On the eve of his election, Ronald Reagan was asked, "What is it, Governor, that people see in you?" He responded, "Would you laugh if I told you that they look at me and they see themselves?"
Ronald Reagan was America's most ideological president in his rhetoric, yet pragmatic in his actions. He believed in balanced budgets, but never submitted one; hated nuclear weapons, but built them by the thousands; preached family values, but presided over a dysfunctional family. His vision of America divided the nation, yet no matter what people thought of him politically, Reagan always won them over personally. "People don't reckon with the power of charm," says son Ron Reagan. "When my father turns the high beams on, even somebody like Gorbachev tends to melt." A seemingly simple man, Ronald Reagan was consistently underestimated by his opponents; one by one, he overcame them all.
On Monday and Tuesday, May 29 and 30, 2000 at 9pm ET on PBS AMERICAN EXPERIENCE rebroadcasts Reagan, a biography of the actor, governor, and president who saw America as "a shining city on a hill," a beacon of freedom to the world. Produced by Austin Hoyt and Adriana Bosch, the four-and-a-half hour documentary examines Reagan's life through the testimony of family, friends, historians, biographers, and other witnesses to Reagan's private life and public career. Narrated by David Ogden Stiers, Reagan is part of The Presidents, a sweeping view of the twentieth century from inside the Oval Office, from AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.
Reagan was produced with unprecedented access to the Reagan family. Nancy Reagan agreed to be interviewed on camera for the first time since leaving the White House, as did three of Reagan's four children, and the family also provided home movies. Also for the first time, Edmund Morris reveals insights gleaned from his twelve years spent working on Reagan's official biography. Among the forty-two people interviewed are members of Reagan's inner political circle -- his "California Cabinet" -- and his counterparts on the world stage, including former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who negotiated historic arms agreements with Reagan.
"I don't think Ronald Reagan has gotten the credit he deserves for ending the Cold War," says producer Austin Hoyt. "Gorbachev deserves enormous credit, too -- but for losing it gracefully. Reagan wanted to win the Cold War. He saw the Soviets were vulnerable, and went for the kill. In the process, he scared a lot of people half to death, including himself."
"Reagan was not a man given to introspection," notes producer Adriana Bosch. "As his son Ron told us, 'No one ever figured him out, and he never figured himself out.' We had to search long and hard for Reagan's personality and found many clues which allowed us to draw what we think is a revealing sketch -- distant and appealing, determined, willfully optimistic, and always playing the hero."
On Monday, May 29, "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 subsequent political career can be seen in terms of rescue," notes Edmund Morris. "I think he felt in the late 1970s that he could rescue Jimmy Carter's America from a period of poisonous self-doubt and carry her safely back to shore."
Reagan's anti-communism began in Hollywood where he 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.
On Tuesday, May 30, "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."
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?