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A reminder that debates are fun, not politics: Reagan had Alzheimer’s in 1984 and we didn’t notice.

5 October 2012

Summary: While we watch the debates and judge the candidates’ style, we tend to miss the serious content. Like Romney’s contempt for us, seen in his serial lies. That’s a long tradition in America, going back to Reagan’s first debate in the 1984 election. We not only ignored his signs of early Alzheimer’s, but elected him. What a sad fate put America into our hands! We can do better, but only if we try.

Part two of two. See part one: The presidential debates are performance art. They’re Kabuki.

Dazed while debating Mondale

The presidential debates are among the most closely observed and discussed events of our year-long campaign season. Only collective blindness — we prefer not to see — allows us not to see the obvious.

Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer’s while president, says son“, The Guardian, 17 January 2011 — Excerpt:

In it, Ron Reagan describes his growing sense of alarm over his father’s mental condition, beginning as early as three years into his first term. He recalls the presidential debate with Walter Mondale on 7 October 1984. My heart sank as he floundered his way through his responses, fumbling with his notes, uncharacteristically lost for words.

He looked tired and bewildered…

The Politics Blog at Esquire, Charles Pierce, 4 October 2012 — Excerpt:

{T}he first debate in 1984 between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale … took place in Louisville, Kentucky, and, believe me when I say this, the incumbent president of the United States stood on the stage exposed that night as a symptomatic Alzheimer’s patient.

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This was not something I took lightly. The disease was in the process of swallowing my father at the time, as it eventually would his four other siblings. At that point, even at the rough beginning of my encounter with the disease, I knew it when I saw it, and I saw it that night. Had the moderator of that debate asked, “Mr. President, can you tell us what city you are in right now?”, the odds were maybe no better than 2-1 that Reagan would have been able to come up with the answer.

Years later, in the course of researching a book, after Reagan’s Alzheimer’s had become public knowledge, I had occasion to ask a prominent Alzheimer’s researcher when he first thought Reagan had become symptomatic. “That first debate,” the doctor told me, “It scared the hell out of me for his entire second term.”

Of course, this was not something anyone at the time was impolite to mention. The notion that the president was at best addled and, at worst, deteriorating before our eyes, was something that needed to be dispelled as quickly as possible lest the American People, those delicate children, be made wakeful in the night. So, in the second debate, Reagan was able to get through an entire wisecrack without stumbling into incoherence, and everybody pretended the first debate never happened, and the country, somehow, got through a second term with a president who was losing his grip on his faculties.

I also feel constrained to point out that I saw this debate mentioned not once in the various reviews of catastrophic debate performances that the news outlets ran during the run-up to the debate on Wednesday. It is lost to history, it appears.

For more about this see “When Did Reagan’s First Signs of Alzheimer’s Appear?“, Christopher Lane, Psychology Today, 21 January 2011

See for yourself: the Reagan vs. Mondale debate on  7 October 1984

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. Bluestocking permalink
    5 October 2012 2:52 pm

    Personally, I suspect that the reason why Mondale lost to Reagan was due as much to his association with Carter as anything else (since he served as vice president under Carter). As I recently pointed out in a comment on another site I visit regularly, the truth of the matter is that Americans clearly respect and admire fighters (both real and fictional) — these people are our heroes and our whole cultural ethos is thick with them, from the Founding Fathers and Tom Sawyer all the way through to Pat Tillman and Jack Bauer. There are many different kinds of fighters — they don’t necessarily need to be particularly belligerent people or people who fight primarily with their fists. That being said, in modern times, we appear to be developing a rather worrisome tendency to admire fighters who punch or shoot first and ask questions later (if at all) which seems to echo the equally worrisome move in our culture away from facts and logic and caution and toward ideology and instinct and raw emotion…mindless knee-jerk reaction based on what we want to be true rather than thoughtful, reasoned action based on what is true.

