had done. The poverty rate not only failed to decline, but actually rose in the 1980s from its levels of the 1970s. But these problems became visible only slowly. In the meantime, the president reaped enormous political benefits from the prosperity of 1983 and beyond, which his supporters later called, with some justification, “the longest peacetime expansion in American history.”
Reagan encountered a similar combination of triumphs and difficulties in international affairs. Determined to restore American pride and prestige in the world, he argued that the United States should once again become active and assertive in opposing Communism and in supporting friendly governments whatever their internal policies. The president’s rhetoric, and the administration’s military spending policies, supported that goal. But in the end, Reagan’s foreign policy—although more belligerent than that of his two immediate predecessors—was considerably more cautious than his sometimes bellicose statements suggested.
Unlike recent presidents from Nixon to Carter, whose national security advisers had often overshadowed the cabinet in formulating foreign policy, Reagan appointed prominent men to be secretary of state and secretary of defense and left the White House position to a series of little-known figures whose influence at first rarely matched those of the cabinet ministers. His first secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., a man of high self-regard and little patience with politics, resigned after less than a year, complaining that the administration was not following a consistent diplomatic course. His replacement, former secretary of commerce George P. Shultz, served for the remainder of Reagan’s term and usually, although not always, dominated the formulation of policy. Shultz’s task was complicated by his long-running feud with Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, who—despite his unwavering and un-critical support of ever rising defense budgets—was extremely reluctant to endorse any deployment of American troops in situations that carried any element of risk. Over time, the intensity of their disagreements worked to enhance the position of the national security adviser, whose office became increasingly influential as the years passed.
Relations with the Soviet Union, which had been steadily deteriorating in the last years of the Carter administration, grew still more strained in the first years of the Reagan presidency. The president spoke harshly of the Soviet regime, which he once called an “evil empire.” He accused it of sponsoring world terrorism, and he declared that any armaments negotiations must be linked to negotiations on Soviet behavior in other areas. Relations with the Russians deteriorated further after the government of Poland (under strong pressure from Moscow) imposed martial law on the country in the winter of 1981 to crush a growing challenge from an independent labor organization, Solidarity.
The president had long denounced the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) negotiated by Ford and Carter but as yet unratified by the Senate, although he continued quietly to honor its provisions. The treaty was, Reagan claimed, unfavorable to the United States, and he declined to request ratification. And the early Reagan administration made little progress toward arms control in other areas. In fact, the president proposed the most ambitious (and potentially most expensive) new military program in many years: the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), widely known as “Star Wars” after the popular movie of that name. Reagan claimed that SDI, through the use of lasers and satellites, could provide an effective shield against incoming missiles and thus make nuclear war obsolete. The Soviet Union claimed that the new program would elevate the arms race to new and more dangerous levels (a complaint many domestic critics of SDI shared) and insisted that any arms control agreement begin with an American abandonment of SDI. But Reagan remained fervently committed to SDI until the end of his administration, even as the original lofty claims for it proved impossible to sustain and it evolved into a relatively conventional (if unprecedentedly expensive) plan for shielding American missile sites from attack.
The escalation of Cold War tensions and the slowing of arms control initiatives helped produce an important popular movement in Europe and the United States calling for an end to nuclear weapons buildups. In America, the principal goal of the movement was a “nuclear freeze,” an agreement between the two superpowers not to expand their atomic arsenals. In what many believed was the largest mass demonstration in American history, nearly a million people rallied in New York City’s Central Park in 1982 to support the freeze. Perhaps partly in response to this growing pressure, the administration began tentative efforts to revive arms control negotiations in 1983.
At the same time, however, it began—rhetorically at least—to support forces opposing Communism almost anywhere in the world, whether or not the regimes or movements such forces were challenging had any direct connection to the Soviet Union. This new policy became known as the Reagan Doctrine, and it represented a conscious effort to repudiate the lessons that liberals and others had drawn from the failed war in Vietnam. Reagan called Vietnam a “noble cause,” and both he and his supporters seemed to believe that the American defeat had been more the result of insufficient resolve than of the flawed premises of the original commitment. In practice, the Reagan Doctrine meant above all a new American activism in Latin America. In October 1983, the administration sent American soldiers into the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada to oust an anti-American Marxist regime that showed signs of forging a relationship with Moscow. In El Salvador, where first a repressive military regime and later a moderate civilian one were engaged in murderous struggles with left-wing revolutionaries (who were supported, according to the Reagan administration, by Cuba and the Soviet Union), the president provided increased military and economic assistance. In neighboring Nicaragua, a pro-American dictatorship had fallen to the revolutionary Sandinistas in 1979; the new government had grown increasingly anti-American (and increasingly Marxist) throughout the early 1980s. The administration gave both rhetorical and material support to the so-called contras, a guerrilla movement drawn from several anti-government groups and fighting (without great success) to topple the Sandinista regime. Indeed, support of the contras became a mission of special importance to the president, and later the source of some of his greatest difficulties.
