Reagan always remembered his boyhood there in elegiac terms, and the modest but comfortable hillside house where he spent several years seems to confirm that impression. But Jack Reagan was overfond of drink and failed at one business after another, and Lee County tax records indicate that each place the Reagans rented was worth less than the one before. They ended up in an apartment literally on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.
Yet from an early age Ronald Reagan seems to have been, as one biographer said of Abraham Lincoln, "a little engine of ambition." An ambition to be someone important in the world, someone who could do things for others; maybe, although he never said so, to be president.
But how to move up in the world? One way was athletics; high school stars are celebrities in small towns. But the young Dutch Reagan stayed home reading while his older brother Moon played baseball, and he was too nearsighted to hit a pitch or catch a fly ball. In high school he played football, but became a lineman and, as he later confessed, not a good one. Swimming proved to be his sport. At 16 he talked his way into a job as lifeguard at a park along the treacherous Rock River. It was a busy place; he worked 12 hours a day for six summers and rescued 77 people, making a notch on a log for each one. That helped make him popular enough to be elected senior class president in high school.
Another way up was college. Only 6 percent of Americans graduated from college in the late 1920s, and Reagan's parents had not even attended high school. But at 17 Reagan made the remarkable decision to attend Eureka College, 95 miles from Dixon, financing his education with his earnings as a lifeguard, an athletic half-scholarship he talked his way into, and a job washing dishes. Every so often his mother would send him 50 cents for expenses, and by the end of his college days he was sending money home -- and bringing Moon to Eureka with him.
At Eureka Reagan played football, swam and coached the swimming team, was president of the student senate and -- most important for his future -- acted in plays. As a young boy, his mother encouraged him to perform in public readings and church plays and he was always able to memorize his lines quickly. "I knew then that I wanted to be an actor," he told Lou Cannon, "but it wasn't considered a way to make a living."
The way to make a living, he decided, was in the new mass medium of radio. Dixon is 100 miles straight west of Chicago, and the signals of Chicago's clear channel radio stations come in loud and clear. And in the 1920s stations in Chicago, not New York or Los Angeles, were the great innovators, presenting the first situation comedies, sportscasts and national convention coverage. Listening to the radio in his parents' homes in Dixon, Dutch Reagan was at the cutting edge of innovative mass media.
When he graduated from college in June 1932, unemployment stood at 24 percent, just about the highest rate in American history. He hitchhiked to Chicago and applied for jobs as a radio announcer. He was told that Chicago was the big time and that he should get some seasoning at a small station in "the sticks." He hitchhiked home, borrowed the Oldsmobile his father could not afford to buy gas for, and drove to Davenport, Iowa, the home of WOC, owned by the Palmer Chiropractic School (the station's call letters stood for world of chiropractic). Told that there was no opening, he talked the station manager into letting him audition by announcing an imaginary football game between Eureka and Western Illinois. He got the job: $5 and round-trip bus fare to broadcast a University of Iowa football game.
That break surely fortified an innate optimism. In 1933 Reagan moved to another Palmer station, WHO in Des Moines, where as a sports announcer he did what he had heard Chicago announcers do in the 1920s -- narrate games from a pitch-by-pitch account received by telegraph (with lots of foul tips when the telegraph broke down). He became something of a local celebrity and a frequent speaker to civic groups, and sent one-third of his paycheck home to his family. He also did political commentaries with future Republican Congressman H. R. Gross. He got raises and made $75 a week (more than $1,200 in today's dollars), twice what his father had ever made.
In early 1937 he got the idea of spending his month's vacation following the Chicago Cubs at their spring training in Catalina Island off Los Angeles. WHO agreed. In Los Angeles he sought out a singer who had worked at WHO; she got him an appointment with her agent, who got him a screen test. When he returned to Des Moines, the agent wired him that Warner Brothers was offering him a seven-year contract for $100 a week. "Sign before they change their minds," Reagan wired back.
Reagan's movie career, later derided by reporters and political adversaries, was successful. He learned his lines quickly, always showed up on time, patiently waited during delays in shooting. He received many favorable reviews. His performances in "Knute Rockne -- All-American" and "Kings Row," both made just before the U.S. entered World War II, landed him a million-dollar, multi-year contract. Military service during the war, most of it in Los Angeles, prevented him from making movies and money from what might have been his peak earning years, and after the war he bristled against the studios' insistence that he play light comedy rather than dramatic roles.
The movies of the 1930s and 1940s, like the radio of the 1920s and 1930s and the television shows of the 1950s and 1960s, were a universal culture, aimed not at niche audiences like the media of today but at the entire population. They were intended to be universally acceptable and to embody the values shared by almost all Americans, and indeed, 1940s movies still strike us as expressing the national spirit more than any other popular art.
In this national spirit Ronald Reagan was always a true believer. He was a believing and observant Christian, a Protestant like his mother rather than a Catholic like his father. Like both his parents he was a Democrat in heavily Republican Downstate Illinois, and he became an enthusiastic fan of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal policies. As a Hollywood star he kept up with political news; as a board member of the Screen Actors Guild from 1941 and its president from 1947 to 1960, he opposed Communist activists but refused to name names or to support outlawing the Communist party.
It was always in Reagan's interest to portray himself as an ordinary person and certainly not as any kind of intellectual. "Mr. Norm is my alias," Reagan wrote in a 1942 article for the fan magazine Photoplay. "Nothing about me to make me stand out on the midway." But he also admitted, "I'm interested in politics and government problems." More interested than he let on. His first wife Jane Wyman in seeking a divorce in 1947 complained that he talked about actors union and political issues all the time. And in 1948 he campaigned for Harry Truman's reelection over Republican Thomas Dewey and the leftist Henry Wallace, and emceed Truman's final campaign speech in the Hollywood Bowl.