    By contrast, we don’t really appear to admire diplomats and philosophers that much — how many Americans still know who Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James are, let alone respect and admire them? (The only way in which a diplomat or philosopher in this country is likely to earn significant respect or admiration, especially these days, is by being a fighter as well as a diplomat or a philosopher, such as a Martin Luther King Jr.) Most of our modern Presidents have been fighters of one kind or another, with Carter being an exception. Let’s remember that Carter’s biggest achievement as President — and it was not inconsiderable or insignificant, even though most Americans seem to have forgotten about it — was getting Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to sign the Camp David Accords. However, that was not the achievement of a warrior but rather of a diplomat or statesman. Carter was never really a fighter — his overall persona was that of a humble country boy made good whose religious beliefs and Southern manners would not permit it — which may go a long way to explain why he only served one term and remains one of our least popular modern presidents, among both Democrats and Republicans alike

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    • 5 October 2012 3:00 pm

      Granted all that, let’s not lose the big picture. We watch a debate and don’t notice that one of the candidates is not functioning well?

      Of course, he deteriorated rapidly once in office. But we didn’t know that since government officials lied about this vital aspect of the Republic.

      Where’s the disappointment in ourselves? Where’s the rage that our leaders lie to us, openly displaying their contempt for us? Until we make some changes in response to these real-world facts, there is not point in discussing reforms. Or any future for the Republic.

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    • Bluestocking permalink
      5 October 2012 6:54 pm

      Where’s the disappointment in ourselves? Where’s the rage that our leaders lie to us, openly displaying their contempt for us?

      As I’ve pointed out more than once before on this site, part of the problem lies in the fact that there’s plenty of evidence suggesting self-reflection (and increasingly, rationality) is not really something which American culture either respects or encourages. We are in the main a passionate people who respect action, and passion (unfortunately) does not appear to lend itself very well to logic and rationality precisely because passions themselves are frequently irrational and not answerable to logic — also, because logic and rationality frequently serve as a check to action (even if only temporarily).

      In order for the American people as a whole to get in touch with the “disappointment in ourselves” and the denial which leads us to vote for people who egregiously lie to us, we need to be willing to take a step back and view our own actions objectively…and that’s not something that many Americans seem to be very good at or even inclined to do, especially since viewing your own actions objectively often means being forced to acknowledge that you’re not quite as honest or as ethical or as smart or as dependable as you’ve convinced yourself you are (or want to believe you are). As an example, the Republican Party often trumpets itself as the party of “family values” which believes in the virtue and importance of “taking personal responsibility”…but frequently, when the actions of the people who promote this view are subjected to critical analysis, you find that many of them are every bit as quick and every bit as desperate as anyone else to absolve themselves and those whom they support of any and all blame when their own backsides land on the hot seat.

      Self-reflection is only the first step…once the problem has been identified, the behavior which creates the problem has to be changed. Unfortunately, as the mice found out in the classic Aesop fable about putting a bell on the cat, this is much easier said than done — and especially if people gain some sort of secondary advantage in avoiding, postponing, or refusing change (even though change is an inevitable and fundamental principle of all existence, since anything which remains static tends to stagnate). In many cases, lasting or permanent change only results when the disadvantages of remaining in the current condition or position begin to outweigh the advantages of remaining in the current condition or position and/or the disadvantages of making a change — most of the latter boiling down in one way or another to fear of the unknown. As the Irish saying goes, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” — the “devil you know” at least has the advantage of being familiar, and human beings are prone to be creatures of habit who cling to what’s familiar long after it has ceased to be productive or beneficial. What complicates this still further is the fact that among all the people who are agitating for change in this country, there are widely differing views regarding what this change should look like — views which in at least some respects cancel each other out because they’re diametrically opposed if not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, there’s no denying the fact that many of the people who have the power to create change in this country (i.e., the wealthy and influential) have no absolutely motivation to do so because the current situation suits them just fine — while many of the people who have the motivation to create change do not have the power to do so because they lack the money and the influence.

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    • guest permalink
      5 October 2012 9:10 pm

      “Where’s the rage that our leaders lie to us, openly displaying their contempt for us?”

      Possibly because the population has largely fallen into a permanent state of cynicism (“all politicians are liars anyway”) and despondency (“anyway, the system is set up so that I cannot change it and sack the liars”)?

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    • 5 October 2012 11:29 pm

      I agree, totally. However, I think we can take the analysis one step further — asking why we’ve adopted those views. My guess is that these are excuses for inaction. They minimize cognitive dissonance between our actions and our awareness of our duties as citizens.

