Ronald Reagan, the optimistic, avuncular 40th President of the United States, died at his California home following a long struggle against Alzheimer s disease. He was 93.
“He changed the world,” Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, once said of him. “He rearoused the American dream. The impact he made on us psychologically … almost means more than anything else he accomplished.”
In a nation obsessed with celebrity, Reagan had lived a life right out of the B-movies that made him famous, emerging from humble Midwest roots to find fortune in Hollywood, en route to winning the world’s most powerful office. Somehow he carried it off with a genial detachment and ease that disarmed even many of his harshest critics.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born Feb. 6, 1911, in a five-room apartment above a bank in Tampico, Ill., where his father, Jack, sold shoes at a general store, and his mother, Nelle, a homemaker, liked to produce and perform in amateur theatricals at her fundamentalist Disciples of Christ church. “One of those rare Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer idylls,” Reagan called his youth – evidence of his lifelong skill at dramatizing a sadder truth. In fact, Jack was an alcoholic whose binges ended only with his death from a heart attack in 1941, and his family kept barely one step ahead of poverty.
His need for denial and sunny scenarios found a perfect outlet in his mother’s passion for the stage. Reagan studied acting in high school and at Eureka College, and enjoyed his first success in radio. He was also good looking, a fact not lost on Hollywood. In 1937, Warner Bros. signed him to a $200 a week contract.
A competent, hard-working actor, Reagan would achieve only second-string stardom, winning supporting roles in good movies, like Dark Victory (1939), and starring roles in bad ones, like 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo. But his real gift, it turned out, was for politics. Serving on the board of the Screen Actors Guild since 1941, he became its president in 1947 and led the organization through the tumultuous Communist witch hunt years of the early ’50s.
But his talent for politics wasn’t popular with everyone. He married actress Jane Wyman in 1940 (they had daughter Maureen in 1941 and adopted son Michael in 1945), but when she filed for divorce in 1948, one of her complaints was that Reagan “talked about politics at every meal.”
Still, there was a benefit to his obsession. In 1951 a young starlet named Nancy Davis, concerned that she had shown up on a list of Communist sympathizers, approached Reagan for help in clearing her name. When it turned out she had merely been confused with a different Nancy Davis, the couple began dating. Married March 4, 1952, they had daughter Patricia Ann seven and a half months later and son Ron Jr. in 1958. “Sometimes,” Reagan wrote, “I think my life really began when I met Nancy.” Running for governor of California in 1966, he faced critics who said an actor could never be a politician. But Reagan showed that politics was theater. By casting himself as a likeable, believable candidate, he showed that he could earn raves – and win by nearly a million votes.
From there, Reagan seemed destined for the White House. In 1980 he took the Republican nomination in a waltz and, following a debate notable for his smiling “There you go again” taunt, trounced incumbent Jimmy Carter by 8 million votes.
The victory would nearly cost him his life. On March 30, 1981, Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton when a young drifter named John Hinkley came out of the shadows and fired a .22-caliber pistol, striking him and critically wounding a Secret Service agent, a Washington police officer and Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady. Doctors at George Washington University Hospital removed a bullet lodged a mere inch from the President’s heart.
When they left Washington in 1988, the Reagans planned a comfortable retirement in their three-bedroom $2.5 million Bel Air home. But that cheery denouement was short-lived. In July 1989, while the pair was vacationing in Mexico, Reagan was thrown from a horse, striking his head so badly that he had to undergo surgery for a subdural hematoma.
Nancy would later say that the blow helped bring on the disease that would ultimately kill him. Five years later, in August 1994, doctors at the Mayo clinic told Reagan he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
As time passed, the man who once strode the international stage saw his world narrow to a few parks in Los Angeles, an occasional visit to the beach and eventually the couple’s Bel Air home, where few visitors would come and where he passed his final days with Nancy and a single private nurse. “There’s a terrible loneliness,” Nancy wrote. “You know that it’s a progressive disease and there’s no place to go but down, no light at the end of the tunnel.” In his last public address in 1994, Reagan wrote, “When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for the future.”