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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Reagan: An American Crusade

Airs Tuesday, March 24, 2015 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: President Ronald Wilson Reagan at the podium with American flags lining the background.

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

More quotes

"An American Crusade" focuses on Reagan's battle with the Soviet Union and his resolve to end the Cold War, which the program sees as his principal legacy. Morris calls Reagan's hatred of Soviet communism "the only negative emotion he had in his life," and says Reagan believed that, with the pressure of a defense buildup, he could "bring this hostile totalitarian system to its knees."

The program identifies two turning points in the Cold War: Reagan's bold deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, and a hastily called summit with rival Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, considered a failure at the time.

If the superpower summitry of his second term was the high point in Reagan's presidency, the Iran-Contra affair was its lowest moment. The public perception that Reagan had traded arms for hostages with terrorists in Iran caused his credibility to plummet. "I went to the White House to buck him up," recalls Ron Reagan. "It was the first time I ever saw him with the wind completely out of his sails."

Five years after leaving the White House, when Reagan celebrated his eighty-third birthday at a gala in Washington, many people noticed what close family and friends had been seeing more and more: Reagan was faltering. "We met beforehand to do all the photographs, and he was very quiet and not very communicative at all," recalls Margaret Thatcher. "Nancy had to lead him to the platform holding him by the hand. And when she put up her hand to wave, immediately she said to Ron, 'Wave.'" Tests soon confirmed what many had suspected: Reagan had Alzheimer's disease.

On November 5, 1994, Ronald Reagan bid a public farewell to the American people in a poignant letter: "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead."

Past episodes of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE are available for online viewing. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is on Facebook, and you can follow @AmExperiencePBS on Twitter.