Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Obit week #1: Ronald Reagan: "From movie star to political star"

     The Society of Professional Obituary Writers is holding its fifth annual conference—"ObitCon 2017—in Evanston this weekend. I have been invited to attend and though I typically avoid all professional groups—I find them more dispiriting than inspirational—I think I'll stop by. I've enjoyed writing obituaries for 20 years, generally of famous people with connections to Chicago. It's interesting to learn about people's lives, and to send them off with the proper fanfare. I thought I would feature a few of my favorites today, Thursday and over the weekend.
    I'm particularly proud of is this one, for President Ronald Reagan, because I despised Reagan when he was in office, not realizing there was far worse to come. Despite this, I kept my own feelings in check—one definition of "professional"—and wrote a piece I believe was thorough and fair.
     Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, whose career glided with apparent ease from Hollywood stardom to the White House, died Saturday.
     He was 93.
     The only native Illinoisan elected president, Mr. Reagan exuded a folksy charm and warm humor that delighted supporters and infuriated opponents. A former corporate spokesman, he embraced big business and was a staunch opponent of communism and the Soviet Union, which he famously dubbed the "evil empire."
     "The Great Communicator" never lost an election. When he left the White House in 1989, public opinion polls showed him to be the most popular president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Like Roosevelt, Mr. Reagan also had his impassioned detractors, who dubbed him "the Teflon president," for his ability to deflect criticism, and found his immense charm hollow in the face of his policies regarding Central America, AIDS, the environment and defense expenditures.
     Mr. Reagan was the nation's oldest president—just two weeks shy of his 78th birthday when he left office—and he suffered from Alzheimer's disease in recent years that kept him mostly out of the public eye, though his name and legacy were invoked at the 1996 and 2000 Republican National Conventions.
     Ronald Wilson Reagan was born Feb. 6, 1911, above a bakery in tiny Downstate Tampico, the second son of Nelle and John Reagan. His father, a shoe salesman, was also an alcoholic, and more than one historian has suggested that Mr. Reagan developed his relentless cheeriness as a defense against his father's frequent drunken lapses.
     His family moved around frequently. Briefly, as an infant, he lived on the South Side of Chicago, and then in Galesburg, Monmouth and back in Tampico. When he was 9, his family moved to Dixon, where he went to high school.
     Mr. Reagan graduated in the class of 1928. "Life is just one grand sweet song," his yearbook caption read, "so start the music."
     He went to Eureka College on a partial football scholarship. There, he became active in student politics and was elected student body president.
     He graduated in 1932, with a degree in sociology and economics. The same year, he was hired as a sports announcer for WOC in Davenport, Iowa. He worked his way to WHO in Des Moines and became a local celebrity for his broadcasts reconstructing games from telegraph reports.
     In 1937, Mr. Reagan took a screen test, and Warner Bros. offered him a seven-year, $200-a-week contract.
     His first film, "Love Is on the Air," was a disposable B-movie trifle that set the pattern for most of his 50 or so films. Mr. Reagan was seen as a dependable, workmanlike actor, often playing clean-cut, all-American roles.
     He did act in several critically acclaimed movies, notably "Kings Row" (1942) and "Knute Rockne—All American" (1940). In the latter, his portrayal of dying football star George Gipp led to one of his presidential nicknames, "the Gipper." He made his last Hollywood movie in 1964.
     In 1940, Mr. Reagan wed actress Jane Wyman, whom he met while they were filming "Brother Rat" (1938). They had two children, Maureen and Michael (a third, born premature, died the day after birth in 1947). They were divorced in 1949. He was the first and only president to have been divorced, but it was not an issue in his campaigns.
     In the divorce proceedings, Wyman blamed Mr. Reagan's involvement with the Screen Actors Guild–and his wanting her to share his interest–as putting a strain on their marriage.
     Mr. Reagan honed his political skills in the guild, serving as its president from 1947 to 1952 and from 1959 to 1960.
     He entered the Army in 1942 as a second lieutenant, rising to the rank of captain by the time he was discharged in July 1945. While his opponents made much of the fact that he spent the war making training films, Mr. Reagan's poor eyesight—he wore contact lenses his entire professional life—kept him out of combat.
     In 1952, he married another actress, former Chicagoan Nancy Davis. Mr. Reagan had met Davis when, alarmed that her name had gotten on mailing lists for left-wing organizations, she appealed to him for help.
     They had two children, Patti and Ronald, and appeared in several productions together. Nancy Reagan was to have a tremendous influence on her husband's life and was a powerful figure, both in public and behind the scenes, after he became president.
     Mr. Reagan's movie career slumped in the mid-1950s, and he signed on to host television's "General Electric Theater." His experience as a corporate spokesman, more than anything else, is thought to have influenced his switch from liberal Democrat to right-wing Republican—a move he did not formally make until the early 1960s.
     When "GE Theater" ended in 1962, he switched over to the TV series "Death Valley Days," which he hosted until 1965.
     By then he had become a political powerhouse. He co-chaired California Republicans for (Barry) Goldwater in 1964 and delivered a televised speech in support of the GOP presidential nominee that established Mr. Reagan as a major fund-raiser and rising Republican star.
     Despite his Hollywood success, Mr. Reagan tended to downplay his experience as an actor. When he first ran for the California governorship in 1966, he listed his occupation as "rancher."
     The first public office Mr. Reagan held was governor of California. He won handily, defeating incumbent Pat Brown by nearly a million votes.
     Mr. Reagan was a conservative governor, reining in spending and cutting the size of government, raising taxes and reducing welfare rolls. Talk of his running for president was almost immediate. He was put forward by the party's right wing in 1968 and won 182 delegate votes at the convention, third behind Nelson Rockefeller and Richard M. Nixon.
     Mr. Reagan was re-elected as governor in 1970 and support built for him to run for president if Nixon didn't run for a second term. In 1971, Mr. Reagan was the top pick among voters asked who should run if Nixon stepped aside.