In other parts of the world, the administration’s bellicose public statements masked an instinctive restraint. In June 1982, the Israeli army launched an invasion of Lebanon in an effort to drive guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization from the country. The United States supported the Israelis but also worked to permit PLO forces to leave Lebanon peacefully. An American peace-keeping force entered Beirut to supervise the evacuation. American marines then remained in the city, apparently to protect the fragile Lebanese government, which was embroiled in a vicious civil war. Now identified with one faction in the struggle, Americans became the targets in 1983 of a terrorist bombing of a U.S. military barracks in Beirut that left 241 marines dead. Rather than become more deeply involved in the Lebanese struggle, Reagan withdrew American forces.
The tragedy in Lebanon was an example of the changing character of many Third World struggles: an increasing reliance on terrorism by otherwise powerless groups to advance their political aims. A series of terrorist acts in the 1980s—attacks on airplanes, cruise ships, commercial and diplomatic posts; the seizing of American and European hostages—alarmed and frightened much of the Western world. The Reagan administration spoke bravely about its resolve to punish terrorism; and at one point in 1986, the president ordered American planes to bomb sites in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, whose controversial leader Mu’ammar al-Gadhafi was widely believed to be a leading sponsor of terrorism. In general, however, terrorists remained difficult to identify or control; and the administration’s private resolve in the face of terrorism was never as firm as its public rhetoric suggested.
Reelection and Second Term
Reagan approached the campaign of 1984 at the head of a united Republican party firmly committed to his candidacy. The Democrats, as had become their custom, followed a more fractious course. Former vice president Walter E Mondale established an early and commanding lead in the race by soliciting support from a wide range of traditional Democratic interest groups, and survived challenges from Senator Gary Hart of Colorado (who claimed to represent a “new generation” of leadership) and the magnetic Jesse Jackson, who had established himself as the nation’s most prominent spokesman for minorities and the poor. Mondale captured the nomination and brought momentary excitement to the Democratic campaign by selecting a woman, Representative Geraldine Ferraro of New York, to be his running mate and the first female candidate ever to appear on a national ticket.
The Republican party, in the meantime, rallied comfortably behind Reagan, who was now at the peak of his popularity. His triumphant campaign that fall scarcely took note of his opponents and spoke instead of what he claimed was the remarkable revival of American fortunes and spirits under his leadership. His campaign emphasized such phrases as “It’s Morning in America” and “America Is Back.” Reagan’s victory in 1984 was decisive. He won approximately 59 percent of the vote and carried every state but Mondale’s native Minnesota and the District of Columbia. But Reagan was much stronger than his party. Democrats gained a seat in the Senate and maintained only slightly reduced control of the House of Representatives. Reagan’s triumphant reelection proved to be the high-water mark of his presidency. The administration enjoyed some successes in its second term, and Reagan left office with much of his popularity intact. But beginning in 1985, he suffered a series of painful and damaging blows from which his administration was never able fully to recover.
Two dramatic events shaped the second term of Reagan’s presidency. One was the beginning of a momentous change in the structure of international relations—a change that the president played little part in creating but that he prudently accepted and encouraged. The other was a domestic political controversy over a secret initiative about which the president claimed—implausibly to some, all too plausibly to others—to have known nothing.
Shortly after Reagan took his oath of office for the second time (in a small ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, because bitterly cold weather had forced the cancellation of the traditional outdoor event), a new leader took power in the Soviet Union: Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who was, by Soviet standards at least, a young and energetic head of state. In the beginning, American leaders expected little from Gorbachev. He had, after all, been molded by the same stultifying political system that had shaped his recent predecessors. But to the surprise of almost everyone (including, it sometimes seemed, himself), Gorbachev very quickly became the most revolutionary figure in world politics since the end of World War II. Benefiting from widespread frustration with the rigid and ineffective policies of the preceding twenty years, Gorbachev transformed Soviet politics with two dramatic new initiatives. The first he called glasnost (openness). Glasnost led to the dismantling of many of the repressive mechanisms that had been among the most conspicuous features of Soviet life for more than half a century. Gradually it became possible for Soviet citizens to express themselves more freely, to criticize the government, even to organize politically in opposition to official policy. The other initiative Gorbachev called perestroika (reform or restructuring). Through it, he attempted to remake the rigid and unproductive Soviet economy by introducing, among other things, such elements of capitalism as private ownership and the profit motive. At the same time, Gorbachev began reshaping Soviet foreign policy. Among the first steps in that effort was his attempt to forge a new relationship with the United States.
