Ronald Reagan, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Political Memory

Like many others, I have a distinct memory of watching the Reagan-Mondale debates in 1984 and saying something to the effect of: “Whoa. Reagan’s actually losing it.” And in his video testimony in John Poindexter’s trial regarding the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages affair, in 1990, it was evident that Reagan was in and out: putting on good show, not failing to remember many general facts but possibly not lying when he used what Nixon, in an earlier scandal, had advised his aides is always available to the guilty: “I don’t recall.”

To my eye today, the judge and the lawyers in the Poindexter trial were keenly aware of Reagan’s condition, especially as the witness tired late in the day. Reagan said, for example, that the first time he became aware of “a diversion” of proceeds came in that courtroom, that day, and he seems to have meant it. And when badgered by a prosecuting attorney, he had no evident grasp of either the purport or the content of testimony he’d made earlier the same day.

Given the ’84 debates — the last time most of us had seen Reagan speak off the cuff in any significant way — the decline of ’90 wasn’t surprising. Indeed it vindicated the creepy, unprovable, and strong impression from six years earlier, when Reagan was about to sail triumphantly into his second term as president.

What I have not been able to recall is anything specific about what I might have been responding to, in Reagan’s comments and manner during the ’84 debates, that gave me such a distinct impression that something was wrong. I only remember thinking and saying that he seemed out of it; the debates themselves are a blur. Which, when it comes to memory, I find interesting in itself.

In the past few days, therefore, with the centenary, and a book addressing Reagan’s Alzheimer’s by one of his sons, I’ve been time-traveling backward, trying to arrive at the age of 28, half the age I am now, when I was watching those debates on TV. One thing I find, which will make no sense to 28-year-olds (until they get to be 56): as I look at the videos, the Reagan presidency doesn’t seem long ago at all. Reagan had a huge impact on our lives in the ’80’s, and I watched him very closely at the time. It’s not that it all comes flooding back, it seems part and parcel of today. For me, his inflections and mannerisms remain deeply familiar and present-tense.

Familiar, not beloved. I voted against him — against the Republican platform, that is, which in 1980 had finally been seized definitively by the party’s right wing, had finally triumphed in casting taxation and social welfare as unqualified evils, and began its project to make the American rich richer, at the expense of everyone else, on the pretext that a rising tide lifts all boats. Till Reagan, the jury was out on how the country was going to go on those issues. Then the jury wasn’t out any more. I argued about it fairly bitterly with “Reagan Democrat” friends at the time.

And I’ve been amazed over the years how fully Reagan has been grudgingly reconstructed by liberals as one of our great presidents, in the sense that he was “transformative.” Why we’d want our chief executive to become a transformative historical and cultural force has always eluded me (and I think would have eluded the framers). Washington had to be, and so did both Lincoln and FDR: under pressure of awful necessity, they transformed both the country and, possibly just as significantly, the office. [UPDATE: And as Garry Wills has helped show us, at Gettysburg Lincoln transformed the realationship of the Declaration and the Constitution and reconstructed the founders of 1776 as dedicating a “nation” to a proposition that all men are created equal.]

But FDR also transformed expectations. Thanks to him, “performs transformations” counts as one of the skills supposedly critical to certain kinds of presidential candidate’s resumes (JFK played a role in creating that expectation too, mainly by being a certain kind of gorgeous and getting killed). The president was originally just supposed to execute the laws. Real transformations very rarely occur — rarely should occur — via a presidency.

Yet I observed Reagan at all times with a genuine, half-amused admiration, even awe. “I like Ronnie,” I would say, just to bug lefty friends. His second convention acceptance speech was Americana par excellence, a thing of beauty. Beauty is not truth, nor truth beauty, except in transcendent moments like the one conjured by Keats. But there were times when Reagan had the beauty thing nailed, and on that score, we did not see his like again until Obama, who clearly admires what Reagan could do with a public appearance (and who ran on the transformation magic trick). Cornball, mock-epic national poetry is not a requirement of the job either, as many presidents have made clear. But some happen to have the knack.

In other ways, of course, looking back at the 1984 debates makes 1984 seem very long ago indeed. Barbara Walters’s hair! Fred Barnes — so young! Blah! Blah! … Reagan, though, is timeless. He’d always been Ronald Reagan and always would be. I don’t like charisma, but there it is.

Anyway, it turns out that Reagan’s big moment of cognitive teetering in 1984 is widely considered to have occurred in his summation to the second debate.

