Did Reagan Have Alzheimer's in Office?

Article excerpt

Byline: Edmund Morris

His son says yes. His biographer isn't so sure.

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 During one unhappy period, when the Iran-contra scandal coincided with prostate problems, the president was so withdrawn and confused that papers were surreptitously drawn up by staffers concerned that he might have to be declared "disoriented" and disabled under the 25th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. …