In the latest effort to profit from his famous sire, career son Ron Reagan reveals that his father was suffering the signs of impending Alzheimer’s disease as early as 1984. The GOP’s iconic leader was finally diagnosed with the dread illness in 1990. We learned about it in a Ronald Reagan speech of 1994. Young Reagan is nearly as good a salesman as was his old man. Without the revelation, why would anyone outside the Cult of the Gipper pay the least attention to My Father at 100?
The early indicator claim arises from Ronald Reagan’s lousy performance in the first debate against Walter Mondale, as relayed by Washington Post reviewer Stephen Lowman (from whom I borrow the snatches from Ron’s book):
“Watching the first of his two debates with 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale, I began to experience the nausea of a bad dream coming true. At 73, Ronald Reagan would be the oldest president ever reelected…[M]y father now seemed to be giving them legitimate reason for concern. My heart sank as he floundered his way through his responses, fumbling with notes, uncharacteristically lost for words. He looked tired and bewildered.”
“Uncharacteristically lost for words”? Apart from a set of not-very-funny jokes and some hokey stories, the 40th POTUS couldn’t string together more than a sentence or two without his note cards. “The Great Communicator” was a fraud of the nuttiest sort, picking dates for some of his most important speeches on the basis of Nancy’s astrologer’s advice. Even Michael Deaver, one of Reagan’s closets aides and oldest friends, had a low opinion of the President’s policy and communications skills, as retold by Garry Wills:
“Informed that the President said South Africa had “eliminated the segregation that we once had in our country,” Deaver blamed that on the people who let Reagan discuss a serious subject sitting down. “You know it’s funny about Reagan. The way he thinks changes when he sits down. . . . He’s too relaxed when he’s sitting. He’s not careful.” Deaver’s rules for managing Reagan were to brief him extensively, expose him rarely, and keep him standing up.” [italics in original]
It took a couple more years thinks the son before Reagan himself noticed the encroaching dementia. “My father might himself have suspected that all was not as it should be. As far back as August 1986 he had been alarmed to discover, while flying over the familiar canyons north of Los Angeles, that he could no longer summon their names.” And yet Ron claims that there was “no evidence that my father (or anyone else) was aware of his medical condition while he was in office.” “Had the diagnosis been made in, say, 1987,” Ron continues, “would he have stepped down? I believe he would have.” Did some physician at Bethesda Naval ever run him through some children’s memory games? Signs appearing as early as 1984, striking confirmation by 1986, but Ron can’t or won’t tell us whether his father was tested while in power?
How can I pick on a dead guy with Alzheimer’s? Unsporting, you say. Reprehensible, cry the Palinites in their new role as post-Tucson guardians of political rhetoric. Pardon me, gentle squeamish people, but this was the guy with his finger on the button for eight years, the man who claimed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (big ol’ H-Bombs) could be “recalled” following their launch, who believed the Nuclear Freeze movement was inspired by “Communists.” This was the man who’s administration loosed murderous death squads on Central America, declared ketchup a vegetable, fought the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and started the contemporary era of record budget and trade deficits.
It’s illustrative of the GOP’s psychedelic handle on reality that its most beloved 20th century leader was losing it even before the end of his first term. Forgetting and distorting the past is after all a hallmark of the party. Now we know what a member of Congress means when he tells us he’s a “Reagan Republican.”
STEVE BREYMAN teaches politics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Ronald Reagan figures prominently in his book Why Movement’s Matter: The West German Peace Movement and US Arms Control Policy. Reach him at email@example.com