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Presidency of Ronald Reagan

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Presidency of Ronald Reagan

The presidency of Ronald Reagan began on January 20, 1981, at noon Eastern Standard Time, when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as President of the United States, and ended on January 20, 1989. Reagan, a Republican, took office as the 40th United States president following a landslide win over Democratic incumbent President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election. The election was a realigning election, the "Reagan Revolution", that changed the trajectory of the nation. After winning a second term by decisively defeating Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election, Reagan set the tone for an era of American public discourse (through about 2009), the Reagan Era, in which the principles of American conservatism were advanced and came to dominate national policy making in areas such as taxes, welfare, defense, the federal judiciary, and the Cold War. Reagan was succeeded by his vice president, George H. W. Bush, who won the 1988 presidential election with Reagan's support.


Domestically, the administration claimed to support reducing government programs. It introduced several tax cuts. The economic policies enacted in 1981, known as "Reaganomics", were an example of supply-side economics. Economic growth was strong for most of the 1980s; however, there was a recession in the beginning of his term and the national debt increased significantly.

Reagan's foreign policy stance was resolutely anti-communist; its plan of action, known as the Reagan Doctrine, designed to roll back the global influence of the Soviet Union in an attempt to end the Cold War. Under this doctrine, the administration initiated a massive buildup of the military, promoted new technologies such as missile defense systems, and, in 1983, undertook an invasion of Grenada, the first major overseas action by U.S. troops since the end of the Vietnam War. It also controversially granted aid to paramilitary forces seeking to overthrow leftist governments, particularly in war-torn Central America and Afghanistan.

In diplomacy, he forged a strong alliance and friendship with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain. Reagan also held multiple summit meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which, despite his saber-rattling and defensive buildup, proved friendly and flexible. In June 1987, when visiting West Berlin and standing at the Berlin Wall (which the Soviets had erected to prevent East Germans from fleeing to the free West), Reagan demanded: "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall." This dramatic moment helped Reagan claim that his approach beat Communism as the Berlin Wall fell, Soviet domination of Eastern Europe came to an end, and, by 1991, the Soviet Union disappeared.

The damaging Iran–Contra affair engulfed several Reagan aides during his second term. His administration was criticized for lending support to right-wing military movements that committed human rights violations.

Reagan was the first president since Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–1961) to serve two full terms. Leaving office in 1989, Reagan held an approval rating of sixty-eight percent, matching those of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later Bill Clinton, as the highest ratings for departing presidents in the modern era.


Reagan was an advocate of free markets and laissez-faire economics and believed that the U.S. economy was hampered by excessive regulations and social programs. Taking office during a period of stagflation, Reagan said in his first inauguration speech, which he wrote himself:

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

His first act as president was to issue an executive order ending price controls on domestic oil, which had contributed to the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis. Reagan focused his first months in office on two goals, tax reforms and increased military spending. During Reagan's first term, the nation fell into a recession that lasted from 1981 to 1982, with unemployment remaining high, as much as 10%, during 1982 and 1983. Income inequality in the U.S. also rose substantially during Reagan's presidency. Despite this, the economy made a strong recovery and experienced one of the longest periods of peacetime growth in its history. Employment rebounded such that, by the end of Reagan's second term, the seventh year of the economic expansion, the country was technically at near full employment, with a civilian unemployment rate of 5.7 percent. Despite Reagan's stated desire to cut spending, federal spending grew during his administration.

One of Reagan's most controversial early moves was to fire most of the country's air traffic controllers after they took part in a strike action. Reagan also reduced Social Security by cutting disability and survivor benefits, but improved the solvency of the program by increasing the Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax (FICA). He also took tougher positions against some crime, and declared a renewed War on Drugs. Reagan was criticized for being slow to respond to the AIDS epidemic.

