10 Things You Might Not Know About Ronald Reagan

Michael Evans, The White House/Getty Images
Michael Evans, The White House/Getty Images

As the 40th president of the United States, actor and politician Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) led America’s charge through the neon-lit 1980s, navigating tense relations with the Soviet Union and tackling a highly controversial war on drugs. Though not everyone agreed with his politics, many consider Reagan—who was born on this day in 1911—to be among the most charismatic leaders in the country’s history. If you’re thin on “Gipper” trivia, take a look at some facts about his life, his time in office, and how a chimpanzee nearly did him in.

1. His dad called him "Dutch."

Ronald Reagan in a publicity shot during his acting days
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Reagan had several nicknames throughout his life, but his first was given to him by his father "Jack" Reagan shortly after he was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. Marveling at his son’s heft, Jack referred to the baby as a "fat little Dutchman,” a nickname strengthened by the “Dutch boy” haircuts he received as a child. According to Reagan’s autobiography, when he was older he began asking people to call him Dutch because he didn’t feel “'Ronald' was rugged enough for a young red-blooded American boy.”

2. His acting resume was long.

As a sports broadcaster, Reagan primarily covered Chicago Cubs games. Because the team held their spring training in southern California, Reagan was able to convince the broadcaster to let him use the training as a vacation away from Iowa’s winters. In 1937, on one of these trips, Reagan met up with Joy Hodges, a singer he knew from back home who went to Hollywood. She put him in touch with a talent agent who called up a casting director.

He got a screen test and scored a contract with Warner Bros. (At the time, studios were still in the business of signing exclusivity deals with actors, doling them out to whatever parts needed filling in their productions.) Reagan acted in over 50 movies over the next three decades, including Knute Rockne, All American, where he played real-life college football player George “Gipper” Gipp. The part gave him his “Gipper” nickname.

3. He was upset about never winning an Oscar.

President Ronald Reagan sits behind his desk in the Oval Office
Michael Evans, The White House/Getty Images

Most of Reagan’s films were not exactly award contenders, but that didn’t stop the president from feeling like he was owed a little consideration from the Academy. In his 2018 memoir, Movie Nights with the Reagans, Reagan aide Mark Weinberg wrote that during his time in the White House, the Commander-in-Chief expressed annoyance that no one from his former profession acknowledged his evolution from performer to world leader with an honorary award. “You would think that after what I’ve done—being the only one from that profession to do so—they would commemorate it in some way,” he reportedly told Weinberg in the 1980s. “But I guess their political agenda has taken over good manners.”

Reagan did have one flirtation with the Oscars. On March 30, 1981, he was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. The award ceremony, scheduled to take place that day, was postponed by 24 hours out of respect for the president. (Reagan made a full recovery.)

4. He was nearly killed by a chimp.

Ronald Reagan poses with Peggy the chimpanzee
Washington/AFP/Getty Images

The nadir of Reagan’s acting career may have been 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo, in which the future leader of the free world tried to corral a mischievous chimpanzee. While shooting a scene with Peggy, the chimp portraying Bonzo, the animal became intrigued by Reagan's tie and began pulling on it like a rope. Refusing to let go, she compressed the knot into something no bigger than Reagan’s fingernail. After finally being released by his animal assailant, Reagan was tended to by crew members who had to cut the tie off his neck.

5. He was an FBI informant.

Ronald Reagan poses with first wife Jane Wyman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 1940s, Reagan—then still an actor, but becoming increasingly involved in politics—became a real-life FBI informant. Both Reagan and first wife Jane Wyman tipped off the Bureau to suspected Communist activity in Hollywood. (His code name was T-10.) Reagan apparently had some misgivings about his actions, fearing Hollywood was using too heavy a hand in persecuting suspected red sympathizers. He once asked an agent, "Do they expect us to constitute ourselves as a little FBI of our own and determine just who is a Commie and who isn't?”

6. He loved writing letters.

Ronald Reagan makes an address from behind his desk
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Reagan carved out time in his day to both read and answer letters, and he wasn’t discriminating about where they came from. A seventh-grader once wrote to the president asking for federal assistance because his mother declared his bedroom a disaster area. Tickled by the kid’s sense of humor, Reagan responded and suggested he clean the room. In 1984, Reagan wrote a letter of support to entertainer Michael Jackson, who had been badly burned during the shooting of a Pepsi commercial: “You've gained quite a number of fans along the road since ‘I Want You Back’ and Nancy and I are among them.”

