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

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