In foreign affairs, Reagan publicly and aggressively rejected détente, choosing instead direct confrontation with the Soviet Union through a policy of "peace through strength", including increased military spending, more confrontational foreign policies against the USSR and, in what came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine, support for anti-communist rebel movements in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Nicaragua and elsewhere. Reagan later negotiated with Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, and together they succeeded in bringing about a substantial reduction in armaments levels worldwide.

Reagan authorized military action in Lebanon, Grenada, and Libya during his terms in office. It was later discovered that the administration also engaged in covert arms sales to Iran in order to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua that were fighting to overthrow their socialist government. The resulting Iran–Contra affair became a scandal to which Reagan professed ignorance. A significant number of officials in the Reagan administration were either convicted or forced to resign as a result of the scandal.

1980 presidential campaign

The 1980 presidential campaign between Reagan and incumbent President Jimmy Carter was conducted amid a multitude of domestic concerns and the ongoing Iran hostage crisis. Reagan's campaign stressed some of his fundamental principles: lower taxes to stimulate the economy, less government interference in people's lives, states' rights, and a strong national defense.

1984 presidential campaign

Reagan's opponent in the 1984 presidential election was former Vice President Walter Mondale. With questions about Reagan's age, and a weak performance in the first presidential debate, his ability to perform the duties of president for another term was questioned. His apparent confused and forgetful behavior was evident to his supporters; they had previously known him clever and witty. Rumors began to circulate that he had Alzheimer's disease. Reagan rebounded in the second debate, and confronted questions about his age, quipping, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," which generated applause and laughter, even from Mondale himself.

That November, Reagan was re-elected, winning 49 of 50 states. The president's overwhelming victory saw Mondale carry only his home state of Minnesota with a razor-thin margin and the District of Columbia. Reagan won a record 525 electoral votes, the most of any candidate in United States history, and received 59% of the popular vote to Mondale's 41%.

Major legislation vetoed

  • Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. The veto was overridden by the United States Congress.
  • Major legislation not signed

  • August 4, 1988: Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act
  • Proposals not passed by Congress

  • Brady Law
  • Major treaties

  • Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement of 1988
  • Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987
  • Supreme Court nominees

    Reagan nominated the following jurists to the Supreme Court of the United States:

  • Sandra Day O'Connor – The first woman on the Supreme Court, O'Connor served from 1981 to 2006, and was generally considered to be a centrist conservative
  • William Rehnquist – In 1986, Reagan elevated Rehnquist to Chief Justice; Rehnquist had joined the court as an Associate Justice in 1972. Rehnquist was a member of the conservative wing of the court
  • Antonin Scalia – Scalia served from 1986 to 2016 and joined the conservative wing of the court
  • Robert Bork – 1987 (rejected by Senate)
  • Douglas H. Ginsburg – 1987 (withdrawn)
  • Anthony Kennedy – Kennedy joined the court in 1988. He is generally considered to be a centrist conservative
  • Other judicial appointments

    Reagan appointed three Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States and elevated another to Chief Justice, 83 judges to the United States courts of appeals, and 290 judges to the United States district courts. Reagan's total of 376 appointments is the most by any President.

    Failed nominations for the federal judiciary

    During Reagan's presidency, he nominated at least twelve people for various federal appellate judgeship who were not confirmed.

    Foreign policy

    Reagan's foreign policy was characterized by a staunchly anti-communist stance. His main goal was winning the Cold War and the rollback of Communism—which was achieved in Eastern Europe in 1989 and in the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. He ended the détente with the Soviet Union that had characterized relations between the two nations since the 1970s. He forged a close bond with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, who shared many of his views on communism. He also offered financial and military support to forces around the world that were fighting leftist groups of any nature. These included the governments of Argentina, El Salvador and Guatemala, the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. This policy has been lauded by the right; however, commentators on the left have strongly condemned Reagan for ignoring human rights concerns in his zeal to combat communism.

