Reagan lived in the public eye for more than fifty years as an actor
and politician. He appeared in 53 Hollywood movies, from Love
is on the Air (1937) to The Killers (1964). Never highly
touted as an actor, his most acclaimed movie was King's Row
(1942) while his favorite role was as George Gipp in Knute Rockne--All
American (1940). He served as president of the Screen Actor's
Guild from 1947 to 1952 and again in 1959 where he led the fight
against communist infiltration in the film industry and brokered
residual rights for actors.
made his debut on television 7 December 1950 as a detective on the
CBS Airflyte Theater adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel.
After a dozen appearances over the next four years on various shows,
Reagan's big television break came when Taft Schreiber of MCA acquainted
him with G.E. Theater. Reagan hosted this popular Sunday
evening show from 1954 to 1962, starring in thirty-four episodes
himself. Reagan was one of the first movie stars to see the potential
of television and, as host, he introduced such Hollywood notables
as Joan Crawford, Alan Ladd, and Fred Astaire to their television
debuts. He also became a goodwill ambassador for G.E.--plugging
G.E. products, meeting G.E. executives, and speaking to G.E. employees
all over the country. This proved fine training for his future political
career as he honed his speaking skills, fashioned his viewpoints,
and gained exposure to middle-America.
In 1964, Reagan began a two-season stint as host of Death Valley
Days which he had to relinquish when he announced his candidacy
for governor of California in January 1966. During his terms as
Governor of California (1966-74), Reagan made frequent televised
appearances on Report to the People.
hinge between Reagan's acting and political careers swung on a nationally
televised speech, "A Time for Choosing," on 27 October 1964. This
speech for Barry Goldwater, which David Broder hailed as "the most
successful political debut since William Jennings Bryan electrified
the 1896 Democratic convention with his 'Cross of Gold' speech,"
brought in over one million dollars for the Republican candidate
and marked the beginning of Reagan's reign as the leading conservative
for the next twenty-five years.
1980, the year Reagan was elected president for the first of his
two terms, more people received their political information from
television than from any other source. Reagan's experience as an
actor on the screen and on television gave him an enormous advantage
as politics moved fully into its television era. His mastery of
the television medium earned for him the title, "the great communicator."
He perfected the art of "going public," appealing to the American
public on television to put pressure on Congress to support his
policies. The rhetoric of this "prime-time president" suited television
perfectly. Whether delivering a State of the Union address, eulogizing
the crew of the Challenger, or speaking directly to the nation
about his strategic defense initiative he captured the audience's
attention by appealing to shared values, creating a vision of a
better future, telling stories of heroes, evoking memories of a
mythic past, exuding a spirit of "can-do" optimism, and converting
complex issues into simple language the people could understand
understood that television is more like the oral tradition committed
to narratival communication than like the literate tradition committed
to linear, factual communication. As Denton puts it, in video politics,
"how something is said is more important than what is said." Reagan
surmounted his numerous gaffes and factual inaccuracies until the
Iran-Contra affair, when it became apparent that his style could
not extricate him from the suspicion that he knew more than he was
telling the American public.
administration also greatly expanded the Office of Communication
to coordinate White House public relations, stage important announcements,
control press conferences, and create visual productions such as
That's America, shown at the 1984 Republican convention.
Image management and manipulation increased in importance because
of television. Reagan's aides perfected a new political art form--the
visual press release--whereby Reagan could take credit for new housing
starts while visiting a construction site in Fort Worth or announce
a new welfare initiative during a visit to a nursing home.
Reagan was an average television actor but a peerless television
politician. Both Reagan and his staff set the standard by which
future administrations will be judged. As Schmuhl argues in Statecraft
and Stagecraft, Ronald Reagan represented not only the rhetorical
presidency, but the theatrical presidency as well.
(WILSON) REAGAN. Born in Tampico, Illinois, U.S.A., 6 February
1911. Eureka College, Illinois, B.A. in economics and sociology
1932. Married: 1) Jane Wyman, 1940 (divorced, 1948); children: Maureen
and Michael; 2) Nancy Davis, 1952; children: Patti and Ron. Served
in U.S. Army Air Force, 1942-45. Wrote sports column for Des Moines,
Iowa newspaper; sports announcer, radio station WOC, Davenport,
Iowa, 1932-37; in films, 1937-1964; contract with Warner Brothers,
1937; first lead role in big-budget film was in King's Row, 1941;
president, Screen Actors Guild, 1947-52 and 1959; in television,
1953-66, starting as host of The Orchid Awards, 1953-54; governor
of California, 1966-74; U.S. president, 1980-88.