7. He received free jelly beans for years.

Ronald Reagan shares a laugh with Bill Clinton
Paul Richards, AFP/Getty Images

Reagan first began snacking on jelly beans in 1966 after he gave up pipe smoking. Goelitz Candy, which made his preferred jelly bean, sent him shipments while Reagan was holding office as governor of California from 1967 to 1975. After debuting the Jelly Belly line in the '60s, the company continued to ship their goods to the White House during all eight years of Reagan’s presidency. They even received permission to issue jelly bean jars with the official presidential seal to be given out at functions.

8. He helped to destigmatize hearing aids.

Ronald Reagan addresses a crowd from behind a podium
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1983, Reagan admitted he relied on use of a hearing aid in order to address age-related hearing loss. Previously, hearing aids had been stigmatized in the U.S. as representing a feeble constitution. After Reagan’s announcement, sales of hearing aid equipment soared. Starkey Laboratories, which made the president’s device, quadrupled its sales in the months following the publicity.

9. There have been at least 10 statues erected in his honor.

A statue erected in Ronald Reagan's honor
Ben Stansall, AFP/Getty Images

Reagan’s hometown of Dixon, Illinois has no shortage of tributes to their most famous resident. A statue of Reagan stands near his boyhood home, while a second—this one depicting Reagan on horseback—is near Rock River. Reagan has also had statues erected in his honor at the California Capitol (with an exact replica at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley), at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, and in Newport Beach. There are two in Budapest, one in London, and one in Warsaw. The largest to date—a 10-foot-tall monument of Reagan saluting—stands in Covington, Louisiana. Yet another is planned near Lowell Park in Dixon, where Reagan reportedly saved 77 lives while serving as a lifeguard there for seven summers. A local joke has it that some of them were women who faked distress in order to get his attention.

10. Will Ferrell upset the Reagan family.

Actor Will Ferrell is photographed at a public appearance
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

Following Reagan’s death in 2004 from pneumonia, the Reagan estate was quick to cut down any suggestion that his longtime struggle with Alzheimer’s disease affected his role while in office. In 2016, his children, Michael Reagan and Patti Davis, chastised actor Will Ferrell for considering a comedy titled Reagan in which he would play a neurologically-afflicted president whose behavior leads to “alternative” takes on world history. The Alzheimer’s Association said in a statement it was “appalled” by the idea. Ferrell quickly distanced himself from the film, which has yet to be made.

Could You Keep Up With Theodore Roosevelt's Ruthlessly Efficient Daily Routine?

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An avid outdoorsman, politician, and quote machine, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was never one to sit idle. The 26th president of the United States (1901 to 1909) regarded the calendar as something to be conquered and fulfilled, never squandered. He employed a number of routines to help him achieve his goals during his presidency and beyond, and each was ruthlessly efficient—particularly when he was on the campaign trail.

In his role as running mate to presidential candidate William McKinley in 1900, Roosevelt adhered to a strict schedule that packed more into one day than some people accomplish in a week. In his book The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, author Edmund Morris detailed Roosevelt's activities:

7:00 a.m. Breakfast

7:30 a.m. A speech

8:00 a.m. Reading a historical work

9:00 a.m. A speech

10:00 a.m. Dictating letters

11:00 a.m. Discussing Montana mines

11:30 a.m. A speech

12:00 p.m. Reading an ornithological work

12:30 p.m. A speech

1:00 p.m. Lunch

1:30 p.m. A speech

2:30 p.m. Reading [Scottish novelist] Sir Walter Scott

3:00 p.m. Answering telegrams

3:45 p.m. A speech

4:00 p.m. Meeting the press

4:30 p.m. Reading

5:00 p.m. A speech

6:00 p.m. Reading

7:00 p.m. Supper

8-10 p.m. Speaking

11:00 p.m. Reading alone in his car

12:00 a.m. To bed

Clearly, Roosevelt had an effective strategy for fulfilling the obligations of his working life while still making time for reading in order to enrich his intellect. The habits grew out of his experience at Harvard, where he balanced his schoolwork with athletic pursuits and other interests. Roosevelt devoted fragments of each day to study and refused to entertain any interruptions. Studying or reading for even half an hour with an appropriate amount of focused intensity, he believed, was more beneficial than sitting for twice as long while distracted by friends, food, or daydreaming.

