Ronald Reagan, a former actor and California governor who became one of the most popular U.S. presidents of modern times, began as a New Deal Democrat but evolved into a staunch conservative Republican who steered the nation toward the right while injecting the United States with a new wave of morale-boosting patriotism.
Reagan, who died just after 1 p.m. Saturday of pneumonia at the age of 93, was genial, charismatic, and at times somewhat inscrutable. But he consistently rated high with the public and he seemed pleased at the end of his two terms as president with results from the so-called Reagan Revolution, although he said, "It seemed more like the Great Rediscovery: a rediscovery of our values and our common sense."
Another time he said, "What I'd really like to do is go down in history as the president who made Americans believe in themselves again."
In his eight years as the 40th U.S. president, Reagan aggressively sought to close the book on Franklin D. Roosevelt's legacy of expanded government programs, constantly trumpeting the conservative virtues of tax breaks, free enterprise, limited federal interference and a strong military, "peace through strength."
After a recession in 1981-82, Reagan oversaw a rebounding economy in which more people in the United States than ever before were working, new businesses were cropping up and Wall Street activity was bullish.
Relishing the role of strident anti-communist as president, Reagan was credited by many with the end of the 45-year Cold War and hastening the collapse of the Soviet Union. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, one of his biggest boosters, said Reagan "showed the courage to break the world free of a monstrous creed."
Conservatives saw Reagan as a hard-liner who kept hammering away, rhetorically, at the Soviet Union for eight years, from branding it an "evil empire" to urging leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," referring to the wall dividing East and West Berlin, a key symbol of the Cold War. Not long after that, the wall came down and, as Reagan recalled in a 1990 speech, "The Soviet Empire began to melt like a snowbank in May."
He was a robust, active man, apparently able to quickly recover after being shot in the chest in 1981 by a would-be assassin, after only 69 days in office. The nation was greatly relieved to hear he had joked to first lady Nancy Reagan in the emergency room, "Honey, I forgot to duck." It was much later that the public was to learn just how seriously Reagan had been injured.
He also had a rapid recovery from colon cancer four years later. But, his biographer, Edmund Morris, said he believed the president's physical deterioration that took over his final years actually began after the shooting.
Reagan retired from public life in 1994, four years after he left office, when he stunned the nation by revealing he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The news came in a handwritten letter to "My Fellow Americans" in which he said he intended to "live the remainder of the years God gives me on this Earth doing the things I have always done. I will continue to share life's journey with my beloved Nancy and my family."
Disappearing from public view, shielded by the former first lady, Reagan's health steadily declined. Son Michael Reagan, who wrote a book on his father's life, said in a 1997 television interview: "He knows who I am. He may not be able to call me by name, but he knows who I am, he knows who the kids are. And it's a great relationship, and he knows -- I think he knows me more from the hugs than anything else."
In June 1998, Vanity Fair reported he recognized only his wife and wandered about the house looking for her when she was away. Daughter Maureen Reagan said in a Jan. 24, 2000, Newsweek interview that her father could no longer speak coherently as his motor skills failed.
Recently, Nancy Reagan said Ronald Reagan had "gone to a distant place where I can no longer reach him and share our 52 years." The 40th president died about a month later.
He was rarely seen outside his home though he was photographed in public as late as 1999. On Jan. 12, 2001, one month before his 90th birthday, Reagan fell at his Bel Air, Calif., home and fractured his hip. He underwent surgery the following day and was pronounced "Fully alert, in good humor and in stable condition."
Nancy Reagan, meanwhile, worked to raise funds for embryonic stem-cell research to develop cures for Alzheimer's and other debilitating illnesses. She told a star-studded crowd in Los Angeles on May 9, "I am determined to do whatever I can" to save other families from the pain, the Los Angeles Times said.
Among the honors that came Ronald Reagan's way was the re-naming of the airport nearest Washington the Ronald Reagan National Airport -- and the commissioning of the aircraft carrier named for him.
Described by Morris as a "historic romantic," Reagan was seen, in a Time magazine portrait, as being "convinced the Soviet Union was not a people to be contained but a system to be defeated."
Strained relations between the United States and the Soviets began to thaw after the arrival of the friendlier Gorbachev on the scene in the mid '80s paving the way, after a series of meetings, for Reagan to negotiate an historic missile reduction treaty.
But, he failed to gain Congressional approval for his pet project, the Strategic Defense Initiative, an elaborate plan for a defensive umbrella against enemy missiles, dubbed "Star Wars" by detractors who claimed it was too costly and too impractical and would never be built. It was just a bluff, they said, but defenders said so what if it was, the Soviets didn't know that and, coming from Reagan, they saw this as a real threat.