    International travel

    Reagan made 25 international trips to 26 different countries on four continents—Europe, Asia, North America, and South America—during his Presidency. He made seven trips to continental Europe, three to Asia and one to South America. He is perhaps best remembered for his speeches at the 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings, for his impassioned speech at the Berlin Wall, his summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev, and riding horses with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Park.

    Assassination attempt

    On March 30, 1981, only 69 days into the new administration, Reagan, his press secretary James Brady, Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy were struck by gunfire from would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. Although "close to death" at the hospital, Reagan recovered and was released from the hospital on April 11, becoming the first serving U.S. President to survive being wounded in an assassination attempt. The attempt had great influence on Reagan's popularity; polls indicated his approval rating to be around 73%. Reagan believed that God had spared his life so that he might go on to fulfill a greater purpose.

    Political philosophy

    During his presidency, Ronald Reagan pursued policies that reflected his optimism in individual freedom, expanded the American economy, and contributed to the end of the Cold War. The "Reagan Revolution", as it came to be known, aimed to reinvigorate American morale, and reduce the people's reliance upon government. As President, Reagan kept a series of leather bound diaries, in which he talked about daily occurrences of his presidency, commented on current issues around the world (expressing his point of view on most of them), and frequently mentioned his wife, Nancy. The diaries were published into the bestselling 2007 book, The Reagan Diaries.

    As a politician and as President, Ronald Reagan portrayed himself as being a conservative, anti-communist, in favor of tax cuts, in favor of smaller government in the economic sphere while actively interventionist in the social and foreign policy spheres, and in favor of removing regulations on corporations. Ronald Reagan is credited with increasing spending on national defense and diplomacy which contributed to the end of the Cold War, deploying U.S. Pershing II missiles in West Germany in response to the Soviet stationing of SS-20 missiles near Europe, negotiating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) to substantially reduce nuclear arms and initiating negotiations with the Soviet Union for the treaty that would later be known as START I, proposing the Strategic Defense Initiative, a controversial plan to develop a missile defense system, re-appointing monetarists Paul Volcker and (later) Alan Greenspan to be chairmen of the Federal Reserve, ending the high inflation that damaged the economy under his predecessors Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, lowering tax rates significantly (under Reagan, the top personal tax bracket dropped from 70% to 28% in 7 years [1]) and leading a major reform of the tax system, providing arms and other support to anti-communist groups such as the Contras and the mujahideen, selling arms to foreign allies such as Taiwan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq (see Iran–Iraq War), greatly escalating the "war on drugs" with his policies and Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign, ordering the April 14, 1986 bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in retaliation for an April 5 bombing of a West Berlin nightclub frequented by U.S. servicemen, in which the Libyan government was deemed complicit, and signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which compensated victims of the Japanese American Internment during World War II. Terrorism was also a major part of the Reagan Administration's politics, as his administration grouped the responses to terrorism into five broad categories. "(1) Military measures (i.e., 'swift and effective retribution'); (2) Non-military efforts (such as implementing economic, legal, and/or political sanctions against an offending state); (3) Provide logistical support to a government where an attack took place (such as increased financial aid for that state's military, or technical support); (4) Acquiesce to terrorist demands; and (5) No Response against the responsible party and/or only increase defensive measures (e.g., installing shatterproof windows at an embassy, erecting concrete impediments to make it harder for suicide bombers to get close to their target, etc.)."


    The presidency of Ronald Reagan in the United States was marked by multiple scandals, resulting in the investigation, indictment, or conviction of over 138 administration officials, the largest number for any U.S. president.

    Iran–Contra affair

    The most well-known and politically damaging of the scandals came to light in November 1986, when Ronald Reagan conceded that the United States had sold weapons to the Islamic Republic of Iran, as part of a largely unsuccessful effort to secure the release of six U.S. citizens being held hostage in Lebanon. It was also disclosed that some of the money from the arms deal with Iran had been covertly and illegally funneled into a fund to aid the right-wing Contras counter-revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow the socialist Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The Iran–Contra scandal as it became known, did serious damage to the Reagan presidency. The investigations were effectively halted when President George H. W. Bush (Reagan's vice president) pardoned Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger before his trial began.

