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Born far from the sparkling lights of Hollywood and the swampy summers of Washington, D.C., Reagan's childhood was characterized by poverty, transience, and a really bad haircut. Early on he discovered he was really into acting and being the center of attention, so he pursued these interests as a teenager.
A legendarily mediocre student, Reagan would later joke, "…there are advantages to being President. The day after I was elected, I had my high school grades classified top secret" (source).
A real chuckle-factory, that Ronald.
At Illinois' Eureka College he developed his reputation as an "indifferent student" who studied economics and other boring stuff. Highlights of this time include becoming a cheerleader and being the captain of the swim team. (Source)
But the real eureka moment occurred when he was elected student body president and got his first taste of a life in politics.
Taking advantage of his smooth, mellifluous voice, Reagan had a brief spell as a radio sportscaster in Iowa during the 1930s. As everyone knows, Iowa is renown as the Midwestern portal to success and fame, so it wasn't long before Ronnie scooted west to make it big as a Hollywood star.
It was a lateral move really, and soon Reagan began appearing in films.
His parts were small at first, but he increasingly got more screen time, often playing the role of saucy athlete, bland action hero, or hangdog romantic co-star. One of his most critically praised roles is that of a playboy whose legs are secretly amputated by an evil doctor in Kings Row.
Yeah, it's odd.
When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor went down, Reagan was called to military duty, but avoided combat due to his poor eyesight (notice how he was always squinting?). Instead he provided voice narration for U.S. military training films and acted in several propaganda flicks.
After the war things soured for Reagan. He and his first wife, Hollywood bombshell Jane Wyman, split and his acting career started to dry up. It wouldn't be until the early 1950s that Reagan would start to gear up again for fame and popularity, this time with a bent on politics.
What do Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, and Kal Penn have in common? That's right, they all turned their acting careers into successful political ones.
Just like Ronald Reagan.
As he transitioned out of his life as an actor and into his new role as a politician, Reagan made a name for himself as a public speaker, a strategic leader, and a fervent anti-Communist. Most significantly, he solidified his conservative political ideals and switched from being a liberal Democratic to an officially registered Republican in 1962.
With his new wife Nancy, by his side, Reagan made moves to run for the 1966 governorship of California. Though his reputation as a showbiz professional preceded him, he won the election with a huge victory and maintained his position as governor for two terms, only vacating his seat in 1974 to pursue loftier political goals. He became a favorite among conservatives…and was soon on the road to the presidency.
For decades Reagan worked to situate himself in U.S. politics with his eye on the presidency. He lost the nomination his first time around in 1976 to the incumbent President Gerald Ford, but returned like a flaming boomerang in 1980 with a red-hot campaign. Burning down the competition, Reagan ousted Jimmy Carter (who had beaten Gerald Ford) and assumed the role of president in 1981.
He had a rocky start, however. Just over two months into his term, Reagan was the victim of an assassination attempt when a jerk named John Hinckley Jr. shot him. (Source)
Things didn't go so well for Mr. Hinckley Jr. after that, but spryer than a bushel of freshly watered chives, Reagan bounced back to health and became the first president in office to survive an assassination attempt. (Source)
Once back in office, he had the pleasure of dealing with the slew of difficult issues he had inherited, including a shattered domestic economy and that tricky business of the Cold War.
On January 20th, 1985, Reagan was sworn into office for another term. His second administration was marked by the last chapter of the Cold War and the so-called Communist-stomping Reagan Doctrine, an acceleration of the War on Drugs, and the Iran-Contra Affair. It was also marked by one of the most haunting tragedies the nation had ever seen: the Challenger Disaster.
With people still freaked out by the funky clouds created by the Challenger's dismantled rocket, Reagan appeared on television with the attitude of a well-trained performer to calm the nation's nerves. He knew it wasn't a performance for which he should expect applause, but he nailed it nonetheless.
After leaving office at nearly 78 years of age, Reagan was impressively still around for much of the future about which he spoke in his Challenger address. Though he lived for another fifteen years, many of his post-presidency plans didn't come to fruition due to the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's disease.
The Cold War outlived the Reagan administration, but only for a short while, officially coming to an end eleven months after his second presidency concluded.
After Reagan's death on June 5, 2004, his body lay in state for thirty-four hours, which sounds exhausting even for a dead person. His remains were visited by over 10,000 people during that time. (Source)