     But Nixon ran for re-election.
     Mr. Reagan did not try for re-election as governor of California, leaving office in 1975. He spent several months on the lecture circuit, then announced his candidacy for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination.
     He narrowly missed pulling off a coup, receiving 1,070 convention votes, 60 short of what he needed to deny President Gerald R. Ford the party's nomination. Still, he delivered a stunning speech, ostensibly in support of Ford but of such power and vision that many in the hall saw it as confirmation that they had just nominated the wrong man.
     Mr. Reagan had a lock on the 1980 nomination, sweeping the primaries and driving out all rivals.
    He showed his rhetorical power in debating incumbent President Jimmy Carter, already handicapped by the dual woes of a miserable economy and the hostage crisis in Iran. Brushing aside charges that he would undermine world peace with a genial, "There you go again," Mr. Reagan delivered his famous question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
     The country answered a resounding "No." Mr. Reagan carried 44 states -- 90 percent of the electoral vote -- and received 8.5 million more votes than Carter, his margin of victory a full 10 percent of the popular vote.
     Mr. Reagan's inauguration was a day of high drama. As he finished his brief inaugural address, the Islamic revolutionaries who had been holding 52 American hostages in Iran finally freed them.
     His first formal act as president was to declare a national day of thanksgiving for the return of the hostages.
     Mr. Reagan's eight-year presidency nearly was cut short at the start. Seventy days after he took office, he was shot in the chest by a deranged man outside the Washington Hilton Hotel.
     He was rushed to George Washington Hospital, where he walked into the emergency room. He had lost three pints of blood, and doctors later said that had treatment been delayed for five minutes, he probably would have died.
     Even at such a moment of duress, Mr. Reagan displayed his quick wit. "Honey, I forgot to duck," he told Nancy when she rushed to his side.
     A vibrant man who enjoyed horseback riding and cutting wood at his California ranch, Mr. Reagan surprised everyone with his quick recovery.
     Significant occurrences of the Reagan years include the nomination of the first woman to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor, and a brand of supply-side economics that was dubbed "Reaganomics."
     Mr. Reagan addressed the faltering economy that had helped elect him with a combined three-stage tax cut and slashed federal spending.
     The nation responded by going into severe recession—by late 1982, unemployment was at 10.6 percent, its highest since before World War II.
     But the economy gradually responded—whether on its own or in reaction to Mr. Reagan's medicine—and by 1984, matters were healthy enough for Mr. Reagan to win a landslide victory over Carter's former vice president, Walter F. Mondale.
     During the first debate between the two, Mr. Reagan seemed faltering and uncertain, and his age became an issue in the campaign. But once again, he used humor and a deft delivery to defuse the issue, quipping in the second debate: "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
     People bought it. Mr. Reagan's electoral victory—525-13—was the most lopsided in history. He also carried 59 percent of the popular vote.
     The recovery that helped re-elect Mr. Reagan was built on borrowed money, however. Mr. Reagan's budgets added more than $1 trillion to the national deficit.
     Foreign relations under Mr. Reagan were marked by his firm anti-communist stand. His "Star Wars" defense program, which called for constructing a laser-guided anti-missile shield around the nation, was much discussed. Billions of dollars was spent toward its development, though many doubted that the system was technically feasible, and in the end it came to nothing.
     While Mr. Reagan had declined to meet with a Soviet leader during his first term, upon re-election, the Soviets softened their stance toward the United States, and Mr. Reagan embraced Mikhail Gorbachev when he rose to power, meeting with him four times at summits in Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington and Moscow.
     Mr. Reagan considered his resilience against the Communists as responsible for the fall of communism across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.
     The culmination of Mr. Reagan's Soviet policy was the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty in 1987, slashing the stockpile of nuclear weapons and providing for on-site inspections.
     Mr. Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada in 1983 and provided money, arms and training to the contra rebels in Nicaragua in an attempt to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista government.  
     The president clashed repeatedly with Congress over his support for the contras, and Congress' withholding of funding led to the great scandal of the Reagan administration, the Iran-contra affair.
     In late 1986, it was revealed that the Reagan administration had sold arms to Iran in exchange for Iranian assistance in freeing hostages in Lebanon.
     This embarrassment turned into full-blown crisis when it became known that the Iranians were overcharged for the arms, with the profits illegally funneled to aid the contras.
     Though Mr. Reagan claimed not to know of the activities, he was harshly criticized by the Senate commission formed to look into the affair, and several members of his administration went to prison.
     After he left office, Mr. Reagan busied himself at his California ranch. In late 1994, he announced to the nation, via a handwritten note, that he had Alzheimer's disease, a progressive neurological disorder that erodes the mind and memory.
     Even after being found to have Alzheimer's, Mr. Reagan continued to go to his office at Los Angeles' Century City, exercise, chop wood at his ranch, golf and attend church on Sundays.
     In 1995, the Reagans allowed their names to be used by the Chicago Alzheimer's Association, which renamed its grantmaking division the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute
     While his family reported that Mr. Reagan remained physically strong and kept the good-humored "twinkle" so characteristic of him, his memory deteriorated severely in recent years as his disease progressed, and he often failed to recognize family members and close acquaintances, and was kept almost entirely out of the public eye.
     Reagan's oldest daughter, Maureen, died in August 2001 at age 60 from cancer. Along with Nancy Reagan, his three other children survive.
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 6, 2004


