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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Reagan: Lifeguard

Airs Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: President Ronald Reagan at his desk in the White House. "Reagan," is a two-part biography of the actor, governor and president who saw America as "a shining city on a hill,"a beacon of freedom to a world in need of rescue.

Revisit the lives of six recent presidents—John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—in films from our award-winning collection. Beginning Aug. 8 on PBS AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

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 that premiered in February 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.

Reagan's Life

View a chronology of Ronald Reagan's life beginning in 1911.

Reagan Quotes

"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." - Oct. 13, 1982 (in an address to the nation on the economy)

"I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering those nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete." - March 23, 1983 (addressing the nation about his proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, later to be known as "Star Wars")

"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." - Feb. 4, 1986 (from the State of the Union Address)

More quotes

"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.

You can download The Presidents Collection on iTunes, or buy The Presidents DVD pack at ShopPBS.org. Past episodes of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE are available for online viewing.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and you can follow @AmExperiencePBS on Twitter.

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The Presidents 2016: Reagan

In 1988, after two terms in office, Ronald Reagan left the White House one of the most popular presidents of the 20th century -- and one of the most controversial.

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Reagan on the Enemy: The Soviet Threat

The delegations of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan met in Geneva in 1985.

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Reagan on Ending Wars: Ending the Cold War

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Reagan and Lying: Arms for Hostages

In November 1986 Reagan admitted that arms had been shipped to Iran.

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Reagan on the Economy: the 1982 Recession

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Reagan's First Lady: Nancy

Nancy Reagan made things difficult at times with her stubbornness.

The Presidents, 2016

Revisit the lives of six recent presidents -- John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush -- in films from our award-winning collection. Beginning August 8 on PBS American Experience.

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