NAME: Ronald Wilson Reagan. Wilson was his mother’s maiden name.
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: The oldest president in history, Reagan was just shy of his 78th birthday on leaving office. Yet throughout his term he was surprisingly vigorous and relatively youthful in appearance. He stood 6 feet 1 inch tall, weighed about 185 pounds, and had blue eyes and thick brown hair with only a touch of gray. Severely nearsighted since childhood, he began wearing contact lenses as early as the 1940s. He was hard of hearing ever since another actor fired a pistol near his head during the making of a motion picture. He began wearing a hearing aid in his right ear in 1983, his left ear in 1985. In 1957 he nearly dies of viral pneumonia. At a celebrity baseball game a few years later, he shattered his right thigh bone in six places sliding into first base; he spent months in traction and never regained complete flexibility in the leg. As president, he suffered from hay fever, an enlarged prostate (corrected in 1987) and diverticulosis. In July 1985 President Reagan underwent surgery for colon cancer. In an operation lasting nearly three hours, doctors excised a two-foot section of the upper large intestine containing a malignant tumor about two inches in diameter that had grown into the intestinal wall but had not yet penetrated it. Small benign polyps appeared in the colon from time to time thereafter and were surgically removed. In 1985 and again in 1987, he had a small malignant growth, a basal-cell carcinoma, removed from the outside surface of his nose. Two weeks before he left office, he underwent surgery to correct Dupuytren’s contracture of his left hand, a harmless but progressive condition that had left him unable to straighten his ring finger. President Reagan spoke in a soft, though clear, well-modulated voice developed during his years as a radio broadcaster.
PERSONALITY: The only professional actor to become president, Reagan earned the nickname the Great Communicator for his effective use of television in presenting the administration’s program. He was a gifted raconteur with a seemingly endless store of anecdotes of his days in Hollywood. By all accounts, he was affable, cheerful, even-tempered, and forever optimistic. According to Hedrick Smith of the New York Times, “His aw-shucks manner and charming good looks disarm those who from a distance have thought of him as a far-right fanatic.” Anne Edwards, chronicler of Reagan’s early years, described him as aloof, intensely private, and reluctant to reveal much about himself to those outside his family. In a rash of so-called kiss-and-tell books by such administration insiders as Budget director David Stockman, press secretary Larry Speakes, White House chief of staff Donald Regan, deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver, and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, the president was portrayed as a remarkably passive figure, disengaged from day-to-day operations, timid about asserting his authority, inept at personal confrontation, and lacking at times even basic understanding of major issues. His impatience for detail and his willingness to delegate much authority to his staff came in for sharp criticism in the wake of the Iran-contra affair. As president, he permitted his schedule to be influenced by an astrologer consulted by Mrs. Reagan but denied that policy issues were ever based on astrological forecasts. Reagan confessed to being claustrophobic.
PRIMARY SOURCE: DeGregorio, William A. The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. 7th ed. Fort Lee: Barricade Books, 2009.
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