The Election of an Actor to the Presidency

If you told someone in 1951 that Ronald Reagan would someday be president of the United States, he would’ve suggested you check into a rest home for the politically delusional. After all, the veteran actor had just starred in Bedtime for Bonzo, in which his costar was a chimpanzee. That qualified him for Congress, certainly, but hardly the White House.

In addition to being the first president to have starred in a movie with an ape, Reagan was also the first president to have been divorced, and at the age of 69, the oldest president when he took office. Reagan was born in Illinois in 1911 and after college became a sportscaster in Iowa.

In 1937, a screen test led to Hollywood, and Reagan became a second-tier star, first in movies and then on TV. His taste for politics grew from serving two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and as his politics became increasingly conservative, he found himself a favorite of the Republican Party’s right wing. He ran for governor of California in 1966, defeating incumbent Pat Brown, and served two terms.

In 1976, he came in a strong second for the GOP presidential nomination, and then in 1980, he swept both the nomination and the presidency over the unpopular Carter. His two greatest campaign tactics turned out to be a single question — “Ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?” — and not being Jimmy Carter.

As president, Reagan was essentially a cheerleader for a vision of America that counted on everyone trying not to be too different from one another and not relying on the federal government to do much. He seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of both good and bad luck.

He bounced back from being shot and seriously wounded after giving a speech at a Washington hotel in 1981, and in 1985 he won a bout with cancer. Despite his health problems, he managed an easy reelection victory in 1984 over Democrat Walter Mondale, who had been vice president under Jimmy Carter.

Reagan greeted political setbacks with boundless good cheer and a joke or two. And no matter what else happened,

Reagan’s personal popularity stayed high — so much so that he became known as the “Teflon president”: Like the nonstick coating used on pots and pans, nothing seemed to stick to him. But his nice-guy persona didn’t mean he was wishy-washy. When the country’s air traffic controllers ignored federal law and went on strike in 1981, Reagan promptly fired all 11,400 of them and refused to rehire them after the strike ended.

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