When he became president following the assassination of McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt's responsibilities grew exponentially, but he remained insistent on a highly organized approach to the day. During one week in February 1903, Roosevelt took up to eight meetings in an hour, averaging 7.5 minutes to conduct whatever business was on the table. During this time, he was also posing for his official presidential portrait by artist John Singer Sargent. Rather than sit for one or two marathon sessions, Roosevelt agreed to pose for just one half-hour a day. On Sunday, he cleared his schedule to unwind and keep up with correspondence.

The ability to concentrate has only gotten harder in an era of screens and buzzing phones, and you might think Roosevelt had it comparatively easier. It might help to remember that, in 1912, he was shot by a would-be assassin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin just before going on stage to give a scheduled speech. He managed to complete the 84-minute speech with a bullet lodged in his ribs. For Roosevelt, nothing was going to interfere with the day's routine.

Think you know everything there is to know about T.R.? Test your knowledge with our quiz, "Did Theodore Roosevelt Do That?"

Can a Person Refuse a Presidential Pardon?

Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Presidential pardons have been in the news, which has led to an onslaught of questions about just how far a president's pardoning powers extend—and what would happen if the person being offered the pardon declined it altogether? Is such a thing even possible, or does the pardoned individual in question have no choice in the matter? Believe it or not, it's an issue that has come up a few times over the past two centuries—and the answer isn't exactly a clear-cut one.

To fully answer the question, first an important distinction has to be made between commutation and pardoning. Both are part of the pardoning powers given to the president, but differ in levels. Speaking to ABC News, Randy Barnett, a professor at Georgetown University, explained that "Pardon is an 'executive forgiveness of crime'; commutation is an ‘executive lowering of the penalty.'" And the answer to the question depends on that distinction.

UNITED STATES V. WILSON

In 1833 the Supreme Court heard the case of the United States v. George Wilson. On May 27, 1830, Wilson and co-conspirator James Porter were both sentenced to death after being convicted of robbing a U.S. postal worker and putting the carrier’s life in jeopardy. While Porter was executed just over a month later, on July 2, 1830, Wilson managed to escape the sentence. President Andrew Jackson decided to pardon Wilson for the death penalty charge on the understanding that he had yet to be sentenced for other crimes (for which he was looking at a minimum of 20 years). For some reason Wilson waived the pardon, possibly because of confusion about what case he was being tried for at the time and what cases the pardon was for.

In 1833, the Supreme Court ultimately weighed in on the issue, ruling “A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered, and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.” (Strangely, the details of whether or not Wilson was ever executed are lost to time.)

BURDICK V. UNITED STATES

This right of refusal was affirmed in 1915. George Burdick, city editor of the New York Tribune, refused to testify regarding sources for articles on alleged custom fraud by invoking his Fifth Amendment rights [PDF]. President Woodrow Wilson then gave a pardon to Burdick, protecting him from any charge he may incriminate himself of during his testimony. The idea behind the pardon was to force Burdick to testify, under the theory that he could no longer be convicted for any acts he may reveal. But Burdick rejected the pardon, continued to invoke his rights, and was found guilty of contempt.

The Supreme Court ruled that Burdick was within his rights to refuse the pardon and as such he did not lose his Fifth Amendment rights.

BIDDLE V. PEROVICH

A 1927 ruling added a new wrinkle to the pardoning issue. In 1905, Vuco Perovich was sentenced to hang for murder, which President Taft commuted to life imprisonment a few years later. Perovich was then transferred from Alaska to Washington, and later to Leavenworth. Perovich eventually filed an application for writ of habeas corpus, claiming that his commutation was done without his consent. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that "the convict’s consent is not required."

This ruling has led decades of legal scholars to wonder if the Perovich ruling overturned these earlier cases, with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. arguing “Whether these words sound the death knell of the acceptance doctrine is perhaps doubtful. They seem clearly to indicate that by substantiating a commutation order for a deed of pardon, a President can always have his way in such matters, provided the substituted penalty is authorized by law and does not in common understanding exceed the original penalty" [PDF].

In other words: You may be able to refuse a pardon, but you would not be able to refuse a commutation.

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