The life and legacy of President Ronald Reagan

This summer, as usual, I’m attending some short courses at the City Literary Institute in central London. The first one was a two and a hall hour session on US President Ronald Reagan delivered by college principal Mark Malcolmson who is incredibly knowledgeable and very fluent. These are some of my notes:

Presidents tend to come from poor or rich backgrounds. Reagan was from a poor family in Illinois. Known as Dutch because of Dutch boy haircut as youth. At college, very clubbable. Became sports commentator on radio in Iowa. Signed up for seven years to Warner Brothers as a B movie actor (“Bedtime For Bonzo”)

Following scandal involving other officers, President of the Screen Actors Guild for five years. Until then, a New Deal Democrat – he claimed Dems went Left but actually he went Right. Then became face of General Electric Theatre on television and spoke at company’s factories -> became a very effective public speaker.

By 1964, Republican Party in disarray (Barry Goldwater presidential candidate). “The Speech” – Reagan came out as Republican and declared for Goldwater. In 1966 and again in 1970, elected as governor of California. Tough on law & order but he raised taxes in order to balance the budget. Signed abortion and no-fault divorce laws and opposed bill to ban gays as teachers.

Reagan ran against Gerald Ford for the presidential candidacy but narrowly lost. This weakened Ford who then lost to Jimmy Carter. For next four years, Reagan was the leader in waiting. Then in 1980 he won the Republican primary against George Bush and the following presidential election in a rout against Carter.

He became the oldest president in history at that time (almost 70). Put together a strong cabinet and left detail to his team. Three months into his presidency, he was the subject of an assassination attempt which gave him a fillip in the polls and a huge amount of poltical capital during a shaky first two years in office.

He supported small government and low taxes, but he massively increased spending on the military and ran a huge deficit. Unemployment rose to over 10%. Republicans hammered in the mid terms. But then economy improved.

He made three nominations to the Supreme Court, including the first woman member of the Court (Sandra Day O’Connor), and tilted Court to the Right.

In 1984, Reagan re-elected president against Walter Mondale in a massive landslide – biggest Electoral College vote in history.

Foreign policy:

Sent troops into Lebanon with no clear objective and went catastrophically wrong. Then he ordered invasion of Grenada which went down well with US electorate. He was a staunch supporter of apartheid South Africa. He thought that detente had failed and Soviet Union should be opposed everywhere and American allies  – however unpleasant (Chile and Nicaragua) – were supported.

He launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) to counter “the evil empire” of the Soviet Union which would have ended the notion of “mutually assured destruction”. New Soviet leader Gorbachev responded with series of summits. Many historians claim that Reagan broke the Soviet Union and won the Cold War. Others argue it would have happened anyway because the USSR was economically unsustainable.

Major scandal was his support of the Contras in Nicaragua by selling arms to Iran to raise the funds. It should have brought Reagan down. Was he already senile? Most doctors think not. Democrats were reluctant to impeach because it would look like a second removal of a landslide president (after Nixon).

Two blind spots:
He was opposed to civil rights with no understanding of race relations.
He refused to have any concern about AIDS for a long time.

Two major pluses:
Response to the “Challenger” disaster.
Managed to have election of his Vice-President (Bush snr).


  • Arthur B. Shostak

    I am astonished that an overview of the Reagan record makes no mention of his 1981 firing of 12,400 Air Traffic Controllers on strike to upgrade their labor contract. Reagan’s unprecedented blow set back the American Labor Movement so far that the slide in the wellbeing of Americans since then has not yet been overcome. No president has done more to harm working people than Reagan, as he could have mediated the dispute rather than impose strict surrender conditions the union could not abide. Reagan’s behavior cost America dearly, and note should forever be taken. His was a costly and unnecessary act unworthy of a mature leader.

  • Roger Darlington

    Absolutely tight, Art. It was a strange omission from the lecture.


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