Edmund Morris: Reagan and Alzheimer's


Young Ron—as I still think of him, although he’s no longer the 20-something in red high-top Reeboks who eavesdropped with me through a cracked door at the U.S.-Soviet summit in 1985—is the only one of the four Reagan children to share their father’s sunny equanimity. Unlike his elder siblings (Maureen died in 2001), Ron seems free of that typical neurosis of presidential progeny, a feeling that Dad never cared as much for the family as for the electorate. All loved the old man with unresentful passion, but Ron understood him best. Frankly acknowledging to me (with thumb and fingertips held millimeters apart) that “our relationship is about this deep,” he had no stories to tell that matched, for example, Michael’s and Patti’s memories of incidents when their father simply failed to recognize them.

So when Ron suggests in his new book that Ronald Reagan may have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in office, I have to assume that he’s being as objective as he always was back in the days when we became friends. I can only say now, as I wrote in 1999, that I never saw any signs of dementia during the years that I observed Reagan in action, from May 1985 through his departure from the White House in January 1989.

Old age I saw; extreme fatigue, often; diplomatic occasions when his genius for telling the right joke at the right time deserted him; important meetings during which he read from cue cards like an obedient schoolboy. During one unhappy period, when the Iran-contra scandal coincided with prostate problems, the president was so withdrawn and confused that papers were surreptitously drawn up by staffers concerned that he might have to be declared “disoriented” and disabled under the 25th Amendment.

But thereupon, Ronald Reagan exhibited astonishing powers of recovery. Whenever there was a crisis that taxed his leadership, he snapped to and became authoritative. I quote from my notes for March 2, 1987, as reproduced in Dutch: “Before lunch in the Cabinet Room today, [incoming chief of staff Howard] Baker and his aides position their chairs so that they can check RR’s behavior from all angles. In walks [yesterday’s] depressed, somnolent, prostatically challenged President, moving with his usual fluid grace, tall, beaming, apple-cheeked, amethyst-eyed, tailored, giving off waves of benign power. Even before they sit down they realize ‘the Gipper is back’ …The Twenty-Fifth Amendment is shelved.”

In further proof that Reagan retained his smarts through the end of his presidency, I would cite the diary entries he patiently made every night until he left office. I can testify that although they were mostly boring, they were composed in sequential sentences as lucid as the entries he penned in 1981.

So, for that matter, was the handwritten letter he released to the press on Nov. 5, 1994, which began with the shocking words: “I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease.” Ronald Reagan never wrote purer prose as when he composed that letter, a masterpiece of honest expression. By then, all of us who closely watched him had noticed for at least four years that he was becoming strange. At first, a sort of quiet self-isolation settled upon him, like snow cutting off access to a mountain peak. He grew pathetically dependent on his wife in public appearances. At his 82nd-birthday party on Feb. 6, 1993, he alarmed guests by repeating a toast to Margaret Thatcher, with identical words and gestures. That summer, doctors at the Mayo Clinic confirmed that Ronald Reagan was suffering from incurable cognitive failure. I stopped seeing him after an interview in which he referred to a shelf of his bound presidential papers as “trees.”

It may be that young Ron (now middle-aged Ron) is right in dating the extinction process back 10 years or more: Alzheimer’s notoriously escapes detection in its earliest stages. But for me, the first pathological symptoms were not evident until after Ronald Reagan took a 15-foot header off a horse, in the summer of 1989, six months after he quit the White House with his last cheerful wave.

Morris, the author of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, recently published Colonel Roosevelt, the final volume of his trilogy on the 26th president.

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