He began by reaching out to Washington for major new arms control agreements. Encouraged by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a friend and ideological ally of Reagan’s and an early champion of Gorbachev’s, Reagan too began looking for new avenues to accommodation. At a summit meeting with Reagan in Reykjavfk, Iceland, in 1986 (the second of four between the two leaders), Gorbachev proposed reducing the nuclear arsenals of both sides by 50 percent or more. Continuing disputes over Reagan’s commitment to the SDI program, among other things, prevented agreements. But in December 1987, after Reagan and Gorbachev exchanged cordial visits to each other’s capitals, the two leaders signed a treaty eliminating American and Soviet intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) from Europe—the most significant arms control agreement of the nuclear age and the first to make actual reductions in existing nuclear arsenals as opposed to restricting their future expansion. At about the same time, Gorbachev ended the Soviet Union’s long and frustrating military involvement in Afghanistan, removing one of the principal irritants in the relationship between Washington and Moscow.
The new arms control agreements, and the rapid moderation of Soviet international behavior, seemed to Reagan and his supporters a clear vindication of the president’s earlier policies. By increasing diplomatic and economic pressure on the Soviet Union, and in particular by forcing the Soviets into an expensive new arms race that their staggering economy could not support, the administration had done much to weaken the hard-liners in Moscow and make Gorbachev’s reforms possible, even likely. (Reagan had always claimed that the arms buildup he launched was designed, at least in part, to encourage the Soviet Union to agree to arms reductions.) Others were more skeptical and insisted that the decay of the Soviet Union had begun long before Reagan’s presidency and had intensified for reasons that had little to do with American policy. In either case, Reagan—a hard-line foe of Soviet Communism for more than forty years—proved flexible enough to respond to the changes and encourage them.
For a time, the dramatic developments around the world and Reagan’s continuing personal popularity deflected attention from a series of scandals that might well have destroyed another administration. Top officials in the Environmental Protection Agency resigned when it was disclosed that they were flouting the laws they had been appointed to enforce. Officials of the CIA and the Defense Department resigned after revelations of questionable stock transactions. Reagan’s secretary of labor, Raymond J. Donovan, left office after being indicted for racketeering (although he was later acquitted). Edwin Meese, the White House counsel and later attorney general, finally resigned in 1988 after years of controversy over financial arrangements that many believed had compromised his office.
Unnoticed at first were several larger scandals that surfaced only as Reagan was about to leave office. One involved misuse of funds by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, abuses so widespread that by 1990 the survival of the agency itself seemed in question. Another, more serious scandal involved the savings and loan industry. The Reagan administration had sharply reduced regulatory controls over the troubled savings and loan institutions, permitting them to enter into business activities from which they had previously been barred. Many savings banks responded by rapidly, often recklessly, and sometimes corruptly, expanding. By the end of the decade the industry was in chaos, and the government was forced to step in to prevent a complete collapse. The government insured the assets of most savings and loan depositors; and as the banks failed, it found itself saddled with large debts. The eventual cost of the debacle to the public ran to more than half a trillion dollars.
But the most politically damaging scandal of the Reagan years came to light in November 1986. After reports of the episode had begun appearing in foreign newspapers, the White House conceded that it had sold weapons to the revolutionary government of Iran, apparently as part of a largely unsuccessful effort to secure the release of several Americans being held hostage by radical Islamic groups in the Middle East. Even more damaging was the administration’s admission that some of the money from the arms deal with Iran had been covertly and illegally funneled into a fund to aid the contras in Nicaragua.
In the months that followed, aggressive reporting and a highly publicized series of congressional hearings exposed a remarkable and previously un-suspected feature of the Reagan White House: the existence within it of something like a “secret government,” largely unknown to the State Department, the Defense Department, even parts of the CIA, dedicated to advancing the administration’s foreign policy aims through secret and at times illegal means. The principal figure in this covert world appeared at first to be an obscure marine lieutenant colonel assigned to the staff of the National Security Council, Oliver L. North. But gradually it became clear that North was acting in concert with other, more powerful figures in the administration: two national security advisers, Robert McFarlane and John M. Poindexter and, many believed, both the vice president and the president himself. Secretary of State Shultz and Secretary of Defense Weinberger, in a rare display of accord, had vigorously opposed the initiative; but their long-running feud had by then so diminished their influence that they proved powerless to stop the effort. The Iran-Contra scandal, as it became known, did serious damage to the Reagan presidency—even though the lengthy investigations it spawned never decisively tied the president himself to the most serious violations of the law.
There were other signs in the late 1980s that the glow of the Reagan Revolution was beginning to fade. In October 1987 the American stock market—the spectacular success of which had been one of the most conspicuous features of the economic boom—experienced the greatest single-day decline in its history; and although stock prices recovered and continued to rise over the next two years, the crash shattered the aura of invincibility that had arisen in the financial markets. The 1987 crash, combined with the continuing budget deficits, gradually eroded popular confidence in Reaganomics.
Ultimately, however, the president retained his hold on public affections despite the many problems of his administration. He was not, as many observers scornfully described him, in any real sense the “Teflon president,” a leader to whom no failures or criticisms ever stuck. His popularity rose and fell quite dramatically at times, and the most serious scandals of his administration—Iran-Contra in particular—did him considerable and lasting political damage. But relatively few Americans were ever able truly to dislike him. And as he neared the end of his presidency—his famous energy flagging, his memory failing, his gait far less jauntily confident than it had once been—the allure of his personal style seemed to lodge itself in the public mind more securely than the much more controversial character of his policies. His last year in office was dominated, of course, by a presidential campaign in which he—for only the second time since 1968—was not a candidate. But his presence was palpable nevertheless, for it was in large part on the basis of his popularity that George Bush, his vice president, managed first to win the Republican nomination and then, after a brutal and often ugly campaign, the election. From the beginning to the end of his undistinguished presidency, Bush was dogged by the image of the man he succeeded but somehow never seemed quite to replace.
Reagan retired to a comfortable home in Los Angeles, wrote his memoirs, traveled a bit, and gradually faded from public view. In 1994, after a long silence, he released a handwritten letter informing the nation that he was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. With that courageous gesture, his public life came to an end and he entered, as he himself wrote, the “twilight” of his long and eventful life.
Reagan’s legacy remains a contested one, and it will be many years before historians will be able to gauge the full effect of his presidency. He set bold goals for his administration, but he paid so little attention to their implementation that his policies often veered in directions he had neither anticipated nor desired. He presided over a long period of prosperity, but one in which poverty increased and the wages of most working people remained stagnant. He was president during the beginning of the end of the Cold War, and he forged a relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev that greatly defused historic tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union; but he also became involved in a series of disastrous misadventures in the Middle East and the Third World that very nearly destroyed his administration. He engineered some of the most profound changes in economic policy in half a century; but he left the government burdened with three times as much debt as it had carried when he entered office.
About one thing, however, there can be little doubt. Reagan’s extraordinary personality enabled him to dominate national politics in the 1980s in a way that no president since his boyhood idol, Franklin Roosevelt, had done. Reagan’s high-spirited optimism, his unembarrassed patriotism, his soaring, symbol-laden oratory, and his jaunty, almost cock-sure public demeanor won him the admiration even of many Americans who disagreed with his policies. He helped restore to public discourse a heady sense of possibilities, a belief in America’s moral superiority, and even a faith in leadership. It is clear that many (although far from all) Americans felt better about their society and its future in the 1980s than they had a decade earlier and than they would a decade later. And it is clear that the refurbished nationalism that Reagan so energetically promoted reached out through American culture and became one of the defining characteristics of the era.
The ebullience of the Reagan years faded quickly after his departure, replaced by an increasingly sour and pessimistic political climate and a growing cynicism about leaders and government. But for a moment in the midst of the nation’s long, painful transition from its booming industrial past to its uncertain postindustrial future, Reagan allowed many Americans to believe that nothing had really changed—that the problems of the 1960s and 1970s had been mere aberrations, that the country’s traditional values and traditional greatness remained intact. In a characteristically exuberant speech in 1986, Reagan himself captured much of what his presidency came to mean to Americans troubled by nearly two decades of turbulence and disillusionment, and eager for reassurance:
In this land of dreams fulfilled where greater dreams may be imagined, nothing is impossible, no victory is beyond our reach; no glory will ever be too great … The world’s hopes rest with America’s future … Our work will pale before the greatness of America’s champions in the twenty-first century.