My history hero: Ronald Reagan (1911–2004)

"In Berlin, Reagan called upon President Gorbachev to 'Tear down this wall!' It's easy to forget how awful the Cold War was, and the way it condemned millions of Europeans to servitude": Justin Webb tells York Membery why Ronald Reagan is his history hero...

President Ronald Reagan at Durenberger Republican convention rally, 1982. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Ronald Reagan, politician and actor, was the 40th president of the US (1981–89). He also served two terms as a Republican governor of California (1967–75). A radio sports announcer-turned-actor, he starred in films such as Bedtime for Bonzo. He won the Republican presidential nomination at the third attempt, and beat Jimmy Carter to become president in 1980. The economic policies he pursued – after surviving an assassination attempt in 1981– were dubbed ‘Reaganomics’. He oversaw an arms build-up, credited by some with helping the west win the Cold War. He married twice, to actresses Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis.

When did you first hear about Ronald Reagan?

In 1980, the year I started university. I was aware of the feeling on the British ‘left’, and at the London School of Economics where I was studying, that this man was a nightmare, threat and warmonger. My first thoughts were negative. I’d gone to a bit of a hippyish school and when I heard that the first thing he did on being elected was get a haircut, I thought: “What an odious character!”

What kind of person was Reagan?

We think of him as a bit of a showman, and he was amiable and had a mastery of the one-liner and the ‘Aw, shucks’ manner. But he was also brave, as we saw when he was shot. On seeing Nancy as he was about to go into the operating theatre, he famously quipped: “Sorry, I forgot to duck!” He was a lot more liberal than modern Republicans on immigration. He had an amnesty for illegal immigrants and spoke warmly about people coming to make America their home. He would have taken in many Syrians, I reckon, in sharp contrast to the rhetoric of the modern party.

What made Reagan a hero?

The fact that he was a transformational president, who made a real difference to the history of the world. I salute him because he was so effective a leader at a crucial moment in his presidency. He came to power when the west was in trouble, a few years after Watergate, and there was a sense of drift and decay. He helped turn America around, and just as importantly, turn the country’s mood around as well, with his sunny, can-do optimism, and belief.

What was Reagan’s finest hour?

Finding a way of standing up to the USSR while recognising the humanity and rationality of his opponents – despite saying some frightening things about the Soviet Union when he came to power. To pinpoint a moment, it was the speech he made at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin when he called upon President Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” It’s easy to forget how awful the Cold War was, and the way it condemned millions of Europeans to servitude. We sometimes look back upon that era almost nostalgically because so many frightening things have happened since. But in truth, to win the Cold War was the most staggering achievement.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

He undoubtedly got some things very wrong and I think history will look back upon the Iran-Contra affair and judge him very harshly. There is little doubt that he lied to the American people over the matter in an almost Nixonian fashion.

Do you think his portrayal on TV’s Spitting Image has damaged his reputation in Britain, perhaps irrevocably?

Possibly. He’s been completely rehabilitated in America but here he’s still regarded by a lot of reasonable people as a bad president and a warmonger. Many on this side of the pond always regarded him as a bit of a clown, but that is to seriously underestimate him.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Perhaps in one respect only: he saw himself as a Californian and a westerner, and I too have a real love for America’s western states and western way of life – although unlike him, I’m not really into dressing up as a cowboy!

If you could meet Reagan, what would you ask him?

I’d ask him how Britain should foster the kind of patriotism, sense of cohesion and national unity in its people that he so valued in America.

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Justin Webb is a presenter on the Radio 4 Today show. He spent eight years as a BBC correspondent in the US.