I still do not remember it specifically, but in that summation (at about 1’22”), he launches into a long story about driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, thinking about a letter he was supposed to write for a time capsule, and how people 100 years later would actually know what we do now … and he seems to start rambling and runs out the clock by dithering some. The moderator Edwin Newman saves him by stopping him for time called, but that’s embarrassing too. At best, Reagan totally fails to bring his side of the debate to a climax, just stops talking in the middle of nothing.

Yet looking at it now, Reagan just seems weak in the summation, not mentally incompetent. I distinctly recall an impression of Reagan’s confusion and cognitive strain throughout the main parts of both debates. And now I do see why that might have been. Video of both the first and second debates shows him very sharp at certain moments but just as often struggling for words and concepts — stiff, filled with effort, covering up, tense. In that second-debate summation, he was on some kind of script, if poorly. Off script, in the real debate parts, this is no great communicator. His eyes sidle toward notes, and sometimes he’s just looking down trying to read, and while he’s very experienced as a public presenter in working notes into an ongoing discourse, he can’t always absorb concepts from the notes and translate them into his own words and thoughts. He just can’t own much of what he’s saying.

That eye-sidling thing is evident in his 1990 court testimony too, as well as in this pretty out-of-it 1985 discussion with Pat Robertson. Did he work from notes, just off-camera, in those instances too? I don’t know; the darting glance away from the questioner may by then have become the practiced pitchman’s way of trying to come up with something to say, like the way some of us roll our eyes upward when trying to think and remember.

But there’s a way in which Reagan had always been weird like that. The weirdness was part of the charisma. A disconnect prevailed between the passion of the communication and what might or might not have been really thought, felt, and experienced. It’s not that he was empty. Reagan clearly had strong beliefs and a desire to have a huge impact. But how those beliefs and desires got processed inside him was never something you could feel, even when he was writing his own stuff, even when he was delivering it with confidence. He was too good a speaker, too professionally good, in what was already an old-school style drawn from stump, platform, and whistle stop and channeled, in Reagan’s youth, into radio and then TV. It’s not that Reagan didn’t have thoughts. It’s that even in his prime, every thought had to be fed into the announcer machine and come out … machined. In his prime, the machining was smooth. Spontaneity, however, was never the Reagan forte, and by ’84, his people were keeping him out of almost all unscripted situations — until the debates.

And now all this is coming back to me!

As I poke around the videos, I find that one of Reagan’s peak moments as a speaker and a presence came in 1976 — a strange peak, since he was acknowledging not getting a presidential nomination — but a real harbinger of his landslide victory in 1980. When Ford was nominated, Reagan was asked to make some supposedly impromptu remarks to the convention. I’d guess it was all totally pre-planned. He knew what he was going to say and had no problem saying it, with great intensity. On the Republican-party brand of charisma, he has Ford beat without even trying. As indeed, the Republican party’s right wing was very soon to have its liberal wing beat, and for all time.

And look, kids: this 1976 triumph is the source of the muddled Pacific Coast Highway time-capsule story of eight years later! This is where he was trying to go, in the ’84 debate. It’s horrible. What happened? It’s impossible, yet tempting, to imagine that in ’84 he went off script, flashing back to the big moment of ’76, that he thought he was really there again, that he re-lived it all in front of us, then start realizing it was all nothing a waking dream and started trying to come back to reality. When experienced standup comics start bombing, it’s said that they tend to grab the first eight-minute routine that ever worked for them and just do it. They can’t help it; they go back to what worked once. Reagan hadn’t bombed in the debate — he would go on to win the election handily — but maybe he thought he had? (Anyone watching today would think so too.) So he went straight to one of his greatest hits.

But in real life, and even more depressing, Reagan and his ’84 people had clearly come up with this reprise of an old bit, deeming it a safe, tried-and-true thing that he had a chance of pulling off, as spaced as he was. He didn’t pull it off, but I guess they thought it was their best shot.

Grim stuff. Can there be any real doubt anywhere about Reagan’s rapidly diminishing mental competence during his presidency? He fell asleep in public, responded to questions via coaching from his wife, etc. This is all well known — yet there’s a way in which none of it mattered. Literally. It didn’t matter. Reagan was fulfilling some entirely other national purpose, nothing to do with executive function, and I now realize that, at this point in my life, and no matter how long I live, his presidency will never seem long ago to me. Such is the nature of memory that for me, as for him, it’s all back there in the past, reality and impressions mingled, all still happening.

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