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    • Bluestocking permalink
      5 October 2012 10:36 pm

      Perhaps…but to go back to FM’s basic point, that says just as much (if not more) about the people than it does about the politicians. If the people insist on continuing to vote for politicians who have already been caught lying to them, then to at least some extent the people are practically asking to be deceived and exploited.

      Like a lot of people, politicians will do whatever they have reason to think they can get away with, principles be damned…which means that if they can improve their chances of remaining in office (and continue to enjoy the perks of being a Congresscritter) by lying to their constituents and switching their tune with the prevailing winds, then the chances are that they will continue to do just that.

      People usually don’t make choices which they perceive (rightly or wrongly) as being detrimental to their own interests — and therein lies the rub. Voters do not elect politicians who tell them what they need to hear (meaning the truth) because the truth is sometimes painful, and people have an almost instinctive tendency to seek out those things which bring pleasure and avoid those things which cause pain.

      Similarly, politicians tell the voters what they want to hear (meaning lies) instead of what they need to hear because they know there’s a good chance that they won’t be elected otherwise. American voters need to stop believing in the idea that the politicians can give them something for nothing — such as deficit reduction without any increases in taxes — because by the time they’re old enough to vote, they should have learned from experience that for every action there is a reaction and something which can be had for nothing is seldom worth anything.

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    • sglover permalink
      8 October 2012 2:03 am

      Mondale lost because he was foolish enough to believe that Americans are rational adults, and he had the effrontery to speak to them as such. The dumb bastard actually believed that he could get votes by applying elementary arithmetic to tax issues, and appealing to the common weal! Fortunately, all winning national-level politicians since have drawn the obvious lessons from Mondale’s experience.

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    • Bluestocking permalink
      8 October 2012 4:05 pm

      Mondale lost because he was foolish enough to believe that Americans are rational adults, and he had the effrontery to speak to them as such. The dumb bastard actually believed that he could get votes by applying elementary arithmetic to tax issues, and appealing to the common weal! Fortunately, all winning national-level politicians since have drawn the obvious lessons from Mondale’s experience. — SGlover

      In what way, may I ask, is it “fortunate” for our “winning national-level politicians” to view us with contempt, treat us like sheep, deliberately lie to us, and feed into our delusions (especially since these are clearly self-defeating, if the last twenty years or more are any indication)??

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    • sglover permalink
      8 October 2012 8:12 pm

      “In what way, may I ask, is it “fortunate” for our “winning national-level politicians” to view us with contempt, treat us like sheep, deliberately lie to us, and feed into our delusions (especially since these are clearly self-defeating, if the last twenty years or more are any indication)??”

      You’ve heard of sarcasm, haven’t you?

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  2. Choirboy permalink
    5 October 2012 4:12 pm

    Facts no longer matter, accountability has been taken off the table by the baby boomer generation and this behavior has been embraced by practically everyone in public service. It’s as though each individual has lost their moral compass, and performs best at warding-off any stain of responsibility.

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  3. Thomas More permalink
    5 October 2012 9:34 pm

    Under Eastern Eyes“, Alain Supiot, New Left Review, #73, Jan-Feb 2012:

    “The United States of America appears to have a special talent for suppressing the past, which never fails to betray itself in the most ingenuous way — for example, by using the Hiroshima epithet of ‘ground zero’ for the target of the 9/11 attacks; thus making America’s earlier victims in Japan disappear for a second time, so to speak.”

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    • sglover permalink
      8 October 2012 2:16 am

      I think that’s off-base, or at least wide of the mark. Using “ground zero” to describe the WTC site doesn’t really **suppress** the past. It’s more a testament to collective narcissicism, and a consequent absence of a sense of proportion. September 11 was visually impressive, and certainly historically important. But Hiroshima-scaled? Hardly, in any sense.

      If memory serves, a month or two after September 11 there was a natural disaster in the southen hemisphere (I think somewhere in Africa, but can’t remember exactly where) that caused twice as many fatalities. I think it got maybe a paragraph in the back pages of the Washington Post. But those people are always dying en masse, right?

