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Inside Politics

Ronald Reagan: The 'Great Communicator'

Former actor launched a modern-day Republican revolution

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CNN's Robin Oakley on Reagan, Europe and the UK.

President Bush speaks of Reagan's legacy.

CNN's Bruce Morton on the multifaceted life of Ronald Reagan.

• Audio Slide Show: Remembering
• Reactions:  Grieving for Reagan
• Health Library: Alzheimer's

Birth: February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois

Married: Jane Wyman 1940-1948, Nancy Davis in 1952

Education: Graduates from Eureka College, Illinois, in 1932

1932-1966: Sports announcer, motion picture and TV actor

1947-1952: President of Screen Actors Guild

1962: Campaigns for Richard Nixon, GOP gubernatorial candidate in California

1967-1974: Governor of California

1976: Loses Republican primary to Gerald Ford

1980: Elected 40th president, beating Jimmy Carter

March 30, 1981: Assassination attempt

January 11, 1989: Farewell address to the nation

1994: Announces he has Alzheimer's disease

May 16, 2002: Ronald and Nancy Reagan awarded Congressional
Gold Medal
What will Ronald Reagan be most remembered for?
Triumph of conservatism
Morning in America
End of the Cold War
Ronald Wilson Reagan
Nancy Reagan
Jane Wyman
White House

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th president of the United States who launched the modern-day conservative political movement with the "Reagan Revolution," died Saturday. He was 93.

In 1994, Reagan announced that was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, a neurological disorder that erodes the memory and causes degeneration of the brain.

The man known as the "Great Communicator" spent his final years largely out of public view, unable to carry on conversations even with his children and wife, Nancy.

The former president died at his home in the Bel Air district of Los Angeles with at least two of his children and Mrs. Reagan at his side.

Ron Reagan Jr. and Patty Davis -- children from his marriage to Nancy Davis Reagan -- were with him, according to his Los Angeles office.

It was unclear whether Michael Reagan, his adopted son from his first marriage to actress Jane Wyman, was with his father. Maureen Reagan, his daughter from that marriage, died of brain cancer in 2001.

Reagan, in office from 1981-89, helped redefine the political framework as he led the country into a new conservative view of itself. The Republican Party still draws much of its ideological authority from this period.

The White House years

The actor-turned-politician took two long-held tenets to the White House: The federal government was not the solution to the nation's problems, and the Communist Soviet Union was the "evil empire."

At the start of his presidency, Reagan favored the supply-side theory of growth, cutting taxes and social spending to jump-start a sluggish economy suffering with high inflation.

A deep recession forced some tax increases, but over the course of his tenure Wall Street responded appreciatively to "Reaganomics" and the economy boomed.

At the same time he fought to cut taxes, Reagan ordered a massive defense buildup to intimidate the Soviet Union, an expansion that required large-scale Pentagon spending. Critics called the effort corporate welfare for the defense industry.

In an attempt to stay ahead of the Soviets, Reagan supported the Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed "Star Wars," which promised to deflect incoming missiles. But the expensive plan was eventually deemed unworkable and shelved until being revived in the administration of the second President Bush.

Early in his presidency, in March 1981, Reagan was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt by John W. Hinckley Jr., a drifter who was found not guilty by reason of insanity at a subsequent trial. Hinckley said he wanted to impress actress Jodie Foster by killing the president.

Reagan survived the shooting, which took place as he was leaving a Washington hotel after giving a speech. With a bullet lodged just inches from his heart, Reagan handled the crisis with his trademark wit and self-assurance. He told his wife, "Nancy, honey, I forgot to duck," quoting the words of boxer Jack Dempsey to his wife after he lost to Gene Tunney in 1926.

As he entered the operating room for surgery to remove the bullet, Reagan said to the doctors, "Please tell me you're Republicans."

Also in his first term, Reagan took on the labor movement, a historically Democratic constituency, with his decision to fire 11,400 striking federal air-traffic controllers. The August 1981 strike came at the height of the summer vacation season. The controllers defied federal law, which prohibited strikes by government employees, after their union failed to reach an agreement with the government over wage increases.

Reagan not only fired the controllers but also refused to negotiate with the union while it was on strike. "You can't sit and negotiate with a union that's in violation of the law," he said.

Reagan was 69 when he took office, the oldest president elected. But he projected energy and health, and in 1984, with the economy recovering, he overcame concerns about his age to win re-election over former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale with a sweep of 49 states, losing only in Mondale's home state of Minnesota.

During his second term, the risk of standing toe to toe with Moscow paid off. He and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom he met several times, signed a treaty in 1987 to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear weapons.

His second term also saw one of his greatest missteps: the Iran-Contra scandal. The program involved the secret sale of arms to Iran to free U.S. hostages in Lebanon and fund Contra rebels fighting the leftist government of Nicaragua.

Reagan denied knowing of an arms-for-hostages deal and the diversion of money to the Contras. But his subordinates' covert actions were undeniably traced to the White House, spurring criticism of the president for failing to control his staff.

Former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North and John Poindexter, Reagan's national security adviser, were convicted on felony charges stemming from the affair. Both men's convictions were later overturned on appeal.

