It was evening in America on Nov. 4, 1980, when Ronald Wilson Reagan, star of Knute Rockne — All American and Bedtime for Bonzo, learned he’d landed the greatest role of his life: President of the United States. The then-69-year-old former actor hadn’t been near a soundstage in nearly two decades, but his political performances — most notably as two-term governor of California — had finally found their target audience.
Reagan’s stint in Tinseltown (which began in the late ’30s and included a smooth transition to TV in the ’50s as host of CBS’ General Electric Theater) yielded little in the way of memorable cinema, though it did net him a future First Lady, his Hellcats of the Navy (1957) costar, Nancy Davis.
Still, the entertainment industry had a lasting impact on Reagan’s budding political ambitions. His Hollywood-honed gift for charm got him elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1947, and in 1966 won him the governorship of California in a landslide against incumbent Pat Brown. (”I’m running against an actor,” Brown ranted, ”and you know who shot Lincoln, don’t you?”)
Reagan soon turned his attention to the national stage, and eventually challenged a floundering Carter administration. ”There you go again,” his famous dismissal of Jimmy Carter in a 1980 debate, became a slogan for his media-savvy approach to politics, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since John F. Kennedy.
”[Looking] back on his presidency… we realize that the Hollywood aspect of him was by no means trivial,” says biographer Edmund Morris. ”It was an extremely important part of his gift…. Acting to him was a deadly serious business.”
Reagan used that ample talent — he was dubbed the Great Communicator — to rally popular support and make good on his promise to stare down the USSR with tough-talking rhetoric reminiscent of a Western, and an arms buildup worthy of, well, Star Wars. Even in the darkest hour of his presidency — John Hinckley Jr.’s 1981 assassination attempt — the wounded Reagan came through with the perfect line: ”I forgot to duck.”
Critics derided Reagan’s presidency as pure Hollywood hokum, all bravado and bluff — but defenders insist he gave the people he served a happy ending. His two terms — he rolled over Walter Mondale in 1984 — saw glasnost and the crumbling of the Soviet Union.
Reagan, now 89 and living in Bel Air, Calif., was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, and made his last public appearance in February of that year. Still, his legacy loomed over presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore. As Harvard associate professor of public policy David King puts it, ”If you can’t act like a President, then you probably shouldn’t be a President.”
Time Capsule: November 4, 1980
At the movies, Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, featuring a scene-stealing debut by Sharon Stone, cracks ’em up in theaters. In bookstores, Stephen King’s paean to pyromania, Firestarter, is a best-seller. In music, Barbra Streisand is the Queen of Pop as her song ”Woman in Love” and album Guilty are both No. 1 on their respective Billboard charts. And in the news, the U.S. government considers its options a day after Ayatollah Khomeini-led Iran issues its conditions for the release of 52 American hostages.