  1. Wonderful! I make it a point to read obits. Often it's the first and only time that the larger public is even aware of a that person's existence - let alone their accomplishments

  2. No one can tell me that Reagan, or his people, didn't collude with Iran during the 1980 election to delay the freeing of the hostages until inauguration day. That is textbook treason.

    1. That makes no sense. Neither Iran or Reagan had anything to gain. The only secret deal I can imagine is Iran freeing the hostages in exchange for not being annihilated. Now, Iran-Contra was a dirty deal. No doubt about that.

    2. Who knows whether Iran had anything to gain or not? IOW, who knows what the Reagan people may have offered them? After all, Reagan did sell them weapons years later. That makes me not want to give him the benefit of the doubt in this case.

    3. Iran had Carter over a barrel. Why would they want an unknown loose cannon like Reagan in the White House? Freeing the hostages was an act of fear.

    4. Had Carter over a barrel? How? To what purpose? So that they could hold on to the hostages indefinitely? That would just become even more of an international embarrassment for them. I'm sure they wanted to resolve the situation however they could while saving face, and Reagan offered them a way to do it. I just wonder what he gave up for it.

    5. Iran was holding all the cards with Carter at the helm. You're misreading it. Iran wasn't embarrassed. Every day they held the hostages was an embarrassment for the U.S. They saw Carter as impotent. If Reagan offered Iran anything, it was to not bomb the crap out of them.
      By the way, I'm not defending Reagan. I just don't think your hypothesis points in the right direction.

    6. I still don't see how keeping the embassy hostages was Iran "holding all the cards." Those people aren't stupid; they know they couldn't hold on to them forever.

      And if they were so scared about Reagan bombing the crap out of them, why did Reagan have to bribe them with weapons to free hostages in Lebanon? I think there's more to this story than has ever been reported.

    7. Iranians are master negotiators. It's cultural. And, you're right, there's definitely more to the story. As for holding hostages for so long? It was a show of power. It was payback for 25 years of propping up the Shah. It was a game they were willing to play as long as they were winning.

    8. All the comments suggest that Iran had a truly functioning government at the time. Taking the hostages was a revolutionary act and letting them go was perhaps a sign of somebody taking charge. In the long run, Iran had nothing to gain from perpetuating the situation indefinitely.


    9. It was definitely a revolutionary act, but the government wasn't the perpetrator. They backed the hostage-takers after the fact. They played a cat and mouse game with Carter.

  3. Seems unlikely there was any direct contact between Reagan's people and the Ayatollah's, but no doubt there were tacit understandings that were clear enough to all concerned. Probably, Daffy Donald got a little closer to "textbook treason" than the Gypper. We'll see.

    1. Oh, I'm sure he did. But never underestimate the role of the trailblazer.

    2. Anyway, it was a great obit for someone who didn't like the guy.


  4. Disgusts me to drive on a highway named after the bigot. Drive in on the Reagan to go to a conference in a hotel near Trump Tower and it feels like I must be on the highway to hell. If I keep going east will I find fascist hell? No, Guess I'll just be in the lake.

  5. I always look at those who proclaim their patriotism the loudest in the same way I look at those who wave the flags of religious superiority and family value with most fervor. These are usually the ones who are most hypocritical and who you can usually rely upon to betray their own moral dictates. Whoever wrote Christ's warnings about the "hypocrites" was relaying a message from history as a warning about not trusting those who proclaim to be morally above everyone else. Put the flag down and try to help bring about the ideals that the flag represents. This is not a Roman battlefield where the cloth is to be glorified and protected. Protect and glorify the struggle to embody the ideals of equality and justice that the flag is supposed to represent.


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