On Saturday, former President Ronald Reagan died at the age of 93 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.
Over 30 years before Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, Reagan, then a well-known Hollywood actor who had appeared in more than 50 films, became governor in 1967 and held the post until 1975. His theatrical background would be both a help and a hindrance to his success as president.
Reagan, who was elected president in 1980 and served two terms, was the oldest U.S. president when he took office at age 69. In announcing his vision for the United States while campaigning in 1980, Reagan said he wanted to balance the budget, reduce tax rates and "strengthen our defenses," and as president, he was responsible for a number of substantial achievements. He earned the nickname "The Great Communicator" not only for his powerful speeches and ease on camera, but for his ability to improvise when necessary.
Reagan devoted much of his presidency to winning the Cold War, and succeeded. He outspent the USSR until the Soviets were forced to give up the arms race, kept a steadfast commitment to stopping the spread of communism, and maintained a friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev that helped begin the thaw. He worked to lower inflation, interest rates and unemployment. He also appointed the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, to the Supreme Court in 1981.
Reagan expressed a fervent optimism for the country's future and believed that decreasing the size of the government was essential. Even those who didn't agree with his ideology admired his sense of hope, his folksiness (he kept a jellybean jar on his desk in the Oval Office) and his vision.
But oftentimes it appeared to the public and his critics that Reagan was simply acting in what the title of one biography called "the role of a lifetime." His term as president was just as easily characterized by contradictions as it was by achievements. Though he claimed to be against deficit spending, Reagan supported a policy of cutting taxes while increasing defense spending, a process that ultimately almost tripled the national debt and shifted the economy into the worst downturn in years.
Reagan said he was anti-terrorism, but his administration participated in the Iran-Contra affair, an arms-for-hostages deal with Iran. The proceeds from these sales went to the Contra rebels, who were fighting to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua, a war that Congress had voted not to fund. The deal also helped to placate Iran, which was holding U.S. hostages. Given his ability to bounce back from this error in judgment, Reagan was deemed the "Teflon" president; fallout from his actions never quite stuck to him.
In 1983, when many in his administration disagreed with the president's attachment to the Strategic Defense Initiative, which would supposedly destroy Soviet missiles before they reached the U.S., Reagan pushed ahead with it. The president's persistence was viewed as a stumbling block to reaching an arms-control agreement.
The ever-smiling Reagan worked hard to hide problems with his ability to fulfill campaign promises, and the fact that many members of his administration disagreed with his policies. His optimistic vision of a greater America helped restore the country's faith in its leader, but with a focus that often seemed to be on image over substance, critics say, Reagan teetered between being an actor and being a true leader.
Reagan was known for gaffs, like claiming that "trees cause pollution," as well as for determined actions like standing at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and challenging Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin wall. "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," he said.
The legacy of Reagan is in his attitude more than his actions, his vision for success more than his actual achievements, and both are characterized by the quote on his memorial: "There's purpose and worth to each and every life."