Never had the country experienced an inaugural
like Ronald Reagan’s in 1981. For a start, there was its extravagance: the
biggest fireworks display; the most celebrants at the most glittering balls;
the most stars of stage and screen performing, partying, and creating the worst
traffic jams of the most limousines ever seen in Washington. “This is the first administration to have a
premiere,” quipped Johnny Carson.
Also, on the very day of his first inauguration
came news of the release of 52 American hostages in Iran that had been held for 444 days. America’s long humiliation was over, swept away by a
sense of jubilant relief combined with a surge of patriotism and national
In the coming years, oil, the cause of so many of President
Carter’s problems, flowed anew from the Middle East in relatively inexpensive abundance. He even survived
an assassination attempt when John Hinckley’s bullet bounced off the armored
presidential limousine before striking him in the chest.
Reagan was especially adept at shrugging off
embarrassing revelations, such as the news that his wife, Nancy, often dictated
his travel schedule with the help of an astrologer. He even managed to elude
responsibility for the worst White House scandal since Watergate—the illegal
sale of arms to Iran and illegal diversion of the profits generated to aid the Contra
rebels in Nicaragua. Reagan was “just like a Teflon frying
pan,” said Congresswoman Pat Schroeder of Colorado. “Nothing sticks to him.”
Good luck followed the new president from the day
he won the U.S. election on November 4, 1980.
Contrasted with all the merrymaking on the day of
his arrival into Washington was the persistent uneasiness of many Americans,
worried about the economy and grappling with the incongruity of a one-time
B-movie actor in the nation’s most important job. However, most fears were
relinquished as the new president pledged to cut taxes, subdue the continuing
double-digit inflation, get the economy growing, and strengthen the military to
win the Cold War.
He followed through on most of his promises.
The economy, pumped up by tax cuts and increased military spending, soared in the longest peacetime expansion in U.S. history. Unemployment, which in Reagan’s first year reached 10.7 percent, the highest since the Great Depression, shrank to about half that level by the end of his second term. Inflation plummeted from 12.5 percent to 4.4 percent. For the entire decade, the gross national product nearly doubled, and an estimated 20 million new jobs were created. By these measures, what had come to be known as Reaganomics was a roaring success. However, Reagan failed disastrously in his vow to balance the budget. In eight years, he piled up more new federal debt than had accumulated in two centuries. The total red ink nearly tripled to $2.6 trillion on his watch. “America has thrown itself a party,” warned economist Benjamin Friedman, “and billed the tab to the future?” Voters seemed not to mind that Reagan had created a burden to future generations through a national debt that almost tripled during his two terms. Furthermore, they gave him the highest popularity ratings of any president since polling began in the 1930s. Under Reagan, as he popped jellybeans from the stein on his Oval Office desk to his smiling mouth, Americans were more attuned to jazz singer Bobby McFerrin’s bouncy little ditty, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Reagan radiated winning good cheer during his two terms, saying once, “What I’d really like to do is go down in history as the president who made Americans believe in themselves again.”