Yesterday marked what would have been the 100th birthday of former President Ronald Reagan. One of the most controversial — and beloved — presidents in American history, Reagan is largely unknown aside from common stereotypes by students our age. His centennial anniversary allows people to take a fresh look at the man who was president, governor, corporate spokesman, union leader, actor and lifeguard.
Reagan was born in the one-street town of Tampico, Ill. Without fortune or privilege, he worked several odd jobs — proudly serving as the Rock River lifeguard — while dealing with an alcoholic father. Reagan once recalled coming home from school to find his dad passed out in the snow and somberly carrying him inside.
After college, Reagan was a sports broadcaster and then an actor — becoming a B-movie star for Warner Bros. Entertainment and working his way up to head the Screen Actors Guild. He served as a second lieutenant in World War II and was one of the first officers to see footage of European concentration camps, which strengthened his convictions against totalitarian regimes.
After working for General Electric Company and making speeches across the country for free enterprise, Reagan turned his full attention to politics. Frustrated by the growth of government and what he saw as a weak approach to the Soviet Union, Reagan officially became a Republican in 1962, famously declaring, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”
Elected governor of California in 1966, Reagan handled eight years of cultural and economic distress. He quelled violent protests across the University of California campuses and worked with Democrats in the Legislature to secure spending cuts in exchange for tax increases with surpluses refunded to the taxpayers.
By 1980, America was suffering from high inflation, stifling unemployment and a declining reputation. Reagan’s presidential campaign was based on the ideas that America was a “shining city on a hill” and that a restrengthening of our military and economic capabilities was needed to regain the nation’s productive leadership. Running against incumbent Jimmy Carter, Reagan won 489-49. In 1984, 49 states re-elected him.
Reagan — in conjunction with Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker — quickly set out to repair America’s economy. He negotiated with a Democratic House to reduce income taxes — with top marginal rates falling from 70 percent to 28 percent during his tenure. With deregulation, tight monetary policy and a push to decrease federal expenditures, inflation fell from 13.9 percent in 1980 to 4 percent in 1988. Real gross domestic product growth averaged 4.3 percent annually.
In foreign relations, Reagan focused on nuclear weapon reductions with the Soviet Union but understood that America had to speak from a position of strength. Convinced the USSR was fundamentally unsustainable, Reagan pushed a dramatic military build-up. Having returned the nation to a place of preeminence, Reagan overcame GOP opposition to secure the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and began what would become the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
One hundred years after his birth, Reagan’s legacy remains a dominating force in American politics. He wasn’t perfect — Reagan himself lamented his inability to cut the national debt and the Iran-Contra Affair tarnished his second term — yet he changed the national conversation on a multitude of issues, promoting individual freedom, expanding economic opportunity and pursuing peace through strength.
His life was about more than jelly beans and cabinet meeting naps. Reagan’s rise from a working class kid to leader of the free world — and his ability to bring so many others along with him, in the United States and abroad — offers inspiration to students facing a weak job market and uncertainty about the direction of their lives.
Alexander Franz is a Business School senior and Jonathan Pape is an LSA senior.