RONALD REAGAN (1981-1989)
Ronald Wilson Reagan (February 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004) was
the 40th President of the United States (1981–1989) and the 33rd
Governor of California (1967–1975). Born in Tampico, Illinois,
Reagan moved to Los Angeles, California in the 1930s. He
began a career in filmmaking and later television, making 52
films and gaining enough success to make him a household
name. Reagan served as president of the Screen Actors Guild,
and later spokesman for General Electric (GE); his start in
politics occurred during his work for GE. Originally a member
of the Democratic Party, he switched to the Republican Party in
1962. After delivering a rousing speech in support of Barry
Goldwater's presidential candidacy in 1964, he was persuaded
to seek the California governorship, winning two years later
and again in 1970. He was defeated in his run for the Republican presidential nomination in
1968 as well as 1976, but won both the nomination and election in 1980.
During his Presidency, Ronald Reagan pursued policies that reflected his personal belief in
individual freedom, brought changes domestically, both to the U.S. economy and expanded
military, and contributed to the end of the Cold War. Termed the "Reagan Revolution," his
presidency would reinvigorate American morale and reduce the people's reliance upon
government. As president, Reagan kept a series of diaries in which he commented on daily
occurrences of his presidency and his views on current issues. The diaries were published in
May 2007 in the bestselling book, The Reagan Diaries.
First term (1981–1985)
The Reagans wave from the limousine taking them down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White
House, right after the president's inaugurationTo date, Reagan is the oldest man elected to the
office of the presidency. In his first inaugural address on January 20, 1981, which Reagan
himself wrote, he addressed the country's economic malaise arguing: "Government is not the
solution to our problems; government is the problem."
The Reagan Presidency began in a dramatic manner; as Reagan was giving his inaugural
address, 52 U.S. hostages, held by Iran for 444 days were set free.
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On March 30, 1981, Reagan, along with his press secretary James Brady and two others,
were shot by a would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr. Missing Reagan's heart by less than one
inch, the bullet instead pierced his left lung. He began coughing up blood in the limousine
and was rushed to George Washington University Hospital, where it was determined that his
lung had collapsed; he endured emergency surgery to remove the bullet. In the operating
room, Reagan joked to the surgeons, "I hope you're all Republicans!" Though they were not,
Joseph Giordano replied, "Today, Mr. President, we're all Republicans."
The bullet was removed and the surgery was deemed a success. It was later determined,
however, that the president's life had been in serious danger due to rapid blood loss and
severe breathing difficulties. He was able to turn the grave situation into a more light-hearted
one, though, for when Nancy Reagan came to see him he told her, "Honey, I forgot to duck"
(using Jack Dempsey's quip).
The president was released from the hospital on April 11 and recovered relatively quickly,
becoming the first serving U.S. President to survive being shot in an assassination attempt.
The attempt had great influence on Reagan's popularity; polls indicated his approval rating to
be around 73%. Reagan believed that God had spared his life so that he may go on to fulfill a
Air traffic controllers' strike
Only a short time into his administration, federal air traffic controllers went on strike,
violating a regulation prohibiting government unions from striking. Declaring the situation an
emergency as described in the 1947 Taft Hartley Act, Reagan held a press conference in the
White House Rose Garden, where he stated that if the air traffic controllers "do not report for
work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated." Despite fear
from some members of his cabinet over a potential political backlash, on August 5, Reagan
fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored his order to return to work,
busting the union. According to Charles Craver, a labor law professor at George Washington
University Law School, the move gave Americans a new view of Reagan, who "sent a
message to the private employer community that it would be all right to go up against the
"Reaganomics" and the economy
During Jimmy Carter's last year in office (1980), inflation averaged 12.5%, compared to
4.4% during Reagan's last year in office (1988). Over those eight years, the unemployment
rate declined from 7.1% to 5.5%. Reagan implemented policies based on supply-side
economics and advocated a classical liberal and laissez-faire philosophy, seeking to stimulate
the economy with large, across-the-board tax cuts. Citing the economic theories of Arthur
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Laffer, Reagan promoted the proposed tax cuts as potentially stimulating the economy
enough to expand the tax base, offsetting the revenue loss due to reduced rates of taxation, a
theory that entered political discussion as the Laffer curve. Reaganomics was the subject of
debate with supporters pointing to improvements in certain key economic indicators as
evidence of success, and critics pointing to large increases in federal budget deficits and the
national debt. His policy of "peace through strength" (also described as "firm but fair")
resulted in a record peacetime defense buildup including a 40% real increase in defense
spending between 1981 and 1985.