Reagan was a man of contradictions at home and abroad. He left behind a philosophy of government that critics complained helped only the wealthy, with the poor expected to fend for themselves. Even though he campaigned extensively for a balanced budget, by the time he left office in January 1989, he had presided over the largest federal deficit in U.S. history. He was accused of showing little regard for the plight of blacks, the homeless or those stricken with AIDS.
And despite his foreign policy success, he spent much of his second term tangled in what became known as the Iran-Contra affair, which involved the secret sale of weapons to Iran and the diversion of the revenues to rebels in Nicaragua.
Reagan was 69 when he routed Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980 to win the presidency and 77 when he left office, making him the oldest man to serve in the White House. He appeared to be much younger, however, radiating an aura of robust vigor.
As he took office, wrote biographer Morris, he was "a man just about to turn 70, one inch taller than six feet, weighing about 185 pounds stripped, broad as a surfboard and almost as hard, superbly balanced, glowing with health and handsome enough for a second career in the movies."
Perhaps the biggest difference between Reagan and most modern presidents was in style. While many of his predecessors, especially Carter, immersed themselves in the minutiae of the office, Reagan stood back and entered the fray only at the last moment when a decision had to be made. He relied heavily on his staff, which many times had to explain away presidential misstatements. He did not work long hours in the Oval Office, but in public was so vigorous and quick with repartee that his age or approach to governing never became a political liability.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in the rural town of Tampico, Ill., on Feb. 6, 1911, to Jack and Nellie Reagan. Home was a five-room apartment above a general store where his father sold shoes. The family was poor and Jack Reagan -- who had a drinking problem -- frequently changed jobs. During the Depression, he worked for a New Deal relief agency.
The young Reagan got his first taste of acting during high school but didn't grow serious about it until he took part in productions at Eureka (Ill.) College. He helped put himself through school by working as a lifeguard and waiter and got a small athletic scholarship. He won letters in football, swimming and track and was elected student body president his senior year.
After graduation in 1933, Reagan got a job as a sportscaster at WOC, a Davenport, Iowa, radio station and later, using a sports ticker, announced simulated Chicago Cubs games for WHO in Des Moines. In 1937, while covering the Cubs spring training camp in California, having soured on the Iowa winters, he decided to try his hand at Hollywood.
A screen test at Warner Brothers got him a contract and into "Love on the Air," a forgettable low-budget flick shot in three weeks in which he played a brash radio personality. Over the next two decades, the trim, boyish-looking Reagan (described by his agent as "the new Robert Taylor") appeared in 53 films.
While making the movie "Brother Rat" in 1938, he met actress Jane Wyman. They were married in 1940 and before the marriage ended in divorce eight years later, they had daughter Maureen and adopted a son, Michael. Reagan married aspiring actress Nancy Davis in 1952 after they appeared together in "Hellcats Of the Navy." They also had two children, Patti and Ronald.
While most of Reagan's movies were mostly of the low-budget B-movie variety, he earned accolades for "Dark Victory" with Bette Davis in 1939 and 1942's "Kings Row," in which, in his finest performance, he played a young man whose legs were amputated by a mad doctor. His line in the movie when he awakened after the surgery and asked, "Where's the rest of me?" became the title of his autobiography.
Probably his best remembered role was that of Notre Dame football star George Gipp in 1940's "Knute Rockne -- All American," in which a dying Gipp beseeches his coach, played by Pat O'Brien, to urge his downtrodden troops, "when things are tough and breaks are going against the boys," to go out there and "win one for the Gipper."
The line stayed with Reagan all through his political career. He remarked in his autobiography that until he made that movie he was "the Errol Flynn of the B-pictures." His movie career ended in 1964 with a rare villainous role in "The Killers" and even he joked about his 1951 romp with a chimp in "Bedtime For Bonzo."
The army Air Force called Reagan to active duty in 1942 and assigned the lieutenant to the 1st Motion Picture Unit, in which he made more than 400 training films and morale-boosting documentaries for the home front. He had been protmoed to captain by the time he was discharged form the Army to resume his professional acting career.
Returning to post-war Hollywood, Reagan was caught up in what he described as communist-inspired violence in a brutal studio labor dispute, an outgrowth, he said, of a Soviet attempt to take over the movie business.
In the 1950s Reagan began fighting for causes as president of the Screen Actors Guild. He also moved to television as host of the General Electric Theater, which enabled him to speak at GE plants across the country blasting big government, federal spending, socialized legislation and the diminution of states' rights.
