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The Great Communicator: The Actor, The Gipper, The Quipster, Teflon and Alzheimer's

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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. Son of a shoe salesman with a drinking problem and a deeply religious woman who loved the theater and encouraged him to act. His family was poor and lived as transients in different parts of Illinois before settling back in Tampico where they resided above the H.C. Pitney Variety Store before settling in Dixon, Illinois. This natural quintessential quipster would later quip that he was "living above the store again," after moving into the White House following his election. At Dixon High School he was a mediocre student but excelled in sports, acting, and in his work as a lifeguard and served as student body president. He attended Eureka College majoring in economics and sociology and continued to excel in sports, drama and again was elected student body president. Similar to other great U.S. Presidents he worked on the student newspaper, participated in debates and enjoyed reading. But unlike other great Presidents he did not care to read history; he preferred reading adventure stories. After college, he became a sports announcer, a commentator for major league baseball and Big Ten Football then following a screen test, he earned a contract with Warner Brothers in 1937. Acting and traveling opened the door of politics for him. His film career spanned over a quarter century with appearances in over fifty films. Reagan's most celebrated films were Knute Rockne, All American (1940) in which he played George Gipp, the famous Notre Dame football star known as "the Gipper," and King's Row (1942) in which he played the victim of a sadistic surgeon. The quip "Win one for the Gipper" became a rallying call and later a political slogan for Reagan at the 1988 Republican National Convention. The single line "Where's the REST of me???" catapulted Reagan's career when he discovered that his legs were amputated in King's Row. Reagan would later use this line as the title of his 1965 autobiography.

He married actress Jane Wyman in 1940, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, the major labor union of the film industry. Reagan was divorced in 1949 and later married actress Nancy Davis (Anne Frances Robbins) in 1952 who would later prove to be an influential and controversial First Lady. From 1954 to 1962, Reagan was employed by General Electric and served as a host, supervisor and actor for the General Electric Theater. He delivered many public addresses on free enterprise and warned against the evils of big government, all the while he was polishing his public speaking skills. Over time, Reagan was becoming more conservative in contrast to other presidents who usually become more progressive with age. Reagan voted for Eisenhower and Nixon then abandoned the Democratic Party in 1962. He was elected governor of California from a "common sense" government campaign and served two terms from 1967 - 1975. During his tenure, California had its largest budget increase ever. After failing to win the Republican nomination for president against Nixon in 1968 and Ford in 1976, he won the nomination in 1980. Reagan became the 40th President of the United States, the oldest, the first actor and the only divorced person ever elected to such an office. His victory resulted in a twenty-year revival of conservatism and made it respectable in the United States. In his 1981 inaugural address he stated, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem" in response to the apparent ineptitude and distrust of the U.S. Government, rising crime rates, drug abuse, economic woes and international problems that went on for two decades. As the oldest man elected president, his ideas were seemingly new and fresh. He was more concerned with his image rather than the details of policy or management of the government. His daily activities were carefully scripted with a uniquely disconnected style of leadership. However, early on, his presidency almost ended. On March 30, 1981 he was shot as he was leaving a Washington Hotel.

It was his quick wit and recovery that enhanced his popularity. The zingers from him on that day included: to his wife, "Honey, I forgot to duck," while intubated he wrote to a nurse, "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia," and in the operating room, Reagan removed his oxygen mask and joked to all the doctors and nurses, "I hope you are all Republicans." His popularity continued to soar as he deregulated industry, reduced taxes, slowed domestic spending, returned power to the states, strengthened the military and forcefully challenged the Soviet Union for world leadership. The economy proved challenging. But Reagan's tenacity, toughness and resiliency allowed him to deflect all criticisms and to develop a hard line in foreign policy and along with his recovery from the assassination attempt, he became known as the "Teflon President," especially when the scandals surrounding his presidency had no effect on his popularity with the public. When he was campaigning for re-election in 1984 he wanted everyone to know that "...I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." He won a smashing re-election victory in 1984, but late in his second term budget and trade deficits mounted, environmental problems deepened, AIDS, poverty, homelessness, drug abuse and crime soared and Reagan seemed to lack interest and ideas. The Iran-Contra affair unfolded which revealed the sale of arms to the terrorist state of Iran. Apparently these sales played a role in the release of American hostages in Lebanon with profits illegally diverted to the Contra resistance in Nicaragua. Reagan initially denied any arms-for-hostages, but later he admitted that he was wrong in this denial. Only the Teflon President could get away this. Reagan emerged from this scandal and loss of control of the Senate, unscathed. The stock market collapse of 1987 challenged "Reaganomics" - termed "voodoo economics" by George Bush Sr whereby Reagan pushed for tax cuts, reduced domestic spending, increase military spending and a balanced budget. Nevertheless, the Reagan economic boom occurred and continued through his last year as president. The focus of his last two years as president was on foreign policy. He befriended the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who expanded democracy and civil liberties in Russia. Cuts in nuclear arsenals, agreements to eliminate intermediate-range missiles in Europe and reduction in Soviet armed forces in Eastern Europe did occur. It was June 12, 1987 when the Reagans were taken to the Reichstag building in Berlin, President Reagan was able to view the Berlin Wall from a balcony. That afternoon, he delivered his speech at the Brandenburg Gate where he asked General Secretary Gorbachev...if you seek peace, prosperity and freedom, "come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Reagan was a gifted politician who understood the American psyche, but he remained disengaged from those who surrounded him, he did not micromanage or even oversee the big picture almost to a fault. The New Deal of FDR and Great Society of LBJ remained intact with little progress on conservative social issues. However, he brought a new found respect to conservatism and his ideas on free markets became conventional wisdom of the 1990s. All in all he restored the office of the U.S. President to a position of power and prestige. Known as the Great Communicator, Reagan fell victim to Alzheimer's disease. He published a letter the American public of his affliction in 1994 which ended with these words, "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead." On the eve of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, former President Ronald Reagan died at his home in the Bel Air district of Los Angeles of pneumonia on June 5, 2004. His conditioned had greatly deteriorated as consequence of Alzheimer's. His wife, the former first lady Nancy Reagan had announced just one month before his death how difficult it was to celebrate their 52nd anniversary when "Ronnie" had no recollection of his times with Nancy. Ronald Reagan leaves us these great words of wisdom, "Government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it."

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflcits of interest to disclose.

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