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Ronald Wilson Reagan entered the public eye in 1932 as “Dutch” Reagan, sports commentator.
In 1937 he landed a screen test for Warner brothers, who signed him as a square B-movie lead and stiff supporting man; notably as dying footballer George Gipp in Knute Rockne: All American, delivering the legendary “win just one for the Gipper” speech; and as the man in Kings Row waking to discover his legs have been amputated (“Where’s the rest of me?”).
During World War II he served as an air force Captain, but bad eyes kept him away from the front.
Back in Hollywood, he was president of the Screen Actor’s Guild from 1947 to 1952, hitching his wagon to McCarthy’s witch-hunt as the scourge of the Hollywood Reds.
When his Warner’s contract expired, he freelanced – memorably as the scientist trying to prove that, with a little moral guidance, even a monkey can be a good American in Bedtime For Bonzo (1951).
His movie career was over by the mid-1950s and Reagan became a TV host, developing the folksy relationship with the camera that later saw him christened “The Great Communicator”. His last movie role came as a bad guy in The Killers (1964).
That same year, Reagan helped with the campaign for ultra-right-wing presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, an opponent of civil rights who advocated using nuclear weapons against Communists in Vietnam.
Goldwater’s bid was a fiasco but Reagan impressed the Republican party leaders. By 1967 he was the Governor of California, turning tear gas on students . . .
Only 54% of registered voters went to the polls in the US for the 1980 Presidential election – the worst level of turnout since Dewey nearly defeated Truman in 1948. In retrospect, such apathy was understandable; the pitiful state of the economy and Jimmy Carter‘s inability to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis gave voters two good reasons not to re-elect the incumbent.
In addition, Ronald Reagan’s blatant disregard for facts (on the campaign trail, Reagan asserted that trees caused more pollution than industry and that new evidence had surfaced giving credence to the biblical view of creation) and the CIA connections of running-mate George Bush gave voters ample reason to be very, very frightened.
In the end, Reagan’s recurring cry of “We want to be respected again” resonated strongly with Americans shamed and frustrated by the hostage crisis. Whatever happened, the voters reasoned, it had to be better than another four years of Carter.
Promising to revive the spirits of a nation battered by Vietnam and Watergate, for some his presidency was “morning in America”. For others, a program of cutting taxes and social spending, and an underhand foreign policy – funding Nicaragua’s right-wing Contra terrorists to bring down the democratically elected Sandinistas – amounted to a war against the poor.
Massive defence spending and an aggressive standoff with the USSR, meanwhile, looked for a moment like taking the world to the brink.
On 30 March 1981, President Reagan had just finished giving a speech at the Washington Hilton Ballroom and was walking towards his limousine just outside the hotel exit when John W Hinckley Jr stepped through a crowd of reporters and began firing his 22-calibre handgun.
President Reagan and three other people were hit by the shower of bullets, including Reagan’s press secretary, James S Brady.
As police and Secret Service agents wrestled the gun from Hinckley, the president was rushed to George Washington University Hospital where he was treated for possible lung collapse and went into surgery.
Miraculously, none of the four men was killed. Brady was shot in the forehead and suffered extensive damage to his brain tissue, but ultimately lived.
As all major TV networks had been on the scene, the footage of the attempted assassination was shown on television around the world in a matter of minutes. Hinckley turned out to be a Jodie Foster obsessive trying to re-enact Taxi Driver (1976) . . .
In August 1984, during preparations for a media spot – and believing he was off-air – Reagan joked into a TV microphone that he had ordered the bombing of the Soviet Union: “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes”. It didn’t seem to do him any harm with American voters as he was re-elected for a second term shortly afterwards, with a massive majority.
Reagan left office in 1989 and in 1994 disclosed that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He died ten years later at the age of 93 – the longest-lived president in American history.