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Ronald Wilson Reagan Case Study


Scandals, contradictions failed to diminish popularity of 'the Gipper'

"There had been a kind of cynicism and distress that people felt, first over the (John F.) Kennedy assassination, then (Lyndon) Johnson and the Vietnam War . . . then, most of all, Watergate and (Richard) Nixon's resignation," says historian Robert Dallek, author of Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism. "There was (Gerald) Ford's pardoning of Nixon and (Jimmy) Carter's failings as a






presidency," Dallek says, "was that he was much admired, much loved, and he restored a measure of regard to the presidency during the eight years he served."

Reagan made jokes that reassured the nation after an assassination attempt left him seriously wounded just two months after his first inauguration. "I hope you're all Republicans," he told the doctors as he was being wheeled into surgery. He gave a lifting address that comforted grieving Americans when the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986 as schoolchildren across the country were watching the liftoff on TV. He rarely left much doubt about where he stood. He called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and demanded in a 1987 visit to Berlin, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

To the amazement of the world, months after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall was torn down and the epic U.S.-Soviet conflict that had threatened civilization in the 20th century eased.

Scandals and setbacks

There were scandals under Reagan's tenure, too, and setbacks.

The terrorist bombing in 1983 of Marine barracks in Beirut left 241 servicemembers dead. Dishonesty and fraud at the Housing and Urban Development Department brought the nation's longest-running independent-counsel investigation. In the Iran-contra affair, his senior aides tried to trade arms for hostages, then illegally funneled the profits to Nicaraguan guerrillas. Reagan insisted he knew nothing about it, an admission that seemed to acknowledge his casual oversight of his administration.

None of it undermined the open affection many voters felt for him, however. One frustrated Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Pat Schroeder of Colorado, complained that Reagan was so untouched by his mistakes and aides' misdeeds that he must be coated with Teflon: the Teflon president.

All that stuck was the moniker.

Reagan believed in a few things on which he never wavered: A smaller, less intrusive government at home, with lower taxes, less regulation and less spending. A fervent opposition to communism abroad, with whatever Pentagon budget that might require.

"Maybe you didn't agree with him and maybe you did, but there it was," former secretary of State George Shultz told USA TODAY years later. "What you saw was what you got."

Reagan was born in small-town America, in the nation's heartland Tampico, Ill. on Feb. 6, 1911. He described his mother as a saintly figure. His father was a shoe salesman with the gift of gab and a tendency toward alcoholic binges.

From the start, the son was blessed with a cheerful outlook, an engaging smile and seemingly effortless success that stretched through an improbable career.

As a senior in high school, about to enter adulthood, he chose as his yearbook motto, "Life is one grand, sweet song, so start the music." The melody he heard was the same at the other end of his life, in 1991, after he had left the White House. He told biographer Lou Cannon, "Most of my dreams came true."

A New Deal Democrat

He graduated from Eureka College in Illinois in 1932, then got a job as a radio sportscaster in neighboring Iowa. In California to cover baseball spring training, he made a screen test for Warner Bros. and ended up appearing in more than 50 films. He became active in the Screen Actors Guild, where he honed skills as a negotiator that would serve him well as president.

When his film career waned, he landed a job as the corporate spokesman for General Electric, hosting a weekly TV drama series and traveling the country to address its employees.

He started out as a New Deal Democrat who counted Franklin Roosevelt as a hero, but the anti- communist campaigns in the film industry and the free-enterprise orientation of GE contributed to his growing conservatism. Reagan campaigned for the Democratic candidate against Richard Nixon when Nixon was first elected to the Senate from California in 1950. By 1960, Reagan was campaigning as a

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