Running for governor of California in 1966, he faced critics who said an actor could never be a politician. But Reagan showed that politics was theater. By casting himself as a likeable, believable candidate, he showed that he could earn raves – and win by nearly a million votes.
From there, Reagan seemed destined for the White House. In 1980 he took the Republican nomination in a waltz and, following a debate notable for his smiling "There you go again" taunt, trounced incumbent Jimmy Carter by 8 million votes.
The victory would nearly cost him his life. On March 30, 1981, Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton when a young drifter named John Hinkley came out of the shadows and fired a .22-caliber pistol, striking him and critically wounding a Secret Service agent, a Washington police officer and Reagan's press secretary, James Brady. Doctors at George Washington University Hospital removed a bullet lodged a mere inch from the President's heart.
When they left Washington in 1988, the Reagans planned a comfortable retirement in their three-bedroom $2.5 million Bel Air home. But that cheery denouement was short-lived. In July 1989, while the pair was vacationing in Mexico, Reagan was thrown from a horse, striking his head so badly that he had to undergo surgery for a subdural hematoma.
Nancy would later say that the blow helped bring on the disease that would ultimately kill him. Five years later, in August 1994, doctors at the Mayo clinic told Reagan he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's.
As time passed, the man who once strode the international stage saw his world narrow to a few parks in Los Angeles, an occasional visit to the beach and eventually the couple's Bel Air home, where few visitors would come and where he passed his final days with Nancy and a single private nurse. "There's a terrible loneliness," Nancy wrote. "You know that it's a progressive disease and there's no place to go but down, no light at the end of the tunnel." In his last public address in 1994, Reagan wrote, "When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for the future."
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