    1. Caspar Weinberger, United States Secretary of Defense, was pardoned before trial by President George H. W. Bush.
    2. Elliott Abrams agreed to cooperate with investigators and in return was allowed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges instead of facing possible felony indictments. He was sentenced to two years probation and one hundred hours of community service. He was also pardoned by Bush on December 24, 1992 along with five other former Reagan Administration officials who had been implicated in connection with Iran-Contra.
    3. National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, pleaded guilty to four misdemeanors and was sentenced to two years probation and 200 hours of community service and was ordered to pay a $20,000 fine. He was also pardoned by Bush.
    4. Alan Fiers was the Chief of the Central Intelligence Agency's Central American Task Force. He pleaded guilty in 1991 to two counts of withholding information from Congress and was sentenced to one year of probation and one hundred hours of community service. He was also pardoned by Bush.
    5. Richard R. Miller – Partner with Oliver North in IBC, an Office of Public Diplomacy front group, convicted of conspiracy to defraud the United States.
    6. Clair George was Chief of the Central Intelligence Agency's Division of Covert Operations under President Reagan. George was convicted of lying to two congressional committees in 1986. He was pardoned by Bush.
    7. Richard Secord was indicted on nine felony counts of lying to Congress and pleaded guilty to a felony charge of lying to Congress.
    8. Thomas G. Clines was convicted of four counts of tax-related offenses for failing to report income from the Iran/Contra operations.
    9. Carl R. Channel – Office of Public Diplomacy, partner in International Business – first person convicted in the Iran/Contra scandal, pleaded guilty of one count of defrauding the United States.
    10. John Poindexter, Reagan's national security advisor, was found guilty of five criminal counts including lying to Congress, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. His conviction was later overturned on grounds that he did not receive a fair trial (the prosecution may have been influenced by his immunized testimony in front of Congress).
    11. Oliver North was indicted on sixteen charges in the Iran/Contra affair and found guilty of three – aiding and abetting obstruction of Congress, shredding or altering official documents and accepting a gratuity. His convictions were later overturned on the grounds that his immunized testimony had tainted his trial.
    12. Duane Clarridge (Republican Party) also pardoned before trial by Bush.
    13. Albert Hakim pleaded guilty to supplementing the salary of North.
    14. Joseph F. Fernandez indicted on four counts of obstruction and false statements; case dismissed when Attorney General Dick Thornburgh refused to declassify information needed for his defense.

    HUD grant rigging

    The HUD rigging scandal consisted of Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel Pierce and his associates rigging low income housing bids to favor Republican contributors to Reagan's campaign as well as rewarding Republican lobbyists such as James G. Watt, a former Secretary of the Interior. Sixteen convictions were eventually handed down, including the following:

    1. James Watt, Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, was indicted on 24 felony counts and pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor. He was sentenced to five years probation, and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.
    2. Phillip D. Winn: Assistant HUD Secretary. Pleaded guilty to one count of scheming to give illegal gratuities. pardoned by President Bill Clinton, November 2000.
    3. Thomas Demery: Assistant HUD Secretary. pleaded guilty to steering HUD subsidies to politically connected donors. Found guilty of bribery and obstruction of justice.
    4. Deborah Gore Dean: executive assistant to Secretary Pierce. Indicted on thirteen counts, three counts of conspiracy, one count of accepting an illegal gratuity, four counts of perjury, and five counts of concealing articles. She was convicted on twelve. She appealed and prevailed on several counts but the convictions for conspiracy remained.
    5. Joseph A. Strauss: Special Assistant to the Secretary of HUD. Convicted for accepting payments to favor Puerto Rican land developers in receiving HUD funding.
    6. Silvio D. DeBartolomeis: convicted of perjury and bribery.
    7. Catalina Vasquez Villalpando: the Treasurer of the United States from 1989 to 1993.