During Reagan's presidency, federal income tax rates were lowered significantly with the
signing of the bipartisan Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981. Real gross domestic product
(GDP) growth recovered strongly after the 1982 recession and grew during his eight years in
office at an annual rate of 3.4% per year. Unemployment peaked at 10.8% percent in
December 1982—higher than any time since the Great Depression—then dropped during the
rest of Reagan's presidency. Sixteen million new jobs were created, while inflation
significantly decreased. The net effect of all Reagan-era tax bills was a 1% decrease in
government revenues. Reagan also revised the tax code with the bipartisan Tax Reform Act
The policies proposed that economic growth would occur when marginal tax rates were low
enough to spur investment, which would then lead to increased economic growth, higher
employment and wages. Critics labeled this "trickle-down economics"—the belief that tax
policies that benefit the wealthy will create a "trickle-down" effect to the poor. Questions
arose as to whether Reagan's policies benefitted the wealthy more than those living in
poverty, and many poor and minority citizens viewed Reagan as indifferent to their struggles.
In accordance with Reagan's less-government intervention views, Reagan cut the budgets of
non-military programs including Medicaid, food stamps, federal education programs and the
EPA. He protected entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, however, his
administration attempted to purge many allegedly disabled people from Social Security
The administration's stance toward the Savings and Loan industry contributed to the Savings
and Loan crisis. It is also suggested, by a minority of Reaganomics critics, that the policies
partially influenced the stock market crash of 1987, but there is no consensus regarding a
single source for the crash. In order to cover newly spawned federal budget deficits, the
United States borrowed heavily both domestically and abroad, raising the national debt from
$700 billion to $3 trillion. Reagan described the new debt as the "greatest disappointment" of
He reappointed Paul Volcker as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and in 1987 he appointed
monetarist Alan Greenspan to succeed him. Reagan ended the price controls on domestic oil
which had contributed to energy crises in the 1970s. The price of oil subsequently dropped,
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and the 1980s did not see the fuel shortages that the 1970s had. Reagan also fulfilled a 1980
campaign promise to repeal the Windfall profit tax in 1988, which had previously increased
dependence on foreign oil. Some economists, such as Nobel Prize winners Milton Friedman
and Robert A. Mundell, argue that Reagan's tax policies invigorated America's economy and
contributed to the economic boom of the 1990s. Other economists, such as Nobel Prize
winner Robert Solow, argue that the deficits were a major reason why Reagan's successor,
George H. W. Bush, reneged on a campaign promise and raised taxes.
Second term (1985–1989)
Reagan was sworn in as president for the second time on January 20, 1985, in a private
ceremony at the White House. Because January 20 fell on a Sunday, a public celebration was
not held but took place in the Capitol Rotunda the following day. January 21 was one of the
coldest days on record in Washington, D.C.; due to poor weather conditions, inaugural
celebrations were held inside the Capitol.
In 1985, Reagan visited a German military cemetery in Bitburg to lay a wreath with West
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It was determined that the cemetery held the graves of 49
members of the Waffen-SS. Reagan issued a statement that called the Nazi soldiers buried in
that cemetery "victims," which ignited a stir over whether he had equated the SS men to
Holocaust victims; Pat Buchanan, Director of Communications under Reagan, argued that the
notion was false. Now strongly urged to cancel the visit, the president responded that it would
be wrong to back down on a promise he had made to Chancellor Kohl. He attended the
ceremony where two military generals laid a wreath.
