American Experience: Reagan: Lifeguard
Airs Monday, February 7, 2011 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
When he left the White House in 1988, Ronald Reagan was one of the most popular presidents of the century — and one of the most controversial. A failed actor, Reagan became a passionate ideologue who preached a simple gospel of lower taxes, less government and anti-communism. One by one, his opponents underestimated him; one by one, Reagan surprised them, rising to become a president who always preferred to see America as a "shining city on a hill." "Reagan" is a two-part biography of the actor, governor, and president airing February 7 and 14, 2011 on KPBS TV.
Reagan Family Photos
From 17-year-old lifeguard hero to 83-year-old advocate for understanding and treating Alzheimer's disease, Ronald Reagan chose to live his life in the public eye. Many photographs depict Reagan the politician. These images focus on Reagan and his immediate family.
View a chronology of Ronald Reagan's life beginning in 1911.
"I have a special reason for wanting to solve this [economic] problem in a lasting way. I was 21 and looking for work in 1932, one of the worst years of the Great Depression. And I can remember one bleak night in the thirties when my father learned on Christmas Eve that he'd lost his job. To be young in my generation was to feel that your future had been mortgaged out from under you, and that's a tragic mistake we must never allow our leaders to make again." - October 13, 1982 (in an address to the nation on the economy)
"Government growing beyond our consent had become a lumbering giant, slamming shut the gates of opportunity, threatening to crush the very roots of our freedom. What brought America back? The American people brought us back -- with quiet courage and common sense; with undying faith that in this nation under God the future will be ours, for the future belongs to the free." - February 4, 1986 (from the State of the Union Address)
"Lifeguard" follows Reagan from his youth in the American heartland to the triumph of his "revolution" in 1981. The program traces the origins of Reagan's difficulty forming attachments to his itinerant childhood and a painful episode with his drunken father. The young boy turned to his mother and the teachings of her Fundamentalist church, The Disciples of Christ, which gave him a belief in predestination and a strong sense of good and evil.
After the family settled in Dixon, Illinois, Reagan spent his summers working as a lifeguard on the Rock River and was credited with saving seventy-seven people from drowning.
Reagan's anti-communism began in Hollywood where faced down "communist agitators" in the Screen Actors' Guild. After his movie career dried up in the 1950s, he became a corporate spokesman for General Electric and began speaking out against high taxes and big government. His political philosophy set, Ronald Reagan burst on the national scene in 1964 as a spokesman for conservative politics.
His marriage to actress Jane Wyman ended in divorce, but Reagan found the perfect companion in his second wife, actress Nancy Davis, "the other half of the circle," says daughter Patti Davis. According to political adviser Stuart Spencer, Nancy would serve as Reagan's "personnel director" during his political career.
After barely losing the 1976 Republican primary, Reagan triumphed over Jimmy Carter in 1980. He projected optimism and confidence, believing his mission was to restore America's trust in itself. An assassination attempt only seventy days into his presidency elevated him to near-mythic status, but as "Lifeguard" reveals, in 1983, near the end of his first term, Reagan's conservative revolution was threatened by economic recession and a popular revolt against his defense buildup.