Ronald Reagan was born in 1911 in rural Illinois. His father, John Edward Reagan, was a store clerk and erstwhile merchant whose jobs took the family to such towns as Galesburg, Monmouth and Dixon–just the sorts of places responsible for one of the raging themes of American literature, the soul-murdering complacency of our provinces, without which the careers of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis and Willa Cather, to name just a few, would never have found glory. The best and brightest fled all our Galesburgs and Dixons, if they could, but the candidate was not among them.
The Reagans were a poor, close, hard-working family. With his older brother, Neil, Reagan sold homemade popcorn at high school football games and was charged with the serious business of maintaining the family vegetable garden. For many summers he worked as a lifeguard at Lowell Park on the Rock River in Dixon, pulling seventy-seven people out of the water by his own count and socking away most of his salary to make up college tuition.
The candidate attended Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois. He was no student. He had a photographic memory, and it was this trait, rather than application to books or innate cleverness, that got him through his exams. What really interested him was making the football team, pledging a fraternity, debating and acting in campus theatricals. But his priorities were correct. Eureka, a fifth-rate college, provided meager academic credentials to its graduates. But a third-rate student at a fifth-rate college could learn from the stage, the debating platform, the gridiron and the fraternity party the styles of manliness and verbal sincerity that would stand him in good stead when the time came to make his mark in the world. In fact, the easy, garrulous charm Reagan developed at Eureka got results very quickly. Graduating in the depths of the Depression, he had no trouble finding a job as a radio announcer.
We have these facts from a biography, The Rise of Ronald Reagan, by Bill Boyarsky, a California journalist, and from the candidate’s autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, the title of which is taken from his most memorable line as a film actor. In the picture King’s Row, he played the role of a young rake who is careless with his attentions to the daughter of a surgeon; when he lands in the hospital after a car accident, the vengeful surgeon amputates his legs. Reagan delivers the memorable line coming to after the operation.
It was when he became a sportscaster for WHO in Des Moines that Reagan’s peculiar affinity for simulated life began to emerge. He was called on to describe baseball games played by the Chicago White Sox and the Cubs on the basis of Western Union messages telegraphed from the ballpark. These were characteristically brief–a hit, a walk and so on–but the chatty Reagan made an art of describing the game as if he were sitting in the stands, faking the scene in all its drama with only a sound effects man to help him. He became quite popular with the regional audience and did promotional work on the side as the station’s celebrity speaker, giving talks to fraternal lodges, boys’ clubs and the like, telling sports stories and deriving from them Y.M.C.A. sorts of morals.
In 1937, Reagan went to Santa Catalina Island to cover the Chicago Cubs in spring training. The proximity to Hollywood reawoke his collegiate ambition to act, and he managed to get himself a screen test. He didn’t really expect anything to come of it but was offered a contract by Warner Brothers for $200 a week. An agent had persuaded the studio that he was another Robert Taylor. Considering that actor’s negligible store of animation, one can wonder now at the inducement. In any event, the candidate acted in more than twenty “B” pictures before his big break came. In 1940, he persuaded Jack Warner to give him the role of George Gipp, the doomed Notre Dame football hero, in Knute Rockne, All American, a film about the famous football coach. His means of persuasion was a photograph of himself in his Eureka College jersey and helmet.