The disintegration of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986 proved a pivotal
moment in Reagan's presidency. All seven astronauts aboard were killed. On the night of the
disaster, Reagan delivered a speech in which he said:
"The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. We will never forget
them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and
waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God.'
In 1986, a scandal shook the administration stemming from the use of proceeds from covert
arms sales to Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, which had been specifically outlawed by
an act of Congress. The Iran-Contra affair became the largest political scandal in the United
States during the 1980s. The International Court of Justice, whose jurisdiction to decide the
case was disputed, ruled that the U.S. had violated international law in Nicaragua due to its
obligations not to intervene in the affairs of other states.
President Reagan professed ignorance of the plot's existence. He appointed two Republicans
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and one Democrat (John Tower, Brent Scowcroft and Edmund Muskie, known as the "Tower
Commission") to investigate the scandal. The commission could not find direct evidence that
Reagan had prior knowledge of the program, but criticized him heavily for his disengagement
from managing his staff, making the diversion of funds possible. A separate report by
Congress concluded that "If the president did not know what his national security advisers
were doing, he should have." Reagan's popularity declined from 67 percent to 46 percent in
less than a week, the greatest and quickest decline ever for a president. The scandal resulted
in fourteen indictments within Reagan's staff, and eleven convictions.
Many Central Americans criticize Reagan for his support of the Contras, calling him an anticommunist
zealot, blinded to human rights abuses, while others say he "saved Central
America." Daniel Ortega, Sandinistan and current president of Nicaragua, said that he hoped
God would forgive Reagan for his "dirty war against Nicaragua." In 1986 the USA was found
guilty by the International Court of Justice (World Court) of war crimes against Nicaragua.
Reagan left office in 1989. In 1994, the former president disclosed that he had been
diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease earlier in the year; he died ten years later at the age of 93.
He ranks highly among former U.S. presidents in terms of approval rating.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH (1989-1993)
George Bush brought to the White House a dedication to
traditional American values and a determination to direct
them toward making the United States "a kinder and gentler
nation." In his Inaugural Address he pledged in "a moment
rich with promise" to use American strength as "a force for
Coming from a family with a tradition of public service,
George Herbert Walker Bush felt the responsibility to make
his contribution both in time of war and in peace. Born in
Milton, Massachusetts, on June 12, 1924, he became a student
leader at Phillips Academy in Andover. On his 18th birthday
he enlisted in the armed forces. The youngest pilot in the Navy when he received his wings,
he flew 58 combat missions during World War II. On one mission over the Pacific as a
torpedo bomber pilot he was shot down by Japanese antiaircraft fire and was rescued from
the water by a U. S. submarine. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery
Bush next turned his energies toward completing his education and raising a family. In
January 1945 he married Barbara Pierce. They had six children-- George, Robin (who died as
a child), John (known as Jeb), Neil, Marvin, and Dorothy.
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At Yale University he excelled both in sports and in his studies; he was captain of the
baseball team and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation Bush embarked on a career
in the oil industry of West Texas.
Like his father, Prescott Bush, who was elected a Senator from Connecticut in 1952, George
became interested in public service and politics. He served two terms as a Representative to
Congress from Texas. Twice he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate. Then he was appointed to
a series of high-level positions: Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the
Republican National Committee, Chief of the U. S. Liaison Office in the People's Republic of
China, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
In 1980 Bush campaigned for the Republican nomination for President. He lost, but was
chosen as a running mate by Ronald Reagan. As Vice President, Bush had responsibility in
several domestic areas, including Federal deregulation and anti-drug programs, and visited
scores of foreign countries. In 1988 Bush won the Republican nomination for President and,
with Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana as his running mate, he defeated Massachusetts
Governor Michael Dukakis in the general election.
