b. February 6, 1911 - d. June 5, 2004
The son of an alcoholic shoe salesman and a woman devoted to charitable endeavors, Reagan -- born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois -- had a poor but happy youth. He was a well-liked, athletic student but not very interested in academics. After graduating from Eureka College, Illinois, in 1932, he became a popular sports announcer. In 1937 he left for Hollywood, did a screen test and was offered a contract by Warner Brothers. It was the beginning of a movie career in which he would make more than 50 movies.
From 1947 to 1952, Reagan, at that time still a Roosevelt Democrat, headed the Screen Actor's Guild, often contending with rival, radical unions. It was a formative political experience that turned him into a fierce anti-communist. During the 1950s, with his movie career sagging, he became a traveling corporate spokesman for General Electric and also turned to television.
In 1962 he became a Republican, and in 1964 he gave an eloquent speech at the Republican Party convention endorsing the party's candidate for president, conservative Barry Goldwater. In 1966 Reagan ran for office himself, urged on by a group of California Republicans. He served two terms as governor of California. In 1968 he made a feeble run for president.
In a more serious effort in 1976 he challenged President Ford for the Republican nomination, but he failed again. However, in 1980 he took full advantage of Jimmy Carter's malaise presidency and gained the White House through a landslide victory.
Reagan was a popular president, even though he outraged others with what they saw as a lack of understanding, or even interest, in vital policy issues. Domestically, Reagan pursued a contradictory policy of federal tax cuts and a massive military buildup; abroad he was an anti-communist crusader. His aim was to rebuild American strength and self-confidence and exploit Soviet imperial overreach where he could. He also professed to be interested in negotiations with the Soviet Union, but only from a position of strength.
After his landslide re-election in 1984, Reagan surprised many by engaging with new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in serious arms-reduction talks. Greatly aided by the escalating decline of the Soviet Union, Reagan made an important contribution to the end of the Cold War. His second term was tainted by the Iran-Contra arms for hostages affair. Nonetheless, he left office a popular figure. Reagan died June 5, 2004 after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease.