When Was Ronald Reagan Senile? When Wasn’t Ronald Reagan Senile?

Longtime New York Times medical correspondent

Lawrence K. Altman, M.D.

, was in the Science Times section yesterday to address the notion, suggested by presidential offspring

Ron Reagan’s new memoir

, that Ronald Reagan might have been showing symptoms of his Alzheimer’s disease before he left office.

Who knew this was even an open debate, outside

Grover Norquist’s

sewing circle? Sure, there are people who maintain Reagan was clearheaded all the way to the end of his second term. And there are people who won’t believe there’s any evidence for evolution until a carte de viste of Java Man falls out of their family Bible.


But it was Altman’s job to investigate Reagan’s mental state at the time, for the Newspaper of Record. And he finds nothing in Ron Reagan’s account of things to contradict his original conclusion that the president was unimpaired in his performance—that is:


As a follow-up to questions about Alzheimer’s, my extensive interviews with his White House doctors, key aides and others, I found no evidence that Mr. Reagan exhibited signs of dementia as president.

Note the careful stacking of epistemological hurdles: the reporter, in interviews with others, found no evidence of the exhibition of signs of dementia. That’s four or five layers between the reader and the dementia. Absent the chance to return to 1986 and slice open the president’s brain for medical inspection, there’s no way to get close enough to end all objections.


Sure, Reagan didn’t always maintain a distinction between firsthand experience and

secondhand experience


things he’d seen in movies

. And he was, by his own account, unaware of (or unable to remember)

major activities of his administration

. And, oh, yes, he did end up with diagnosis of full-blown Alzheimer’s. But maybe his cognitive baseline was just lower to begin with? At any rate, here’s Altman’s summary of what Ron Reagan has to say about his father:

The anecdotes that he cites are either well known or lack convincing evidence for Alzheimer’s.

For example, he recounts the 1984 re-election campaign, when his father performed dismally as he floundered through his responses and was lost for words in his first debate with his opponent, Walter F. Mondale. But Mr. Reagan performed well in the second debate, 11 days later.


Remember: this is the case


believing Reagan was suffering from Alzheimer’s while in office. As of 1984, Reagan was sometimes incoherent, but he had—how to say it?—

good days and bad days

. But this was “well known” already. In 1984, people agreed not to say that the president sometimes seemed senile; therefore, his problems in 1984 are not eligible for consideration now. Anything else?


While spending a day in the Oval Office in 1987, the younger Reagan noticed that aides were providing his father with scripted index cards — a technique he often used when giving speeches — for phone calls lasting five minutes at most, implying signs of a failing memory. But in an interview, Mr. Reagan said it was “hard to know what to make of that” — and laughed as he said he was using similar notes in our conversation.

Ron Reagan prepared his own notes before an extended interview with a journalist. Ronald Reagan had to be given a script by someone else before making a short phone call. Pretty much the same thing. The New York Times is satisfied.