    Pierce, the Secretary, though the "central person" in the scandal, was not charged because he made "full and public written acceptance of responsibility".

    Retired Federal Judge Arlin M. Adams served as independent counsel in first five years of the prosecution, through 1995, and Larry Thompson completed the work 1995–98.

    Lobbying scandal

    When an administration staff member leaves office, federal law governs how quickly one can begin a lobbying career.

  • Michael Deaver, Reagan's Deputy Chief of Staff, was convicted of lying to both a congressional committee and to a federal grand jury about his lobbying activities after he left the government. He received three years probation and was fined $100,000 after being convicted for lying to a congressional subcommittee.
  • Lyn Nofziger Reagan's Press Secretary was convicted on charges of illegal lobbying after leaving government service in the Wedtech scandal. His conviction was later overturned.
  • EPA scandals

    A number of scandals occurred at the Environmental Protection Agency during the Reagan Administration. Over twenty high-level EPA employees were removed from office during Reagan's first three years as president. Additionally, several Agency officials resigned amidst a variety of charges, ranging from being unduly influenced by industry groups to rewarding or punishing employees based on their political beliefs. Sewergate, the most prominent EPA scandal during this period, involved the targeted release of Superfund grants to enhance the election prospects of local officials aligned with the Republican Party.

    1. Rita Lavelle, an administrator at the EPA, misused Superfund monies and was convicted of perjury. She served three months in prison, was fined $10,000 and given five years probation.
    2. Anne Gorsuch Burford, the controversial head of the EPA. Burford, citing "executive privilege", refused to turn over Superfund records to Congress. She was found in Contempt, whereupon she resigned.

    Inslaw affair

  • Inslaw affair (1985–1994+); a protracted legal case that alleged that top-level officials of President Ronald Reagan's Department of Justice were involved in infringement of the Promis program from Inslaw Inc., forcing it into bankruptcy, and then failed to appoint an independent counsel to investigate it.
    1. D. Lowell Jensen, Deputy Attorney General was held in Contempt of Congress.
    2. C. Madison Brewer A high ranking Justice Department official was held in Contempt of Congress.

    Attorney General Edwin Meese refused to investigate the matter. His successor Attorney General Dick Thornburgh also refused to investigate. They were succeeded by Attorney General William P. Barr who also refused to investigate the matter. No charges were ever filed.

    Savings and loan crisis

    In the Savings and loan crisis, 747 financial institutions failed and needed to be rescued with $160 billion in taxpayer dollars. Revisions to the tax code during Reagan's term included the elimination of the "passive loss" provisions that subsidized rental housing. Because this was removed retroactively, it bankrupted many real estate developments which used this tax break as a premise, which in turn bankrupted 747 Savings and Loans, many of whom were operating more or less as banks, thus requiring the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to cover their debts and losses with tax payer money. This with some other "deregulation" policies, ultimately led to the largest political and financial scandal in U.S. history to that date, the savings and loan crisis. The ultimate cost of the crisis is estimated to have totaled around $150 billion, about $125 billion of which was directly subsidized by the U.S. government, which further increased the large budget deficits of the early 1990s. See Keating Five.

    As an indication of this scandal's size, Martin Mayer wrote at the time, "The theft from the taxpayer by the community that fattened on the growth of the savings and loan (S&L) industry in the 1980s is the worst public scandal in American history. Teapot Dome in the Harding administration and the Credit Mobilier in the times of Ulysses S. Grant have been taken as the ultimate horror stories of capitalist democracy gone to seed. Measuring by money, [or] by the misallocation of national resources... the S&L outrage makes Teapot Dome and Credit Mobilier seem minor episodes."

    Economist John Kenneth Galbraith called it "the largest and costliest venture in public misfeasance, malfeasance and larceny of all time".


