The Truth About Ronald Reagan’s Mind—and Memory

Ron Reagan, son of the late president, continues to get attention because of speculation in his new book that his father may have begun experiencing Alzheimer’s Disease during his presidency. Ron cites two examples where his father seemed confused or forgetful, one as early as 1984 and another from 1986.

Ron’s speculation ignited a very strong response from his brother, Mike Reagan, who called Ron an “embarrassment.”

The issue isn’t going away, and is sure to be debated in the next two weeks leading to the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth on February 6. (To read my earlier Fox News Opinion piece about Reagan and Alzheimer’s Disease, click here.)

We’ve been down this road before. This is not the first time such speculation was raised, only to be quickly struck down by Reagan’s personal physicians, specialists, and experts on the disease.

As a biographer of Reagan, I’ve dealt with this question many times. It’s a matter best left to the clinicians who closely inspected the president.

For the record, the actual diagnosis of the disease, made public by Reagan’s moving handwritten letter, did not come until November 1994, nearly six years after he left the White House—not to mention two years after a wonderful (and quite lucid) Reagan speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Reagan was not in the throes of the disease until well after his presidency.

That said, there are perhaps some helpful observations I can add to this subject. I offer them as someone who has interviewed hundreds of people who knew and worked with Reagan and as someone who spent countless hours at the Reagan Library studying the gigantic Presidential Handwriting File, a very illuminating archive of letters, speeches, and other documents featuring Reagan’s actual handwriting. I never encountered any evidence—on paper or from eyewitnesses—suggesting that the president was “losing it.”

But rather than just say this, I’d like to offer a viewable example to readers: a March 1986 exchange between Reagan and Secretary of Education Bill Bennett regarding an education report. This example occurred during one of the exact years cited by Ron Reagan as an episode when his father seemed “bewildered.”

As Bennett knew, Ronald Reagan’s memory was not only good but exceptional. In fact, several of Reagan’s closest advisers, two of whom dated back to the gubernatorial days in Sacramento, have told me that they believe Reagan had a photographic memory. Knowing that Reagan’s 75-year-old brain remained sharp, Bennett confidently put Reagan on the spot in front of a group of educators in the East Room of the White House. Bennett asked the president if he recalled a verse from a certain poem. Here’s a direct transcript from the official Presidential Papers:

Secretary Bennett: Mr. President, I was telling the audience before you came that memorization figures in this book fairly prominently, and I am told that you’re the world champion memorizer. Do you recall something that starts “There are strange things done in the midnight sun … ?”

The President: “… by the men who moil for gold.” [Laughter]

Secretary Bennett: “The Arctic trails have their secret tales …”

The President: “… that would make your blood run cold.” [Laughter]

Secretary Bennett: I give up. I give up. I give up. Do you want to finish, Mr. President?

The President: I don’t know whether in school they still read Robert W. Service but to just conclude that particular stanza, it would then be: “There are strange things—” No, we’ve done that. All right.

Secretary Bennett: “The North Lights have seen …”

The President: “The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see was that night in the marge of Lake Lebarge I cremated Sam McGee.”

This exchange doesn’t strike me as evidence of an addled brain. This clip needs to be watched (click here) to be appreciated. Reagan had no notes, no TelePrompter—and no onset of Alzheimer’s. I’ve seen innumerable examples like this over the years.

Nonetheless, this is an issue not likely to go away.

Reagan himself would have probably simply smiled and shrugged, perhaps with a gentle, “Well, there they go again….”

This article first appeared at FOXNews.com on Feb. 2, 2011 and is used by permission of the author. © 2011 Dr. Paul Kengor

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He is also co-author (with Patricia Clark Doerner) of The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).
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