Knowing the Presidents: Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan, 1911–2004

Fortieth President, 1981–1989

Personal Information

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico Illinois to parents Jack and Nelle Reagan.

Reagan enrolled in Eureka College in 1928 as a major in Economics. Before graduating in 1932, he was active in football, swim team, drama club and debate club, as well as the school yearbook and newspaper.

Upon graduation, Reagan accepted a position with WOC in Davenport, Iowa as a radio sportscaster. While covering the Chicago Cubs spring training in 1937, he was scouted by a Hollywood agent from Warner Brothers. From 1937-1957, Reagan starred in 52 films.

Reagan married actor Jane Wyman in 1940 and had one daughter, Maureen, and an adopted son, Michael. After their divorce in 1948, Reagan married Nancy Davis in 1952. Together they had two children: Patricia and Ronald Prescott.


By 1980, Ronald Reagan had the upper hand as the country grew tired of the Democratic Party, facing problems such as inflation, unemployment, and oil shortages, in addition to a hostage situation in Iran in which more than 50 Americans were held captive by radical Muslims, scaring Americans even more.

Reagan struck a positive note with his ideas for America’s future, and in the spirit of colonial American John Winthrop, he identified the US as a “shining city upon a hill” with incredible potential.

Once elected, Reagan made it clear that his objectives were to cut taxes, fight communism, reinforce national defense, and slow the growth of government.

Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 election, winning 50.7% of the popular vote and 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 41% and 44 electoral votes.


Ronald Reagan took office with the nation suffering a crisis of confidence. The United States faced key domestic and foreign policy challenges during the Carter Administration—most notably, the Iranian Revolution, the holding of American hostages in Tehran, and the ongoing energy crisis.

While Reagan’s nationalism and warmth helped change the national mood, he faced structural economic problems and strained relations with the U.S.S.R. that occupied most of his two terms in office.

Reagan sought to reduce the size of government, a goal that included reducing the authority of unionized federal workers.

Reagan oversaw a massive military buildup, including the never-implemented “Star Wars” missile defense system that contributed to the Soviet Union’s sudden implosion.

Major Acts

A former actor and governor of California, Ronald Reagan was a formidable politician whose rise exemplified the shift in American demographics to the west.

Within the Republican Party, his ascension marked the revitalization of the conservative western wing of the party that many thought had faded before his defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Reagan unapologetically reduced social welfare programs and encouraged a conservative social ethic regarding the role of religion in public life and reproductive rights.

In foreign policy, Reagan guided the United States through the end of the Cold War as the Soviet Union imploded, and he established a new working relationship with the post-Soviet Russian leadership.


Ronald Reagan embodied the rebound of conservatism after the 1964 defeat of Barry Goldwater, running on a platform distrustful of government action other than within the arenas of foreign policy and the military.

Reagan’s transition from actor to conservative activist to governor to president illustrates how a mastery of mass media can influence political careers.

A Californian, Reagan demonstrated how the political center of gravity was shifting westward.

Reagan took office with a program of reducing the size and scope of government while standing firm against the Soviet Union and leftist insurgencies elsewhere in the world.

Reagan could strike a graceful pose, as in his remarks after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. His adamant nationalism and sunny personality made him much admired, but these qualities also allowed him to escape the negative consequences of the failures that occurred on his watch, such as the Beirut bombing, the Iran-Contra Scandal, and his administration’s passivity in the face of the growing AIDS crisis.