The Orchid Awards (host)
1954-62 General Electric Theatre (host and program supervisor)
1965-66 Death Valley Days (host)
1964 The Killers (released as theatrical feature due to violent
is in the Air, 1937; Hollywood Hotel, 1937; Swing
Your Lady, 1938; Sergeant Murphy, 1938; Accidents
Will Happen, 1938; The Cowboy from Brooklyn, 1938; Boy
Meets Girl, 1938; Girls On Probation, 1938; Brother
Rat, 1938; Going Places, 1939; Secret Service of the
Air, 1939; Dark Victory, 1939; Code of the Secret
Service, 1939; Naughty But Nice, 1939; Hell's Kitchen,
1939; Angels Wash Their Faces, 1939; Smashing the Money
Ring, 1939; Brother Rat and a Baby, 1940; An Angel
From Texas, 1940; Murder in the Air, 1940; Knute Rockne--All
American, 1940; Tugboat Annie Smith Sails Again, 1940;
Santa Fe Trail, 1940; The Bad Men, 1941; Million
Dollar Baby, 1941; Nine Lives Are Not Enough, 1941;
International Squadron, 1941; King's Row, 1941; Juke
Girl, 1942; Desperate Journey, 1942; This Is the Army,
1943; Stallion Road, 1947; That Hagen Girl, 1947;
The Voice of the Turtle, 1947; John Loves Mary, 1949;
Night Unto Night, 1949; The Girl From Jones Beach,
1949; It's a Great Feeling, 1949; The Hasty Heart,
1950; Louisa, 1950; Storm Warning, 1951; Bedtime
for Bonzo, 1951; The Last Outpost, 1951; Hong Kong,
1952; She's Working Her Way Through College, 1952; The
Winning Team, 1952; Tropic Zone, 1953; Law and Order,
1953; Prisoner of War, 1954; Cattle Queen of Montana,
1954; Tennessee's Partner, 1955; Hellcats of the Navy,
1957; The Young Doctors (narrated), 1961; The Killers,
Where's the Rest of Me?, with Richard Hubler. New York: Dyell,
Sloan and Pierce, 1965.
Reagan Wit, edited by Bill Adler. New York: Thornwood, 1981.
Ronald Reagan: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster,
Barilleaux, Ryan J. The Post-modern Presidency: The Office after
Ronald Reagan. New York: Praeger, 1988.
Lou. Reagan. New York: Putnam's, 1982.
Michael, with Mickey Herskowitz. Behind the Scenes: In Which
the Author Talks About Ronald and Nancy Reagan...and Himself.
New York: William Morrow, 1987.
Robert E., Jr. The Primetime Presidency of Ronald Reagan.
New York: Praeger, 1988.
Erickson, Paul D. Reagan Speaks: The Making of an American Myth.
New York: New York University Press, 1985.
Ellen Reid. "Ronald Reagan and the Oral Tradition." Central
States Speech Journal (West Lafayette, Indiana), 1988.
Kathleen Hall. Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation
of Political Speechmaking. New York: Oxford University Press,
Samuel. Going Public. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly
Amos, and Davis W. Houck. A Shining City on a Hill: Ronald Reagan's
Economic Rhetoric, 1951-1989. New
York: Praeger, 1991.
Laurence. Make-believe: The Story of Nancy and Ronald Reagan.
New York: Harper & Row, 1983.
Doug. Hollywood on Ronald Reagan: Friends and Enemies Discuss
Our President, the Actor. Winchester, Massachusetts: Faber and
A.F., C.D. Rice, and W.T. Stewart, editors. Ronald Reagan: His
First career; A bibliography of the Movie Years. Studies in
American History, vol. 1. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen, 1988.
Barnett, and Michael Weiler. Reagan and Public Discourse in America.
Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992.
Robert. Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Politics in the Age
of Personality. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame
Mary E. Getting Into the Game: The Pre-presidential Politics
of Ronald Reagan. New York: Praeger, 1989.
Playing the Game: The Presidential Rhetoric of Ronald Reagan.
New York: Praeger, 1990.
The President as Interpreter-in-Chief. Chatham, New Jersey:
Chatham House, 1991.
Thomas, Tony. The films of Ronald Reagan. Secaucus, New Jersey:
Electric Theater; U.S.
Presidency and Television