America celebrates the 106th birthday of Ronald Reagan — one of the greatest politicians in the history of mankind. He became a symbol of the republican conservatism and American exceptionalism. It is not surprising that many contemporary politicians try to be like him, because Reagan is synonymous with courage, strength and determination. After analyzing his way of life, we can find the answer to the question: «Why did the 40th President of the United States leave a deep trace in the US and world political history?». In 1937, he began his career in Hollywood, where the Warner Bros. company offered him a one-year contract with an option to extend it up to seven years. He spent a significant part of his life in the film industry. However, he was unable to repeat the success of such great stars like Clark Gable and Gregory Peck. Basically, Reagan starred in some low-budget and low-cost films of category «B». Being pragmatic and self-critical person, Reagan understood that he did not have any great perspectives in that area. He started looking for a new way and found a quite unexpected sphere — politics.
It should be noted that his political career began in Hollywood. In late 1938, Reagan joined the «Screen Actors Guild», which positioned itself as a professional union that protected the interests of the film industry workers. At the very first meeting, Reagan announced his disagreement with the charter adopted and proposed to change the organization radically. During a three-year period, due to his outstanding organizational skills and initiatives, he was promoted from an ordinary member of the union to the member of the Board, which included some top level actors. As the trade union movement was developing, different interest groups were also created. At that period in Hollywood, there was a sharp struggle between the two labor groups — «The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees» and «The Conference of Studio Unions». The parties used every opportunity to tarnish the reputation of each other. Thus, Roy Brewer — the leader of the first organization, said that his competitors were sympathetic to the Communists — America’s enemies.
Ronald Reagan, who returned to Hollywood after demobilization, supported the «International alliance». He knew people well, was aware of public sentiments, determined social and political trends skillfully and mastered oratorical skill. In addition, he was characterized by unlimited integrity and devotion to his ideals. Reagan was never afraid to openly express his views. Brewer valued his talents and appointed him one of the leaders of the organization. Being one of the most influential union members, Reagan assisted the security services that closely followed the activities of left-wing organizations across the country. Overall, nearly 25 years of Reagan’s life were connected with the «Screen Actors Guild». Firstly, he was just a Board member and later he became the president of the Board. It should be noted that he was elected president for five consecutive years: from 1947 to 1951.
The second important stage in his life began in 1954 with an invitation to conduct a weekly program called «General Electric Theater». Over the years as a presenter, Reagan traveled to more than a hundred cities in forty states, where he performed in front of huge audiences. He wrote the texts of his speeches himself, improvised a lot, used jokes and switched from one topic to another. His work for the «General Electric Theater» allowed Reagan to meet with different layers of the population and improve his communications skills. He had a lot of followers that wanted to see that talented master in politics. The representatives of «General Electric» company believed that Reagan could win the Governor elections in any conservative state or successfully run for Congress. The problem was that Reagan was officially registered in the Democratic Party. He joined it at a young age and later regretted about that many times. Reagan wanted to go away from the Democrats in the early 60’s, but the conservative elite in California persuaded him to stay. While being formally in the Democratic Party, Reagan could bring more benefits for the Republicans, promoting the ideas of Richard Nixon among liberals. That gesture showed that Reagan was able to neglect his personal interests for the sake of the common ones.
In the elections of 1960, the Democrat John Kennedy won and Ronald Reagan believed his further stay in the camp of the Democrats was meaningless. Already in 1962, he was registered as a Republican and began to participate in party affairs actively. In that early period he was asked to run for Governor of California. Many newcomers in policy would grasp that opportunity. However, Ronald Reagan considered himself not ready for such a test. He felt society’s demands well and was convinced that Californians were not ready to choose a conservative candidate. Reagan actively supported the party members, went for the party gatherings and held meetings with the population. On October 27, 1964 he came on the national political scene, when he delivered the famous speech in support of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Reagan remarked that the United States faced a choice between free enterprise and overgrown government, between individual freedom and «ant heap of totalitarianism», between the need to show resilience in the dangerous international situation and surrender to the most vicious enemy ever.
He also touched upon the problem of the federal government expansion, which harmed the interests of American people. He called the welfare programs charitable assistance, economic aid to foreign countries — subsidy to socialism, urban constructing — an attack on freedom of the individual and the free education — not a universal right but a privilege for those who deserved it. A particularly important part of his speech was devoted to tax policy. Reagan said that the USA needed tax reform that would begin to move towards the realization of the American dream for children. That dream implied that no one would be deprived of the opportunity to achieve wealth and that every person had the right to reach the heights, which corresponded to his or her capabilities and abilities. In general, that speech did not help Goldwater to win the election, but made Reagan a national-level politician. Moreover, Reagan was able to breathe hope into conservative America and unite it around the ideas presented in his speech of 1964.