Later, while continuing to speak out as he was host of the "Death Valley Days" TV series, he made his first big political splash. He thrust himself into the spotlight as a potential leader of the GOP and the conservative cause with a memorable 1964 election eve speech on behalf of nominee Barry Goldwater. Goldwater lost big to Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, but Reagan came out a winner.
Somewhat surprised at his widespread support, Reagan was talked into running for governor in 1966 against incumbent Edmund G. "Pat" Brown and won handily with more than a 1 million-vote margin of victory. Buoyed by that effort he challenged Richard Nixon for the presidential nomination in 1968 but lost. He then was re-elected governor by a 500,000-vote margin in 1970.
Reagan's governorship in California was, in retrospect, a preview of how he would perform in the White House. He initially went to Sacramento fighting the Legislature and pushing his conservative agenda of spending cuts. But, he often ended up compromising with Democratic lawmakers, even accepting large tax increases and a revised welfare program.
He tried a second time, in 1976, after he had left Sacramento, for the presidential nomination and lost again, this time to incumbent Gerald Ford, but he made a better showing. The third try, in 1980, was the charm as he easily captured the nomination after beating his main challenger, George Bush, whom he later chose as his running mate.
The troubled Carter, beset by woes at home and abroad, was no match in the 1980 election. A major stumbling block for Carter was the capture of U.S. Embassy employees in Iran, a maddening scenario that dragged on for more than a year despite every effort to free them. Thirty minutes after Reagan was sworn in, the hostages were set free after 444 days in captivity. Four years later, Reagan and Bush crushed Walter Mondale, the former vice president, for re-election.
Despite the magnitude of his 1980 election victory, Reagan's love affair with the general public may have begun in earnest when he was shot on the following March 31. Leaving a speaking engagement at a Washington hotel, he was attacked by John Warnock Hinkley, then 25, the son of a Colorado oilman.
Millions saw it on television, witnessed the president being pushed into his limousine by Secret Service agents while three men lay wounded and bleeding on the sidewalk. The nation expected the worst, but found itself suddenly reassured when word came from George Washington University Hospital that the new president managed to joke, despite his serious chest wound.
His re-election in 1984 was a huge landslide. Reagan carried 49 states -- losing only Minnesota, the home state of his Democratic Party challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale. Reagan took 58.8 percent of the popular vote and 525 Electoral College votes.
Reagan's initial years in the White House were marked by his effort to tirelessly push a hard-line foreign policy dominated by a large military buildup, along with a domestic policy of spending cuts and tax relief to encourage growth and investment. Due mainly to his prodding, Congress passed more major tax changes during the Reagan years than at any time in history. In his first term, Reagan presided over both a drastic tax cut and the largest tax increase in history. He followed that in 1986 with a dramatic revision of the nation's convoluted tax laws.
By the time he left office, the top tax rate had been more than cut in half and the growth of federal spending on social programs had been slowed, although not nearly as much as he had wanted. However, with lower tax revenue and more military spending, the deficit ballooned to more than $200 billion. Reagan blamed it on the failure of Congress to cut other programs. His critics said it was due to his unrealistic economic theories.
But it was in foreign policy where Reagan, always looking for dramatic achievements, scored his greatest triumphs and suffered his worst failures -- both in his second term. Despite earlier referring to the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," the president managed to develop a politically cautious but personally warm relationship with Gorbachev and negotiated a treaty to eliminate short- and medium-range nuclear weapons -- the first pact to eliminate a class of strategic forces.
Despite his victories in U.S.-Soviet relations, however, Reagan was dogged through much of his second term by the so-called Iran-Contra affair, which developed into the worst scandal of his administration. Contrary to his policy that the United States would not deal with terrorists, Reagan sold arms to Iran in the hopes of winning the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon. Matters were made worse when it became known that profits from the arms sales were used to support the Contra rebels fighting the Marxist government in Nicaragua at a time when Congress had banned U.S. military help to the rebels.
Reagan insisted he did not know about the diversion of funds, arguing he was never informed, an assertion backed up by aides testifying before congressional hearings that they acted without the president's knowledge.
Yet, even though the scandal was the clearest low point of his presidency and even though numerous top administration officials, including Attorney General Edwin Meese, became involved in a variety of ethics troubles, Reagan himself had an amazing capacity to deflect long-term criticism. Unable to tag him with anything that would stick, opponents soon dubbed him "The Teflon President."
As he left office, Reagan cited "two great triumphs" of his administration, "two things that I'm proudest of. One is the economic recovery in which the people of America created and filled 19 million new jobs. The other is the recovery of our morale: America is respected again in the world and looked to for leadership."