Four years later, Reagan supported Republican Dwight Eisenhower. He always insisted that the Democratic party left him rather than the other way around, but clearly he changed his mind on some issues. He resented the 91 percent top tax rate when he was in his peak earning years, and before you could escape high rates by averaging income over several years. He had been affected by books like Friedrich Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom," which argued that socialism eroded personal freedoms. Hired by General Electric CEO Ralph Cordiner to speak to GE employees across the country as well as to host GE Theater, he became in the 1950s a dedicated opponent of big government.
The times seemed to be going against Reagan. A movie star in his 20s and 30s, he was less of a celebrity in his 40s. In his 50s, normally the peak years in most professions, he was an old man by Hollywood standards. He resigned as head of the Screen Actors Guild in 1960 and General Electric cancelled his show in 1962. John Kennedy, six years younger than Reagan, was a popular president seeking to make big government even bigger.
By Reagan's reckoning, the country seemed to be moving in the wrong direction, so he took it on himself to persuade his fellow citizens into changing course. The result was a speech, developed from the talks he had delivered to GE employees, called "A Time for Choosing," and a group of Goldwater-supporting businessmen persuaded the Arizonan's reluctant campaign to broadcast it on national television in October 1964. Reagan, a congenital optimist, came across as pessimistic, even angry, about the prospect of big government destroying the American dream, quoting Roosevelt quoting Lincoln that Americans had a "rendezvous with destiny." The speech raised money for the Goldwater campaign, with little effect on the result. But it convinced many that Reagan had a rendezvous with destiny himself.
Conventional political wisdom held that Goldwater's landslide defeat meant the end of conservatism in America. Reagan thought it was more like a beginning, with a major role for himself. Encouraged by the businessmen who had promoted the 1964 broadcast, he set about running for governor in 1966 against two-term Democrat Pat Brown, who had beaten Richard Nixon in 1962. Events helped. Student protests at Berkeley in 1964 and the black riot in Watts in 1965 showed that two supposed beneficiaries of big government were anything but grateful for aid provided by the tax dollars of the ordinary middle class Americans, who had flocked to California as a kind of promised land after World War II. Reagan, like so many of those taxpayers a migrant from the Midwest, voiced outrage at this ingratitude and at the failure of big government policies to produce the America they believed in.
Reagan showed in 1966 and 1970 that a conservative Republican could win landslide victories in what had recently become the nation's largest state. To be sure, his record in office was not as impeccably conservative as many contemporary conservatives believe: he acquiesced in a tax increase and signed, to his later regret, one of the most liberalized abortion laws in the nation. But he also made himself a plausible candidate for the presidency and tried for it three times -- in a last minute campaign in 1968, in a prolonged march through the primaries up to the national convention in 1976, and in a long campaign against an incumbent president in which success seemed anything but assured till the weekend before the election in 1980.
Only three presidents since 1900 have won popular vote majorities more than once, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. On the surface, all three seemed men of great geniality, but in fact none of them had any really close friends or anyone in whom they fully confided, except for Reagan -- and his confidante was his wife Nancy. Beneath the smiles there was a certain cold, inaccessible calculation. One difference is that Roosevelt entered the White House at 50, Eisenhower at 62 and Reagan just a month shy of turning 70. And if Roosevelt and Eisenhower had serious health problems, Reagan was shot and came close to dying in his second full month in office. His inattention to detail and his reliance on chiefs of staff who rationed his time and set his agenda arguably made him less effective than he might have been had he come to office earlier in life.
But since he left office it has become apparent that the portrait of Reagan as an airheaded actor manipulated by sinister aides is very far from accurate. It was always in Reagan's interest to portray himself as an ordinary guy, unaffected by intellectual influences -- the actor who called himself "Mr. Norm," the candidate for governor who insisted he was only a citizen-politician, the president who said, "They say that hard work never killed anybody, but I say why take the chance?"
On the contrary, the picture we get from his 1970s radio scripts, written out in his legible handwriting and retrieved from the wastebasket by a history-conscious secretary, show a man who was widely read and well informed on all manner of issues, with a clear philosophic compass and a gift for phrasemaking. It was one of his strengths that he could speak in the universal language of the 1930s and 1940s movies at a time of cultural conflict, a time when other politicians could only appeal to their particular niches of support. "I think it would be hard to be president without having been an actor," he once said. His greatest performance may have been after he was shot. In the process of losing half his blood, he insisted on walking into the hospital and buttoning his jacket, before collapsing on the floor when he was out of camera range.
Ronald Reagan changed his mind on economic issues and switched parties in his 40s. But if he sought to reverse the thrust of his hero Franklin Roosevelt's economic policies, he continued to believe as Roosevelt did that America had a special mission to deploy a strong military to oppose tyranny and expand freedom in the world. The New Deal historian William Leuchtenberg, interviewing all living presidents for the 100th anniversary of Roosevelt's birth, found Reagan by far FDR's most enthusiastic admirer -- the interview went over the allotted time.
Reagan was a believer, as Roosevelt was, in American exceptionalism. "I, in my own mind, have thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land," he said in a commencement speech in 1952, when he was still a Democrat. In his farewell speech as a Republican president in 1989 he said, "I've spoken of the shining city [on a hill] all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still."
"I wasn't a great communicator," said the man who talked his way into college, into radio, into the movies, into politics and into the presidency, "but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full blown from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation -- from our experience, our wisdom and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries." The president who voted for more winning presidential candidates than any other president seems to have always regarded himself as a child of destiny, and it turns out he was. But the destiny, he insisted, was not his own but that of the people of the United States of America.
Michael Barone,The Examiner's senior political analyst, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.