Study Guide

The Reagan Era

The Reagan Era Introduction

If America learned anything from the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, it was that it was ready for a break. The Iran Hostage Crisis finished the 1970s and Carter's administration on a dull note. To add insult to injury, the nation was still floundering through a severe economic downturn that had persisted throughout Carter's administration.

The American public was eager for a new type of leadership, and a return to simpler, more conservative ideals. Republicans found the perfect personality in Ronald Reagan, a B-list actor, starring in such movies as The Winning Team. (It will make you laugh; it will make you cry.)

Reagan turned in his acting career for the California governorship. Whoa, major déjà vu moment. Reagan promised to be the antidote to the "welfare state" mentality he believed had overtaken Washington since the FDR days. He wanted to slash social programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (this now-defunct program is what was commonly referred to as "welfare") and food stamps in order to balance America's budget.

Things didn't turn out that way at all, just in case you were wondering.

He garnered support because he was likable and patriotic, and he promised a "revolution of ideas" that would re-energize America's capitalist spirit, restore its national—and international—pride, and usher in a new era of prosperity. He was a good judge of the national mood and could easily assess what programs and policies had led to failure for his predecessor.

Compared to Carter's curtailment of free enterprise and his seeming ineptitude in handling the Iran Hostage Crisis, Reagan looked to be someone America could trust and who would get things done. To top it all off, Reagan espoused very conservative ideals, such as support for prayer in schools and a call to outlaw abortion. His platform caught the attention and support of religious groups who helped usher in an era of conservatism.

His election in 1980 was the beginning of a long and hotly debated legacy.

What is The Reagan Era About and Why Should I Care?

Reagan declared in his first inaugural address, "Government is the problem." This was merely the first and most famous of the many Reaganite assertions that have since become widely-shared American assumptions about how the world works:

  1. Government is the problem.
  2. The free market solves problems better than politicians can.
  3. Lower taxes create economic growth.
  4. Government aid to the poor perpetuates poverty.
  5. Peace is only attainable through military strength.
  6. America is always a force for good in the world, while its enemies are an "Evil Empire."

These are the core assumptions of the Reagan Revolution. These are the core assumptions that continue to shape our world. They also could make viable lyrics to a country song.

Whether you fall on the side of Reagan-lover or not, most historians agree that Reagan left a lasting impact on America. It's for you to decide whether that impact was a good one or not. You'll determine that by looking at the core element of the Reagan Era: Reaganomics. It's the most hotly-debated aspect of Reagan's legacy.

Some claim that Reaganomics saved America from crippling inflation and crushing unemployment, while others argue that it left us with an unwieldy national deficit and created a level of economic inequality that has actually been damaging to the economy of today. You'll make a determination of which party is right and why.

But whether you love Reagan or you hate him, you're living in the world that Ronald Reagan built.

The Reagan Era Resources

Books

Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (1991)
Cannon, a journalist for the Washington Post, had a longstanding relationship with Ronald Reagan, and his President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime is probably the best of the multitude of Reagan biographies on the market. It's certainly better than Reagan's supposed autobiography, An American Life, which was ghostwritten by Robert Lindsay and apparently never read by Ronald Reagan.

Dinesh D'Souza, Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader (1997)
Dinesh D'Souza is one of America's most prominent conservative intellectuals, and his Ronald Reagan is fascinating as a document of the contemporary right's efforts to build up a glorious mythology around an idealized remembrance of Ronald Reagan.

Mark Green and Gail MacColl, Reagan's Reign of Error: The Instant Nostalgia Edition (1987)
Where Dinesh D'Souza can see no wrong in Ronald Reagan, the authors of this slim volume can see no right. Reagan's Reign of Error is a compendium of Reagan half-truths and misstatements, each (supposedly) debunked by the unabashedly liberal and Reagan-loathing authors.

Michael Schaller, Reckoning with Reagan: America and Its President in the 1980s (1992)
Schaller's brief textbook-style overview of the Reagan presidency is a bit dry, but it's a great starting place for any reader interested in delving into the Reagan phenomenon. Schaller's analysis of the Reagan era is critical but measured.

