“In the United States everyone has the opportunity to become president” is a statement made daily by countless teachers and parents. However, the statement is an American cultural truism, for, according to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum the majority of American presidents were born into middle class roots. Only ten presidents, including some of the early forefathers, were “to the manor born.” Eight presidents including presidents Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, and Hoover, were born into poverty. The fortieth American President, Ronald Reagan, was born on February 6, 1911 in an apartment located above the local bank in Tampico, Illinois, a place of humble means. To mark what would have been Reagan's 100th birthday, the National Portrait Gallery is currently exhibiting "One Life: Ronald Reagan". Today, November 8th, is the 45th anniversary of the day Reagan was first elected California governor.
Back cover from Ronald Reagan : an American hero. Photo by Harry Benson.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library owns more than 40 books on Reagan, each giving different insights into the life of the man who would become president.
The revealing nature of An American Life, Ronald Reagan’s autobiography, belies the claim by some that Reagan had an inscrutable personality and sums up the personalities and events that shaped his persona.
Ronald Reagan was the second son of John (Jack) Reagan and Nelle Wilson. Jack’s forebears were Catholic famine Irish and he is described by his son as having the gift of the blarney and the charm of a leprechaun, “No one I ever met could tell a story better then he could.” The only professional training Jack ever received was as a salesmen and he remained one for most of his life, constantly moving his family from town to town in Illinois in order to make a living. He writes that he didn’t realize this family was poor until adulthood and he never felt disadvantaged, “Only later did the government decide that it had to tell people they were poor.”
In contrast of her husband, Nelle Wilson Reagan enjoyed the security of being raised in a large close knit Scots/English Protestant family growing up on a farm setting in rural Illinois. Reagan writes: ‘I learned from my father the value of hard work and ambition, and maybe a little about telling a story. From my mother, I learned the value of prayer, how to have dreams and believe I could make them come true.’
Jack had a serious drinking problem, sometimes disappearing for days while on a binge. Reagan’s tale as an eleven year old boy pulling his unconscious drunk father from the snow into the house is so descriptive that it alone gives discredit to the declaration that he was unknowable.
Nelle, a very forgiving and pious woman, kept the family together and taught her two sons to accept their father’s affliction as a sickness. The family’s limited financial means didn’t improve until the Depression era when Jack, a lifelong Democrat, finally procured a civil service job under the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Ronald Reagan worked at many jobs to supplement the family’s income including: caddy, construction worker, and life guard. Although his severe myopia wasn’t diagnosed until the age of thirteen, he had the ability to memorize quickly and he did well enough in school to talk his way into being accepted with a partial scholarship at Eureka College. He supplemented his means of living by washing dishes and serving tables in exchange for meals at Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. The autobiography reflects on his life, from Eureka College, radio sportscaster, Hollywood actor, Army Air Corps lieutenant during World War II, Screen Actors Guild President, television personality, Governor of California, and finally the Fortieth American President, 1981-1989.
The Reagan Diaries is the only American presidential diary ever written on a daily basis. The editor, historian Douglas Brinkley writes “Ronald Reagan wrote about seemingly everything and everyone in the diaries-from his first inauguration in 1981 to his very last day in the White House in 1989. Arms reduction, Reaganomics, the military, Lebanon, Iran Contra, Camp David, Rancho del Cielo, and much more are recorded in considerable detail.” Brinkley goes on to note that the constants in the diary are Reagan’s relationship with God, his marriage to Nancy, and empathy for citizens with physical disabilities.
One example serves to reveal the intimate moments contained in the diaries. On March 30, 1981 Reagan was shot in the lung and in one poignant passage he writes about waking up in the hospital: “I opened my eyes one to find Nancy there. I pray I’ll never face a day when she isn’t there. Of all the ways God has blessed me giving her to me is the greatest and beyond anything I can ever hope to deserve.”
Ronald Reagan: An American Hero: His Voice, His Values, His Vision is a hagiography with full page photos accompanying the text of the president’s life and accomplishments. The book highlights the life of Reagan, from his youth and school days. He once joked “There are advantages to being elected president. The day after I was elected, I had my high school grades classified as Top Secret.” The book goes on to describe his early adulthood at Eureka College, the Hollywood years where he was elected to the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) five times, two terms as governor of California, and, finally, his eight year presidency. Reagan’s determination and negotiating skills are highlighted in the chapter where Mikhail Gorbachev the General Secretary of the USSR is quoted: “Reagan pushed me one step more and then one step more till we got to the precipice, and then he wanted one step more.”
Ronald Reagan: A Remarkable Life is a heavily illustrated book that thoroughly covers Reagan’s youth and years as a Hollywood film star. The book includes photos of his first wife, fellow film star, Jane Wyman who divorced him in 1948 and their children Maureen and Michael. Reagan met another film star, Nancy Davis, and married her in 1952; together they had two children Patti, and Ron Jr. With one hundred and twenty photos, most in color, the book gives a clear pictorial history of his early life.
The description of his active service during World War II is very thorough. As a first lieutenant he loaded ships in the cavalry unit. Later, he was assigned to a special unit of Army Air Force Intelligence (AAFI). In this era before satellite photos, training films with realistic models were constructed for the viewing of bomber pilots before deploying on critical raids. Reagan’s clear and deliberate voice was used in the simulations to give instructions for each step of the mission. After producing some highly successful short and feature films in order to keep up American support of the war effort he was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant.
Front cover from Ronald Reagan: A Remarkable Life.
How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life by one of his speechwriters, Peter Robinson, gives an inside look at what life was like in the Reagan White House looking at both the dynamics, personalities, and resulting tensions of the President’s staff. The book also provides insight into the personality of Reagan, with optimism being a defining characteristic of Reagan’s persona. The author illustrates this with Regan’s favorite joke:
The joke concerns twin boys of five or six. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities – one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist – their parents took them to a psychiatrist.
First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled, “Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did I’d only break them.
Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother; the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. “What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked. Just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. “With all this manure," the little boy replied, beaming, “there has to be a pony in here somewhere!"
All the books mentioned above provide insight into both the private and public figure of Ronald Reagan with many more held by the Library. From a challenged low-income family to fame as an actor and then two-term president, Ronald Reagan had a “remarkable life.”