Ronald Reagan, the Visionary With God-Awful Vision

From Hollywood to the White House, Ronald Reagan was dogged by a persistent, yet correctable, flaw.

As president, Ronald Reagan always made time to respond to letters he received from schoolchildren, drafting his replies on a legal pad and invariably dispensing advice drawn from his own experiences.

“I have been nearsighted all my life,” he wrote in a November 1983 letter to a Texas schoolgirl, “and when I was young I felt as you do about wearing glasses but I wore them.” When her eyes reached their full size, she could look into “the idea of contacts,” the president suggested, “but in the meantime, don’t deny yourself the joy of being able to see things clearly.” It was a joy that Reagan knew more about than most. The telegenic president said to have a “twinkle in his eyes” also had a fair amount of myopia in them as well. And, as Jonathan Darman discusses in his recent book, Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America, the Gipper’s extreme nearsightedness would be a persistent challenge throughout his life.

As a boy, Reagan was passionate about playing sports, but his poor vision made it difficult and left him, he claimed, with “feelings of inferiority and lack of self-confidence.” “I was always the last chosen for a side in any game,” he would later recall. It wasn’t until the future commander in chief was riding in his father Jack’s car at age 13 that he made a startling discovery. Young Reagan picked up his mother’s glasses from the seat beside him and tried them on for fun. “The next instant, I let out a yelp that almost caused Jack to run off the road,” he recollected. “I’d discovered a world I didn’t know existed before.”

“If we sent you overseas, you’d shoot a general,” one Army doctor allegedly informed Reagan.

The next day, the eye doctor fitted him with ugly black frames with thick lenses, which “he wore dutifully,” says Darman, since “without them, his visible world was mostly blotches of color and drifting shapes.” At about the same time his vision improved, Reagan underwent a startling metamorphosis from a shy kid who kept to himself to student body president, performer in school plays, accomplished swimmer and varsity football player.

Reagan’s spectacles did not hamper his early show business career as a sports announcer on Iowa radio during the 1930s, but “Dutch” had bigger ambitions. “I have visions of becoming an actor,” he told Joy Hodges, a friend from Des Moines who had made it as a singer and actress in Hollywood. Unfortunately, his vision of stardom was a corrected one, and Hollywood studios were not interested in actors who wore glasses. In 1937, Reagan, undaunted, traveled to California to pursue his dream and conduct a screen test for Hodges’ agent. “I think I might be able to fix something,” Joy told him before the audition, removing his eyeware. “Just don’t ever put those glasses on again.” The visually impaired Reagan obliged, impressing the agent with his All-American looks and landing a contract with Warner Bros. And before he acquired contact lenses, Reagan could be seen on set wearing glasses in between takes and then removing them as soon as the cameras rolled.

Reagan’s nearsightedness would rear its blurry head again in April 1942, when he enlisted in the Army. His poor performance on the eye tests at Fort Mason kept him from combat duty, and as a result he spent much of World War II making training films for the armed services. “If we sent you overseas, you’d shoot a general,” one Army doctor reportedly informed Reagan. “Yes,” said a second doctor. “And you’d miss him.”

After the war, Reagan, serving as an FBI informant in Hollywood, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Congress in 1946 — sporting horn-rimmed glasses. But for the bulk of his career in entertainment and politics, the handsome leading man looked out at the world through contact lenses, the first U.S. president to do so. But even his contacts posed problems: While he was able to see the audience during a speech, he could not read the notes in front of him as well as he could without contacts. So the Great Communicator engineered a solution. En route to a speech, Reagan would take out his right lens, leaving one long-sighted eye to watch the audience and the other nearsighted one to read his notes.

Behind the scenes, though, President Reagan continued to wear his glasses, occasionally removing them and placing them on his desk in the Oval Office when moved by anger or exasperation — “a signal,” according to his wife, Nancy, that “when the glasses go down, stand back!”

And if anyone could read Reagan, it was undoubtedly the first lady, who, it’s worth noting, first met her future husband in Hollywood in 1949 on, you guessed it, a blind date.