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. Continue reading

George Washington, Secular Saint?

I’m exploring American Creation, the interesting group blog I mentioned in a recent post on the evangelicalism of the 18th C. socially radical working-class, who play dramatic roles in Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion.

These American Creation (AC) bloggers have unusual backgrounds (like me) and write skeptically and knowledgeably about prickly matters that bear on today’s conflicts between secularist liberals and the religious right. I’d call the group high conservative, in a kind of refreshingly old-fashioned sense. They bring thinking from the University of Chicago to their posts, making reference to Leo Strauss, Alan Bloom (oh, man!), Aristotle, Sidney; they’re deeply interested in “natural law,” the origin of rights, reason versus revelation, and the proper relationships of religion and government. And they think these are key American topics.

That ain’t me. Another way to put it: they actually care about the religious thinking of the famous founders, and they’re eager to parse it to death. I’m not sure there’s really all that much there (I suspect AC thinks about the issue more than the founders themselves did). When it comes to American 18th C. religion, I’m excited by the millennialism and evangelicalism and in some cases mysticism of the less rich and prominent, with roots in Quaker, Digger, Leveller, Muggletonian and other dissenting English enthusiasms, which I think had a more profound, if sometimes subterranean, effect on the action, though perhaps not so much on the published thought, of the era. The AC focus is relentlessly on the nuances of elite intellectual history. Me, I like the distressing realpolitik of elite action — and the intellectual and spiritual history (and the distressing realpolitik) of the non-elites.

AC gets into how Enlightenment rationalism combined with Christianity in 18th C. Whig America to liberalize both religion and government. In that sense, and in part because they’re conservative, they’re liberal. And I think they’re right to associate the liberalizing of religion with the development of haute-Whig republicanism, which defined the class of American founders who, as one of the AC writers wittily defines them, made it onto our currency (and, I note, tried to hold back democracy and radical social change). Illiberal American religion, the kind I’m interested in, led to other ideas about government, socially radical and at times utopian ones, which the upper class, across the rationalist-Christian-Deist spectrum, found revolting, silly, and infuriating, and yet at times, for political reasons, depended on, without acknowledgment.

One key AC idea is that today’s American liberal democracy may differ fundamentally from the European version, just as the American revolution differed from the French in not being populist and, in a certain sense, not millennial, not an effort to start human society over, to redeem it. The realpolitik I’m interested in, and the action adventures in my books, complicate, shall we say, that idea.

Anyway, in the process of considering these differences, I’ve come to appreciate AC’s liberal/conservative ways of defending the separation of church and state and the first amendment as a whole, and their debunking of a lot of poorly considered ideas coming from today’s religious right.

Hamilton and Washington

As Commander of the Army, General Washington was key. The finance guys wanted him leading the coup [UPDATE: for accuracy:] threat of coup. He declined, of course, and ended up elegantly dispersing the officer rebellion at the army cantonment in Newburgh, N.Y., more or less as described in the AC post.

But then he wrote to Congress, telling them to do everything the officers wanted, which Congress hurriedly did, making the entire officer class one with the financier class, creditors of the United States. (Hence the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary officer-class watchdog group, one of whose agendas was to insure that the potential investment bonanza was federally supported.) That set the table for everything the Morrises and Hamilton wanted for America. Later, in the early 1790’s, Hamilton began putting it all into effect as Washington’s treasury secretary.

Washington admonished Hamilton, in their odd and compelling post-Newburgh-crisis correspondence, that while the General firmly supported the nationalists’ aims, trying to manipulate the army to achieve them had been a dangerously bonehead move. In a letter nobody quotes, although it is very easy to find, he even followed up with Hamilton, just in case he might be misinterpreted, to say that the only problem with using the army that way is that, in such cases, things might just as well go the other way, backfire, and the anti-nationalists might have won. Without sullying himself with the sedition in which the nationalists had indulged, Washington made sure that the nationalists got all the things they wanted. And without allowing a coup to occur, he used the coup to get what he wanted. It was a very, very impressive set of moves, with a major impact on the American future. There’s a way in which the Newburgh conspiracy, despite unintended consequences, should be rated a success, in part because of Washington.

And Washington’s strange relationship with Hamilton, which came to fruition in the 1790’s, with the executive-branch suppression of western Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion — as hymned by John Yoo — had now been established.

AC just doesn’t look into any of this. One of the comments on the Newburgh post mentions the scholar Richard Kohn to the effect that there wasn’t much of a conspiracy at all. That is not what Kohn’s work says — quite the reverse! Somehow the cult of the Republican Saint Washington, indispensible man, is good enough for these normally skeptical thinkers. (He was the indispensible man. The realities of that indispensability are rather fraught.) How can these guys, who so fluently consider the likes of Sidney and Aristotle in other posts, resort to the History Channel and Google when kvelling about Washington? The effect on reason of the modern secular religion of founder-worship is an intriguing one to consider in the context of AC’s examination of religion at the founding.

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