'I Wish I Could Spare Nancy'

The letter, written in the former president's own hand, was calm and positive despite the grim news: Ronald Reagan, now 83, is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. ""At the moment I feel just fine,'' Reagan wrote last week. ""I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done. . . . Unfortunately, as Alzheimer's disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience.'' Then he summed up: ""I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you.''

Who could say it better? With a grace and gallantry that recalled his quips after he was shot by John Hinckley in 1981, Reagan announced his illness to a public that, whatever it now thinks about his presidency, still admires his easygoing charm. But there was no hint of his self-deprecating humor -- and no mistaking the valedictory tone of his communique. Reagan seemed to be saying farewell: Alzheimer's is progressive, irreversible and largely resistant to current therapies. Over time, it causes memory loss, severe personality changes and, finally, dementia. The disease, still mostly a medical and neurological mystery, afflicts up to 25 percent of all Americans in their 80s. Reagan's doctors, in a letter released with his, seemed confident of their diagnosis, though they gave no explanation of the tests or procedures they used to reach it. Still, experts say that with good care, Reagan should be able to function normally for several more years and continue to enjoy his retirement.

He has clearly been doing that. After maintaining a decorous, ex-presidential silence for almost six years, Reagan emerged for a $1,000-a-seat GOP fund-raiser in Washington last February. Margaret Thatcher was there; so, of course, was Nancy. Reagan wowed the nostalgic crowd with a genial mix of conservative boilerplate and partisan gibes at Bill Clinton, whom he accused of ""grand larceny'' by appropriating Republican themes. Predictably, he got the crowd cheering with another of his trademark jokes. ""With all that's going on right now, I'm afraid I'm not go-ing to run for president in '96,'' he said. Then -- skipping the requisite beat -- he said, ""However, I have not ruled out the possibility of running again in 2000.''

He broke his silence again in March -- this time with a more serious message that was plainly written with an eye to his place in history. The target was Oliver North, then beginning his successful, hard-right campaign for the GOP Senate nomination in Virginia. In a public letter to former senator Paul Laxalt, an old ally, Reagan said he was ""pretty steamed'' at North's ""false statements'' about the Iran-contra affair. He insisted once again that he ""did not know anything'' about the inner workings of the scandal and had never instructed North (or anyone else) to mislead Congress. Historians will someday judge whether Reagan was telling the whole truth or not -- but for now, given the sad inevitability of his condition, the mystery that blighted his presidency must stand unsolved.