Reagan on American Experience

  • Fred Vigeant

Reagan: American Experience, a four-hour, two-part biography of the president who saw America as “a shining city on a hill” will have an encore broadcast Tuesdays, August 4 & 11 on WITF beginning at 8pm both nights.

The pair of episodes, part of the Peabody Award-winning American Experience collection The Presidents, examine Reagan’s life through the testimony of family — including Nancy Reagan and three of his children — along with friends, historians, biographers and other witnesses to Reagan’s private life and public career.

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.

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 12 years spent working on Reagan’s official biography. Among the 42 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.

Part One 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 due to his itinerant childhood and a painful episode with his drunken father, which led the young boy to turn 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 77 people from drowning.

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 70 days into his presidency elevated him to near-mythic status, but 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.

Part Two 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 83rd 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.”

Watch Reagan: American Experience August 4 & 11 at 8pm on WITF.

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