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Reagan's mixed White House legacy
Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan: The radical conservative

Ronald Reagan, who has died aged 93, became the 40th president of the United States in 1980 at the age of 69, the oldest man elected to the office.

During his eight years in the White House he left his mark on the lives of millions of Americans, and his presidency came to define an era.

His origins were humble. The son of an alcoholic shoe salesman from Illinois, Reagan's early career began when he became a radio sports commentator, using for the first time his trademark gift for communication.

While covering pre-season baseball training in Los Angeles, he decided to become an actor. He landed a contract with Warner Brothers in 1937 and went on to make 50 films.

He never reached the top rank of movie stars and described himself as the "Errol Flynn of B-pictures".

Ronald Reagan commentating on a baseball game
Beginnings: Reagan, the sports commentator
But Hollywood launched him into politics, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, where he helped purge the movie business of what he saw as Communist subversives.

From 1966 to 1974, Ronald Reagan was governor of California and proved a competent, though conservative administrator. His eyes were set on the presidency and in 1968 he first tried to capture the Republican presidential nomination. He failed, but did better than expected.

He tried again in 1976 but President Ford ultimately proved too strong for him. He succeeded, finally, four years later when he defeated the hapless President Jimmy Carter.

But his inauguration in January 1981 was overshadowed by final negotiations for the release of 52 Americans held hostage in Iran.

Assassination attempt

All incoming presidents enjoy a political honeymoon.

Mr Reagan reached movie-style heroic status when, after only two months in office, he was shot in the chest by a lone gunman, John Hinckley.

Ronald Reagan sworn in as president in 1981
Reagan being sworn in as the 40th president
Mr Reagan's cheerfulness in adversity won him new admirers. To the surgeons about to operate on him, he said: "I hope you are Republicans."

To his wife Nancy he joked: "Honey, I forgot to duck."

Within a month of the assassination attempt, the president was back working on the programme he had been elected on: tax cuts and budget cuts. The only exception made to the latter was on defence spending.

In the Reagan years, the US was re-armed from the seas to the stars. A 13% annual increase in order to keep the perceived threat of the Soviet Union at bay was not unusual.

Foreign policy questioned

He formed strong political alliances, most notably with UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with whom he sided over the Falklands conflict with Argentina.

But his foreign policy was criticised for being in disarray. In October 1983, nearly 250 American marines belonging to the peacekeeping force in Lebanon were killed by a truck bomb in Beirut.

US troops in Grenada in 1983
US troops invaded Grenada in 1983
There was talk of a collapse in the US' Middle East policy coupled with criticism of an "absence of decision-making in Washington".

His October 1983 invasion of the small Caribbean island of Grenada was dismissed as a clumsy sham.

Then there were his gaffes, most notably when he joked about bombing the Soviet Union while testing the microphone before a weekly radio address.

But President Reagan's critics spoke enviously of a "teflon" president whose mistakes never stuck to him. He managed to survive the soaring budget deficit and the icy freeze in relations with the Soviet Union with his reputation intact.

Deadlock on defence

In the 1984 election he carried all but one state, burying his opponent Walter Mondale in a political and patriotic avalanche.

Now he could leave his mark on history. He turned his attention to dealing with Moscow.

Ronald Reagan with Margaret Thatcher
Political soulmates: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher
In 1985 he met the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the so-called fireside summit in Geneva. The talks were frank but friendly and the two sides pledged to make the world a safer place.

But there was deadlock over Mr Reagan's dream of a space-based Strategic Defence Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars.

More serious discussions took place in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik in October 1986 where the two superpowers considered scrapping all nuclear weapons. But the talks still foundered on Star Wars.

In retrospect, the Reykjavik talks proved a breakthrough that subsequently led to the elimination of whole categories of nuclear weapons. But 1986 was, in more than one way, a turning point in Mr Reagan's presidency.

Criticism of national security

The president was forced to admit that he had approved sending military supplies to Iran in blatant contradiction of stated policy. It later emerged that the profits from these arms sales had gone to help the "Contra" rebels fighting the left-wing Sandinista Government of Nicaragua.

Col Oliver North was sacked and Rear Adm John Poindexter resigned because of their involvement in the affair. Mr Reagan's National Security Adviser, Robert McFarlane, attempted suicide.

Colonel Oliver North
Colonel Oliver North: Masterminded Iran-Contra
Mr Reagan gave the impression of knowing little of what was going on. The Tower Commission report on the scandal absolved him from deliberately lying to the American people but criticised him for being out of touch.

Later the final Congressional report laid the blame squarely on the president. It declared: "If the president did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have."

The report was seen as a devastating indictment of Mr Reagan's style of government.

Mr Reagan's eight years in office spanned triumphs and disasters. He left office with a budget deficit larger than the combined total of all of his 39 predecessors.

More of a figurehead than a strong leader with a grasp for detail, he was, nevertheless, the best communicator the White House had ever had and, for a while, made America feel good about itself again.

Five years after leaving office he wrote an open letter to the American people. In it, he said: "I have recently been told I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease... I now begin a journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life."

The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"For years after he left office he remained America's favourite president"

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