My history hero: Iain Dale chooses Ronald Reagan (1911-2004)
Broadcaster and author Iain Dale chooses Ronald Reagan as a history hero
Ronald Reagan: in profile
Ronald Reagan, Republican politician and actor, was the 40th president of the US (1981–89) who earlier served two terms as governor of California (1967–75). A radio sports announcer turned Hollywood star, as Republican leader he pursued neoliberal economic policies dubbed “Reaganomics”, and oversaw the arms build-up credited with helping to end the Cold War and hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When did you first hear about Reagan?
When I was 14, and he ran against Gerald Ford [the incumbent US president] in 1976 in a bid to secure the Republican presidential nomination – and nearly beat him.
What kind of man was he?
Politically, he was never hot on the detail but he always had a vision. While governor of California, he surrounded himself with top-class people, many of whom he later brought to the White House. He was also a superb communicator and a man of great charm. Politics is about relationships, and Reagan’s personality helped him become one of the great presidents.
What made Reagan a hero?
When he became president, the US was on a downward spiral. Economically it lacked confidence, and had recently suffered the Iranian hostage crisis [in which 52 US diplomats and citizens were held in its Tehran embassy for 444 days]. President Jimmy Carter spoke about a “malaise” in the US, which was not what people wanted to hear. Suddenly, Reagan came along with his sunny optimism and, after he won the 1980 election, the mood in the country changed. His economic policy was very expansionist for a conservative. Moreover, he was a main driver of the end of the Cold War. He and Gorbachev hit it off immediately when they met. I don’t think the Cold War would have ended when it did otherwise.
What was his finest hour?
Politically, it was his landslide victory over the Democrats’ Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election, which gave him carte blanche to do what he liked in his second term. Another was his “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech in West Berlin in 1987. That galvanised the people of eastern Europe, and was a crucial moment in pushing for the end of the Cold War.
Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about him?
Sometimes his lack of attention to detail caused problems – for instance, in the Iran-Contra Affair. His failure to warn Margaret Thatcher about the US invasion of Grenada, when the Queen was head of state, wasn’t his finest hour. But if you’re president for eight years, there are always going to be things that go wrong!
What would you ask Reagan if you could meet him?
I’d ask him about his relationship with Margaret Thatcher. He relied a great deal on her for advice and took notice of what she said. I’d like to get a better understanding of their relationship.
Iain Dale is a broadcaster, political commentator and author. His latest book is On This Day in Politics: Britain’s Political History in 365 Days (Atlantic Books, 2022)
This content first appeared in the March 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
York Membery is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times among other publications. York, who lives in London, worked on the Mirror, Express and Times before turning freelance. He studied history at Cardiff University and the Institute of Historical Research, and has a History PhD from Maastricht University.
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