When Did Reagan's First Signs of Alzheimer's Appear?

Two debates in America try to tackle mental diagnosis and impairment.

Posted Jan 21, 2011

As the country struggles with the aftermath of the Tucson murders and the horrifying injury of House Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, a debate is forming over the correct balance of mental health diagnosis and intervention. While today's New York Times online includes cogent exchanges on the insanity defense, including who can and should qualify for it, troubling comments have surfaced from public figures such as Rudy Giuliani. After noting appropriately the type of concern that alleged shooter Jared Loughner was causing his teacher and classmates, the former New York Mayor said he advocated "some form of involuntary appraisal of people" and insisted: "We're making a big mistake here not changing our procedures with regard to mental illness."

So much for individual rights and protections, including for the mentally ill.

But as we try to establish the right balance between overreach and under-effectiveness, a parallel debate about diagnosis has erupted over the onset of Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's and when, exactly, the former president grew mentally impaired by the disease. Especially in light of Reagan's near-sanctified status among Republicans and neoconservatives, the debate has big implications for American politics and history.

The controversy properly dates to October 1997, when the New York Times published Lawrence K. Altman's lengthy, in-depth article, "Reagan's Twilight—A special report: A President Fades Into a World Apart."

Yet Reagan's "Alzheimer's Controversy" recently resumed, CBS News noted yesterday, after Ron Reagan suggested, in a just-released book, that the former president "may have shown signs of Alzheimer's disease as early as three years into his first term."

In My Father at 100, Ron Reagan writes of a "growing sense of alarm over his father's mental condition." He recalls the presidential debate with Walter Mondale, October 1984, in which his father seemed lost and unable to articulate himself. In "Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer's while president, says son," a short piece on the fracas by the British Guardian, Ron Reagan is quoted as saying: "My heart sank as he floundered his way through his responses, fumbling with his notes, uncharacteristically lost for words. He looked tired and bewildered."

But while brother Michael Reagan has rushed to discredit the suggestion of impairment, calling it a slur on their father's memory, many of the president's former interviewers and colleagues have very similar recollections. Collectively, these attest to serious concern about his sharpness and overall presence of mind. On CBS Online today, for instance, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, in another new book on Reagan, describes a visit with her family to the White House in 1986, ending her time as a White House correspondent. She writes,

"Reagan didn't seem to know who I was. He gave me a distant look with those milky eyes and shook my hand weakly. Oh, my, he's gonzo, I thought. I have to go out on the lawn tonight and tell my countrymen that the president of the United States is a doddering space cadet."

Other observers and commentators have noted how often Reagan confused films he'd made with political reality, including telling witnesses about concentration camps he'd helped to liberate in World War II, when the humbler truth was rather that he had made a movie or two about the topic.

Then there's the incident at a photoshoot at the president's beloved ranch in Santa Barbara, also in 1984, when a reporter called out a question about arms control and received this response from the leader of the free world:

R.R: "Well, we uh, well... I guess, uh, well, we uh ..."
Nancy Reagan: (sotto voce): "We're doing the best we can."
R.R.: (with a big smile): "We're doing the best we can!"

These and many other troubling moments stand in marked contrast to the president many would prefer to remember for declaring ebulliently (and intelligently), "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

While Alzheimer's is a feared and debilitating disease, even as we celebrate recent developments in its early detection it's critical to ask whether the president of the United States was mentally impaired toward the end of his term in office. The implications of that inquiry extend far beyond a family feud. They spotlight the many other, far less attractive policy decisions, both at home and abroad, that Reagan authorized and initiated.

Follow me on Twitter @christophlane or visit christopherlane.org.