Ronald Reagan, a former actor, was a Republican who served two terms as governor of California before his election as the 40th United States president in 1980. He was re-elected in 1984, retiring from public service after the end of his second term in Jan. 1989. Reagan was a Democrat until 1962, when a philosophical split over the role of government caused him to shift allegiance.
Lyndon Johnson, a nearly lifelong politician, was a Democratic vice president who ascended to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. After fulfilling the rest of Kennedy's term, Johnson won re-election, serving as the United States' 36th president through 1968. Previously, he had served in the House of Representatives and was majority speaker of the Senate.
Both men were nearly the same age—Johnson was born in 1908, Reagan in 1911—and both were in their 20s during the Great Depression.
Politically, Johnson and Reagan held opposite opinions. Johnson believed it was the government's duty to help the poor, elderly, and disabled. He envisioned a "Great Society" in which everyone had equal legal protections as well as adequate food, clothing, and shelter, and he assembled experts to architect it. The time will soon come, Johnson said in an October 1964 speech, "when nobody in this country is poor."
Under Johnson's leadership, Congress passed landmark civil rights legislation banning federal discrimination in employment, voting, and housing. Johnson also initiated the government-subsidized Medicare and Medicaid health insurance programs still in effect today.
Reagan, on the other hand, advocated laissez faire government and cut funding from many of the social programs Johnson helped initiate. Most notably, Reagan cut funding for healthcare programs, refused to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic that ravaged the LGBT+ community, and initiated the "War on Drugs," leading to significant racial disparities in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. In an election speech, Reagan proclaimed, "This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."
Reagan embraced "trickle-down economics," a theory that holds if the wealthy and businesses are taxed less, their tax savings "trickle down" to lower classes in the form of lowered prices, increased spending, and broadened charity. He helped pass legislation significantly reducing the business and upper-class tax burdens.
Both presidents came to office during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Johnson, however, inherited a "hot" war in Vietnam, which he escalated in an attempt to deter the spread of Communism. Reagan did not preside over an armed conflict, but he is credited with helping end the Cold War. The 1989 destruction of the Berlin Wall was hailed as symbolizing the "victory" of capitalism over Communism, and democracy over totalitarianism.
Reagan lived until age 88 and suffered from Alzheimer's disease in his final years. Johnson died of a heart attack at age 64.