Reagan's vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush, pardoned six other Reagan administration officials involved in the Iran-Contra affair -- including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger -- on December 24, 1992, near the end of Bush's term

Beyond Iran-Contra, the Reagan international policy was a mixed bag.

He stood up to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and quashed a communist coup in tiny Grenada.

His decision to send Marines to Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping force stoked anti-American resentment in that country, and in October 1983 a terrorist bombing in Beirut killed 241 Marines. Kidnapped U.S. citizens in Lebanon remained hostages there when Reagan left office.

Reagan was not without contradiction. The great fiscal conservative left the country with a huge budget deficit. A vocal opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, Reagan appointed the first woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor.

Still, Americans always felt they knew where he stood. He was an indisputable master of what his vice president, George H.W. Bush, dubbed "the vision thing."

And he was at his best when the nation needed him most, clearly shown by his compassionate speech when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing all seven aboard.

The emerging politician

The future champion of conservatism grew up in a Democratic home, admiring President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Over the years, however, Reagan began moving to the right, finally switching parties in 1962.

Soon thereafter, he came to the attention of Republican Party leaders, notably through a 30-minute taped endorsement of the GOP's 1964 presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. Goldwater did not win, but Reagan came off looking polished and poised for a future political career.

Reagan's first attempt at stamping government with his brand of conservatism came in California, where he was governor from 1967-75. He won office by defeating incumbent Democratic Gov. Edmund "Pat" Brown by a landslide.

Confronted with a state deficit, he froze government hiring and cut welfare and social spending. The state's economy was thriving by the end of his tenure.

Not long after he became governor, Reagan's higher ambitions emerged. He tossed his name into contention at the 1968 Republican National Convention, too late to stop incumbent Richard Nixon. Then in 1976, Reagan campaigned actively against another Republican incumbent president, Gerald Ford. He won the nomination in 1980 and defeated President Jimmy Carter to capture the White House.

Life before Republican Party

Reagan exhibited leadership ability even during childhood in rural Dixon, Illinois.

He was born February 6, 1911, in a second-floor apartment in Tampico, Illinois, the second son of John and Nelle Reagan. His father was a shoe salesman who settled his family in Dixon when Reagan was 9.

"Dutch," as the boy was called, was president of Dixon High School's student council. He worked his way through small Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois, where he was student senate president, and graduated in 1932 with a degree in economics and sociology.

Reagan worked as a radio sports announcer from 1932-1937. While covering the Chicago Cubs 1937 spring training camp in Los Angeles, he talked his way into a Hollywood screen test. Warner Bros. studio liked what it saw and gave him a seven-year motion picture deal.

In his film debut, at age 26, Reagan's role required little stretch. He portrayed a radio announcer in "Love Is on the Air."

"He performed it easily, because he was playing himself," said Reagan biographer Tony Thomas.

He learned how to handle audiences and his image in Hollywood. He appeared in more than 50 movies over more than two decades.

One of his favorite rallying cries in Washington, "Win one for the Gipper," came from the 1940 film "Knute Rockne, All American," in which he played Notre Dame football star George "the Gipper" Gipp.

Poor eyesight kept Reagan off the front lines during World War II, during which he worked in Los Angeles making military training films. He was discharged as an Army captain.

The nation's future president served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947-52 and again from 1959-60. Reagan testified at congressional hearings investigating allegations of Communist influence in Hollywood in the late 1940s, helping create a blacklist of actors, directors, producers, writers and others suspected of communist leanings. He also won a strike against studios to get actors paid when their movies were shown on television.

From the movies, Reagan went into television as host of "The General Electric Theater" series, a job that involved traveling the nation giving speeches based on the company's conservative philosophy. His last job in show business was as host of the Western TV series, "Death Valley Days," from 1962-65.

Reagan was married twice, first to actress Jane Wyman from 1940-48. They had daughter Maureen Elizabeth in 1941 and adopted son Michael Edward in 1945 before divorcing.

In 1952, he married actress Nancy Davis. They had two children, Patricia Ann in 1952 and Ronald Prescott in 1958. The couple appeared together in the 1957 movie "Hellcats of the Navy."

Nancy Reagan strongly influenced Reagan's image as president, both with her role as a devoted wife and with her personal managerial style, the latter dismissed by critics as extravagant and autocratic.

After Reagan's announcement in November 1994 that he had Alzheimer's disease, the former first lady came to represent her husband publicly. In a 1996 interview, Mrs. Reagan described her husband's illness as "a long goodbye."

Reagan genuinely seemed to appreciate his remarkable string of good fortune, as he indicated in his 1994 announcement. Although he was by then already severely debilitated by his illness, just five years after leaving office, Reagan wrote the announcement in longhand as a letter to the American people. It was vintage Reagan: As he worried about the impact of the disease on his wife, he also voiced his ever-present optimism.

"In closing, let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president," he wrote. "When the Lord calls me home, whenever that day may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead."

In 1996, Mrs. Reagan took the stage at the GOP convention in San Diego, California, following the convention's tribute to her husband.

Recalling his prediction that his speech at the 1992 convention in Houston could be his last, Mrs. Reagan broke into tears.

"Sadly," she said, "his words were too prophetic."

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