In 1966, he agreed to run for the Governor of California. Understanding the frustration of many Americans about the social policy of the Democrats, Ronald Reagan went to the polls with the slogan «Creative Society» that was opposed to the well-known slogan of President Johnson — «Great Society.» At that time, most Californians treated professional politicians negatively. Understanding people’s disappointment, Reagan positioned himself as a «citizen politician» that was driven by desire to serve the interests of ordinary Americans, not of large corporations, and interest groups. He walked away from the ultra-conservative positions. Reagan knew that to merge the party, he had to play the role of a peacemaker and not just take any of the sides.
In addition, it was a period of mass demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, racial segregation, growing unemployment, inflation, worsening of environmental problems and rising crime. The «Great Society» of Democrats did not solve these problems. Given the people’s frustration about all the politicians, Reagan gained the reputation of an anxious American man and politician with civil philosophy. His position gave the only chance that California would take the first place in much more important nominations than the population quantity, crime rates and huge taxes. Californians particularly liked the optimism of Ronald Reagan that said that the people of California had limitless possibilities to solve all problems. Indeed, after becoming the Governor, Reagan managed to achieve big changes: he reduced crime rates and tax burden and conducted significant reforms in the socio-economic sphere.
The ongoing war in Vietnam, the collapse of construction of the «Great Society» and the growing crisis of confidence in Johnson’s administration gave the Republicans a reason to hope that the Democrats would be defeated in the 1968 elections. The main favorites of the Republicans were Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Reagan managed to achieve great success as the Governor of California while Nixon had experience in the White House as the Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower. Both candidates had good reputation in the conservative society and enjoyed the support of major financial elites. Realizing that their collision is imminent, Reagan and Nixon held a meeting and agreed that they would not use the cash funds of each other. In other words, it was a gentleman agreement on a fair competition. It must be said that both candidates had clearly followed their agreement. Reagan lost those elections, but it was a valuable experience for him.
In 1970, Reagan defeated his rival from the Democratic Party Jesse Unruh with an impressive benefit and remained the Governor for a second term. As other Republican candidates in other states lost, Reagan’s victory was evaluated as an extraordinary event in the political life of the country. It turned out that despite all his faults and blunders and his unpopularity among the moderates and more liberal-minded politicians and voters, Reagan enjoyed sufficient support and prestige to win the battle for the post of Governor in a clearly disadvantageous position of his party in the country. Reagan’s popularity grew, and many influential members of the party offered him to run for the presidential elections in 1972. However, Reagan knew that he had little chance to win, and the second defeat could permanently close his way to the White House.
The Watergate scandal led to resignation of Spiro Agnew — the Vice President of that period. Many conservatives expected that his place would be taken by Reagan, who had the highest rating in the Republican Party. However, the position was proposed to Gerald Ford — the leader of the Republican minority in the House of Representatives. The situation was aggravated when being under threat of impeachment Nixon resigned and Ford became the President. Therefore, in the fight for the White House in 1976, Reagan had to deal not only with his colleague in the party but with the current President. During the primaries, Reagan lost. His advisers thought that it was necessary to take decisive and extraordinary steps. Reagan agreed with the proposal to select Richard Schweiker as Vice President. Reagan’s advisers believed that the liberal views of Schweiker would help to get the votes of the moderate electorate. That action really helped to attract additional votes of moderate conservatives, but Reagan also lost the support of many traditionalists and radical right activists. As a result, Ford was declared the winner in the first round of voting. However, his lead over Reagan was minimal and accounted for 117 votes. Nobody expected that the Governor of California would be able to give a battle to such an experienced politician with extensive political and lobbying ties.
The defeat did not break Reagan On the contrary, he got extra confidence in his potential. In 1979, he said that he would participate in the next elections. At that time, Reagan tried not to listen to political strategists and consultants so much while developing the election platform. He understood that he had lost his image of a «concerned citizen», which had helped him to earn the respect and trust of the people. In this election, Reagan said things he thought about and believed in. In the process of election of Vice President, he also showed that he was able to make concessions for the sake of the common good. Reagan had a choice between Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. He wanted to choose Ford as Bush actively criticized his social program. However, Ford refused to go to the polls, and Bush became the only candidate. Party elites convinced Reagan that Bush had extensive political experience and was the best candidate for the post of Vice President. As a result, he followed the advice of the party. Contrary to all expectations and forecasts, Ronald Reagan defeated the Democratic President Jimmy Carter, becoming the 40th US President.
Reagan’s presidency is memorable because of major economic reforms and great foreign policy achievements. Undoubtedly, during his reign, there also were problems, failures and scandals. However, we must not forget the main thing: it was Ronald Reagan who led America into a new era as the winner in the Cold War and in the status of the only superpower of the new world order. History of Ronald Reagan is a story of struggle, devotion to ideals. It is also definitely a story of success and triumphs. That is the reason why Reagan is considered one of the greatest politicians in the history of mankind.
Areg Galstyan, Ph.D., is a regular contributor to The National Interest, Forbes, The Hill, The American Thinker. The head of the «American Studies» Research Centre. Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/galstyan_areg.