Lawrence Walsh, Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Coverup (1997)
Lawrence Walsh, the Republican prosecutor charged with leading an independent investigation of the Reagan White House role in the Iran-Contra Affair, ended up thwarted by what he called a "cover-up" to protect senior officials—including Vice President Bush and Reagan himself—from prosecution. This long, dense book recounts his investigation in painstaking detail.

Music

Various Artists, VH1: I Love the '80s (2004)
If you're new to '80s pop music, this collection offers a taste of the best: everything from Cyndi Lauper to the Vapors. Grab your shoulder pads and hairspray and do the Molly Ringwald.

Run-DMC, Raising Hell (1986)
During the Reagan Era, hip-hop expanded beyond its origins in urban Black culture to become a major force in American pop music. No artist played a more important role in making hip-hop a permanent fixture in mainstream American culture than Run-DMC, the Queens-based trio that taught millions of American youths how to rock the microphone.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
Born in the U.S.A. sold more than 15 million copies in the U.S. after its release in the summer of 1984. The flag-draped cover art and anthemic chorus of the title track led many to hear Born in the U.S.A. as a straightforward, patriotic record, in tune with the sunny "Morning in America" message simultaneously being invoked by Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign. In fact, a close listen to the lyrics reveals that most of the album's songs actually tell heartbreaking stories of the long decline of heartland America and the betrayal of the American Dream for ordinary working folks.

Tina Turner, Private Dancer (1984)
A classic Reagan-era album, Private Dancer was Tina Turner's most successful solo record. It was released after her very difficult divorce with husband Ike and propelled her into superstardom. No "Hits from the '80s" collection is complete without it.

Van Halen, 1984 (1984)
1984 wasn't only an important year in politics, but it was also an epic year for American music, with groundbreaking releases from Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Bon Jovi, Madonna, Prince and the Revolution, the Smiths, U2, and this hard rock band from Pasadena, California. Van Halen's sixth album, and the last featuring frontman David Lee Roth, includes many of the group's greatest hits: "Jump," "Panama," and "Hot for Teacher."

Michael Jackson, Thriller (1982)
Thriller has sold, incredibly, more than 100 million copies around the world since its release in 1982. The album captured Jackson at the peak of his artistic powers, before the corrosive effect of money, fame, and way too much plastic surgery reduced the "King of Pop" to a faint shadow of his former glory. The title track, "Beat It," and "Billie Jean" all rank among the best pop songs of the 1980s.

Images

Magnificent Stagecraft
President Ronald Reagan gives a speech standing before a dozen American flags.

Back to the Ranch
Ronald Reagan on horseback during a presidential vacation at his California ranch.

"Honey, I Forgot to Duck"
Secret Service agents respond to the 1981 assassination attempt against President Reagan.

"I Do Not Recall"
U.S. Marine Colonel Oliver North, a key plotter in the Iran-Contra Affair, is sworn in to testify before Congress.

Operation Urgent Fury
American soldiers arrest young supporters of Grenada's Marxist New Jewel Movement during the 1983 U.S. invasion of the tiny Caribbean island nation.

Arms Race
The development of the MX Missile, a powerful new vehicle for the delivery of multiple nuclear warheads, fueled a new Soviet-American arms race during the 1980s.

Movies & TV

Wall Street (1987)
Michael Douglas won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of buccaneering financier Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, director Oliver Stone's epic depiction of the supposed excesses of Reaganomics at full flood. While Douglas steals the show, the film's primary protagonist is really Bud Fox, a young stockbroker played by a fresh-faced Charlie Sheen. Bud is forced to decide between the old New Deal principles of his father and the new Reaganite values of his idol Gordon Gekko (who infamously declares, "Greed is good," in the film's most famous scene).

Top Gun (1986)
Forget Sarah Palin; Tom Cruise was the original "Maverick" in this blockbuster film about U.S. Navy fighter pilots in training. Featuring impressive performances from Val Kilmer, Kelly McGillis, Anthony Edwards, and a fresh-faced Cruise, Top Gun remains the most popular military-themed film of the Reagan Era––so popular, in fact, that it helped increase U. S. Air Force and Navy recruitment.

WarGames (1983)
Three years before he starred in the blockbuster comedy Ferris Bueller's Day Off, young Matthew Broderick commanded his lead role as a tech-savvy teen in this exciting Cold War thriller. Two decades after the Cuban Missile Crisis, during President Reagan's first term, films like WarGames continued to draw on the public's deep-seated fears of global nuclear war.