Bush faced a dramatically changing world, as the Cold War ended after 40 bitter years, the
Communist empire broke up, and the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union ceased to exist; and
reformist President Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Bush had supported, resigned. While Bush
hailed the march of democracy, he insisted on restraint in U. S. policy toward the group of
In other areas of foreign policy, President Bush sent American troops into Panama to
overthrow the corrupt regime of General Manuel Noriega, who was threatening the security
of the canal and the Americans living there. Noriega was brought to the United States for trial
as a drug trafficker.
Bush's greatest test came when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, then
threatened to move into Saudi Arabia. Vowing to free Kuwait, Bush rallied the United
Nations, the U. S. people, and Congress and sent 425,000 American troops. They were joined
by 118,000 troops from allied nations. After weeks of air and missile bombardment, the 100-
hour land battle dubbed Desert Storm routed Iraq's million-man army.
Despite unprecedented popularity from this military and diplomatic triumph, Bush was
unable to withstand discontent at home from a faltering economy, rising violence in inner
cities, and continued high deficit spending. In 1992 he lost his bid for reelection to Democrat
WILLIAM J. CLINTON (1993-2001)
During the administration of William Jefferson Clinton, the U.S. enjoyed more peace and
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economic well being than at any time in its history. He was the first Democratic president
since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term. He could point
to the lowest unemployment rate in modern times, the lowest
inflation in 30 years, the highest home ownership in the country's
history, dropping crime rates in many places, and reduced
welfare rolls. He proposed the first balanced budget in decades
and achieved a budget surplus. As part of a plan to celebrate the
millennium in 2000, Clinton called for a great national initiative
to end racial discrimination.
After the failure in his second year of a huge program of health
care reform, Clinton shifted emphasis, declaring "the era of big
government is over." He sought legislation to upgrade education,
to protect jobs of parents who must care for sick children, to
restrict handgun sales, and to strengthen environmental rules.
President Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe III on August 19, 1946, in Hope,
Arkansas, three months after his father died in a traffic accident. When he was four years old,
his mother wed Roger Clinton, of Hot Springs, Arkansas. In high school, he took the family
He excelled as a student and as a saxophone player and once considered becoming a
professional musician. As a delegate to Boys Nation while in high school, he met President
John Kennedy in the White House Rose Garden. The encounter led him to enter a life of
Clinton was graduated from Georgetown University and in 1968 won a Rhodes Scholarship
to Oxford University. He received a law degree from Yale University in 1973, and entered
politics in Arkansas.
He was defeated in his campaign for Congress in Arkansas's Third District in 1974. The next
year he married Hillary Rodham, a graduate of Wellesley College and Yale Law School. In
1980, Chelsea, their only child, was born.
Clinton was elected Arkansas Attorney General in 1976, and won the governorship in 1978.
After losing a bid for a second term, he regained the office four years later, and served until
he defeated incumbent George Bush and third party candidate Ross Perot in the 1992
Clinton and his running mate, Tennessee's Senator Albert Gore Jr., then 44, represented a
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new generation in American political leadership. For the first time in 12 years both the White
House and Congress were held by the same party. But that political edge was brief; the
Republicans won both houses of Congress in 1994.
In 1998, as a result of issues surrounding personal indiscretions with a young woman White
House intern, Clinton was the second U.S. president to be impeached by the House of
Representatives. He was tried in the Senate and found not guilty of the charges brought
against him. He apologized to the nation for his actions and continued to have unprecedented
popular approval ratings for his job as president.
In the world, he successfully dispatched peace keeping forces to war-torn Bosnia and bombed
Iraq when Saddam Hussein stopped United Nations inspections for evidence of nuclear,
chemical, and biological weapons. He became a global proponent for an expanded NATO,
more open international trade, and a worldwide campaign against drug trafficking. He drew
huge crowds when he traveled through South America, Europe, Russia, Africa, and China,
advocating U.S. style freedom.