Former president Ronald Reagan was born today in 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. Reagan served two terms as president, between 1981 and 1989. A subject of widely discrepant judgements, he has since been lionized by American conservatives as one of the country’s finest presidents.
A young Reagan parlayed a career in radio sports announcing into a successful stint as a Hollywood actor. He began appearing in feature films during the thirties. Reagan then enlisted in the Army Air Corps and served as a lieutenant during World War II. He was also featured prominently in wartime propaganda reels and training films.
Perhaps surprisingly, Reagan’s original political orientation was leftward. He was a New Deal Democrat who eventually changed affiliation to the GOP in 1960. He was embraced as a spokesman for conservatism, most notably after his “A Time for Choosing” speech in support of Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid.
Reagan won the California Governorship in 1966. He went on to raise state taxes, flipped the state deficit into a surplus and forcefully suppressed protests on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley using the National Guard. He was re-elected as governor in 1970.
Reagan conducted two failed presidential campaigns, in 1968 and then again in 1976. 1980 saw him make a clean sweep of first the Republican nomination and then the White House, unseating incumbent president Jimmy Carter in a major landslide. At the time, he was the oldest president ever elected.
His first term introduced “Reaganomics,” or, more properly, “supply-side economics,” which popularized the notion that reducing taxes, diminishing government spending and radically deregulating the market would improve the economy. He also launched the extremely controversial War on Drugs and moved aggressively against labor unions.
He won re-election in 1984 with the second largest margin in American history. His second term was heavily focused on foreign policy. Reagan bombed Libya, became embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal and also presided over the close of the Cold War, after escalating the nuclear arms race with the USSR, which Reagan referred to as an “evil empire.”
His legacy is highly debated. Reagan is praised for ushering in a peaceful end to the Cold War, as well as strengthening the economy and restoring a sense of optimism about the country’s future. Critics, however, point to the failures of supply-side economic philosophy. Under Reagan, America saw rising budget deficits, a significantly broadened wealth gap and a spike in homelessness. They also feel that the Iran-Contra scandal badly wounded America’s reputation.
One of Reagan’s most vociferous critics is, unsurprisingly, Noam Chomsky. In this clip, he discusses Reagan’s legacy.