    Debategate refers to a scandal affecting the administration of Ronald Reagan; it involved the final days of the 1980 presidential election and briefing papers that were to have been used by President Jimmy Carter in preparation for the October 28, 1980, debate with Reagan had somehow been acquired by Reagan's team. This fact was not divulged to the public until late June 1983, after Laurence I. Barrett published Gambling with History: Reagan in the White House, an in-depth account of the Reagan administration's first two years.

    James Baker swore under oath that he had received the briefing book from William J. Casey, Reagan's campaign manager, but Casey vehemently denied this. The matter was never resolved as both the FBI and a congressional subcommittee failed to determine how or through whom the briefing book came to the Reagan campaign.

    Other matters

    Although Reagan's second term was mostly noteworthy for matters related to foreign affairs, he supported significant pieces of legislation on domestic matters. In 1982, Reagan signed legislation reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for another 25 years, even though he had opposed such an extension during the 1980 campaign. This extension added protections for blind, disabled, and illiterate voters.

    Other significant legislation included the overhaul of the Internal Revenue Code in 1986, as well as the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which compensated victims of the Japanese-American internment during World War II. As well as those, Reagan signed legislation authorizing the death penalty for offenses involving murder in the context of large-scale drug trafficking; the federal death penalty would undergo no more expansion until 1994, when Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

    Reagan's position on gay rights has been a subject of controversy. In the late 1970s he wrote a response in his Los Angeles Herald-Examiner column to the organization backing the California Briggs Initiative, stating that he opposed the proposed ban on gay public school teachers. Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis, wrote an article in The New York Times where she recalled her father talking about Rock Hudson's homosexuality in an accepting and tolerant manner.

    The oldest president

    As Reagan was, at the time, the oldest person to be inaugurated as president (age 69), and also the oldest person to hold the office (age 77), his health became a concern at times during his presidency. His age even became a topic of concern during his re-election campaign. In a debate on October 21, 1984 between Reagan and his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, panelist Henry Trewhitt brought up how President Kennedy had to go for days on end without sleep during the Cuban Missile crisis. He then asked the President if he had any doubts about if or how he could function in a time of crisis, given his age. Reagan remarked, with quick wit and humor, "I am not going to make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," generating applause and laughter from the audience, including Mondale himself. Mondale (who was 56 at the time) said years later in an interview that he knew at that moment he had lost the election.

    On July 13, 1985, Reagan underwent surgery to remove polyps from his colon, causing the first-ever invocation of the Acting President clause of the 25th Amendment. On January 5, 1987, Reagan underwent surgery for prostate cancer which caused further worries about his health, but which significantly raised the public awareness of this "silent killer".

    Former White House correspondent Lesley Stahl later wrote that she and other reporters noticed what might have been early symptoms of Reagan's later Alzheimer's disease. She said that on her last day on the beat, Reagan spoke to her for a few moments and did not seem to know who she was, before then returning to his normal self. However, Reagan's primary physician, Dr. John Hutton, said the president "absolutely" did not "show any signs of dementia or Alzheimer's". His doctors noted that he began exhibiting Alzheimer's symptoms only after he left the White House.

    Close of the Reagan era

    In 1988, Reagan's Vice President, George H. W. Bush, was elected to succeed Reagan as President of the United States. On January 11, 1989, Reagan addressed the nation for the last time on television from the Oval Office, nine days before handing over the presidency to Bush. On the morning of January 20, 1989, Ronald and Nancy Reagan met with the Bushes for coffee at the White House before escorting them to the Capitol Building, where Bush took the oath of office. The Reagans then boarded a Presidential helicopter, and flew to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. There, they boarded the Presidential Jet (in this instance, it was not called Air Force One), and flew home to California—to their new home in the wealthy East Gate Old Bel Air section of Los Angeles. Reagan was the oldest president to serve (at 77), surpassing Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was 70 when he left office in 1961. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected President at the age of 70, surpassing Reagan's record for oldest President at the time of first election.


    Presidency of Ronald Reagan Wikipedia