The Killers (1964)
Ronald Reagan's last Hollywood role came in The Killers, a 1964 remake of an earlier film based on the Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name. Intriguingly, in The Killers, Reagan portrayed—for the first and only time in his long film career, a villain. Following The Killers, Reagan abandoned Hollywood permanently for a career in politics.

Bedtime for Bonzo (1951)
Ronald Reagan stars alongside a chimpanzee—yes, a chimpanzee—in this comedy. When Reagan left acting to pursue a political career, the film became fodder for his opponents, some of whom enjoyed noting that the chimp out-performed its human sidekick.

Kings Row (1942)
Some film critics cite Reagan's performance as a wealthy playboy in this 1940s romance as his best. Reagan, himself, may have agreed that this role marked the height of his acting career; he used one of his most memorable lines from the script—"Where's the rest of me?" —to title his autobiography.

Knute Rockne, All American (1940)
In this fictionalized biography of Knute Rockne, legendary Notre Dame football coach, Reagan portrayed one of Rockne's players, George "The Gipper" Gipp, who died a tragically early death after catching pneumonia. Reagan delivered Gipp's inspiring deathbed message to his coach: "Rock, sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they've got and just win one for the Gipper." Reagan himself carried the nickname, "The Gipper," for the rest of his life.

Love Is on the Air (1937)
Check out Ronald Reagan in his very first starring film role, as a straight-talking, muckraking, radio commentator. Can young Ronnie clean up local government, save his job, and get the girl?

Websites

National Security Archive: Iran-Contra
The National Security Archive at George Washington University is dedicated to using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain and then publish top-secret government documents related to national security issues. Here the Archive offers a 20-year retrospective on the Iran-Contra Affair, complete with a selection of digitized documents.

PBS's Reagan
PBS's American Experience documentary series offers a companion website that includes an article on the Iran-Contra affair.

Reagan Foundation
The Reagan Presidential Library and Foundation is the official repository for Reagan's papers and records. The website offers a nice celebration of Reagan's life, along with links to some digitized primary source documents and information on accessing the full collection.

In Memorium
Upon President Reagan's death from Alzheimer's Disease in 2004, CNN built this retrospective website offering coverage of Reagan's memorial and analysis of his legacy from a variety of political perspectives.

Video & Audio

"A Time for Choosing" Speech
"A Time for Choosing," the 1964 speech on behalf of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater that launched Reagan's political career.

"Born in the U.S.A." Music Video
1984 music video for Bruce Springsteen's hit single, "Born in the U.S.A." The video, which received heavy rotation on MTV, combines concert footage with heavy flag imagery and film of struggling heartland Americans.

"Don't Push Me 'Cause I'm Close to the Edge"
Music video for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's 1982 hit, "The Message." Gritty images of urban decay provide rapper Melle Mel with an appropriate backdrop for his fable of inner-city desperation.

Rock Meets Rap
Music video for Run-DMC's 1986 hip-hop cover of Aerosmith's hit 1975 rock tune, "Walk This Way." The Run-DMC version, which included Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry as guest stars, fused rock and rap into an irresistible new style.

"Material Girl"
Music video for Madonna's 1985 single, "Material Girl," which embodied an extreme version of the self-interested ideology of the Reagan Era.

Historical Documents

"A Time for Choosing" Speech
Transcript—and audio!—of Ronald Reagan's "A Time for Choosing" speech, 1964.

First Inaugural Address
Transcript of Ronald Reagan's First Inaugural Address, 1981.

"Evil Empire" Speech
We've got an entire learning guide on Reagan's 1983 anti-Soviet Union speech.

Address to Parliament
Transcript of Ronald Reagan's speech to the British Parliament, 1982, in which he predicts that communism will be left on the "ash-heap of history."

"Tear Down This Wall!"
P.S. We have an entire learning guide devoted to this 1987 speech as well.

Visiting Moscow
Transcript of Ronald Reagan's lecture at Moscow State University, 1988.

Saying Goodbye
Transcript of Ronald Reagan's farewell address, 1989.

Iran-Contra Documents
A selection of classified Reagan Administration documents related to the Iran-Contra Affair.

Walsh Report
Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's final report on his Iran-Contra investigation.