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  4. sglover permalink
    8 October 2012 2:32 am

    I think the concern here is somewhat misplaced. Reagan’s schtick was **always** glad-handing bullshit. He won because he told people what they wanted to hear, namely, that we could keep on as we always had. It’s hilarious to see post-Bush Republicans yearning for the happy days of Saint Ron, when in every way that matters Bush was the apotheosis of Reaganism. Against that, what difference does it make if the glad-handing bullshit artist was addled when we bought the **second** Ponzi scheme subscription?

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    • 8 October 2012 2:39 am

      “Against that, what difference does it make if the glad-handing bullshit artist was addled when we bought the **second** Ponzi scheme subscription?”

      I believe sglover grossly astonishingly underestimates the role of the President in our system. I’ve read quite a few biographies and accounts of recent administrations — and they paint a very different picture.

      Like

    • sglover permalink
      8 October 2012 3:48 pm

      Please clarify. I’m not sure how I’m “underestimating” presidential status when I say that Reagan’s tenure effectively extended on into the the term of Bush the Lesser. My point is that, more than most presidents, more than most of his immediate predecessors, Reagan got to the White House by pushing nostrums that were fundamentally delusional. If that’s so — and it’s open to argument, granted — the mental capacity of the salesman is a relatively minor consideration, yes?

      Mind giving examples of what you mean, what you’ve divined from these other biographies? I’m curious.

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    • 8 October 2012 6:51 pm

      (1). “My point is that, more than most presidents, more than most of his immediate predecessors, Reagan got to the White House by pushing nostrums that were fundamentally delusional.”

      Examples, please?

      Reagan’s policies were very effective for the 1%. Massive deregulation, lower taxes, massive rise in military spending, and weakening unions. Plus, longer-term, his support for de-legitimizing government action and weakening the government’s solvency (both laying a foundation for repeal of the New Deal).

      (2). ” If that’s so — and it’s open to argument, granted — the mental capacity of the salesman is a relatively minor consideration, yes?”

      First, no. In my experience its a myth that effective salesmen are dumb (but a useful myth — for salesmen).

      Second, it’s certainly a myth that the President is a salesman rather than a policy-maker, within the constraints of the current political system (ie, he is not a Czar).

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    • sglover permalink
      8 October 2012 8:44 pm

      “Reagan’s policies were very effective for the 1%. Massive deregulation, lower taxes, massive rise in military spending, and weakening unions. Plus, longer-term, his support for de-legitimizing government action and weakening the government’s solvency (both laying a foundation for repeal of the New Deal).”

      We agree completely. And did that benefit the GREAT MAJORITY of people who voted for him? No! Was Reagan ever candid about who would **really** benefit from his policies. No! It wasn’t hard to see how it would shake out, AT THE TIME. But the bastard got elected, and then re-elected, didn’t he? I say that represents a kind of collective delusion that’s far more worrisome. I don’t see

      “First, no. In my experience its a myth that effective salesmen are dumb (but a useful myth — for salesmen).”

      My comment wasn’t really about salesmen. My comment was about the shoddy deal that Reagan was selling, and how he suckered great freedom-loving American people into buying it, and how they signed up for the same slightly rewrapped suckering 20 years later. (And no, I DO NOT mean that as a backhanded tribute to the supposed golden era of Slick Willy. Clinton did his more than his share to lay the foundations for the 2008 meltdown.)

      “Second, it’s certainly a myth that the President is a salesman rather than a policy-maker, within the constraints of the current political system (ie, he is not a Czar).”

      In “Nixon Agonistes” Garry Wills portrayed Reagan as a shrewd and tenacious political organizer — that at a time (if I remember right) when the idea of a Reagan presidency was treated as a joke. I know the guy wasn’t dumb. But are you trying to say that his election campaign efforts — the topic of your original post — were anything other than spreading pleasing cliches about how essentially wonderful and lovable the status quo was? The guy won because he scorned any searching self-examination of American society.

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    • 8 October 2012 9:20 pm

      “And did that benefit the GREAT MAJORITY of people who voted for him? No! … I say that represents a kind of collective delusion that’s far more worrisome”

      I am confused. This looks like agreement, more or less, with the point of this post. How does that quote match sglover’s original statement:

      “I think the concern here is somewhat misplaced. Reagan’s schtick was **always** glad-handing bullshit.”

      How was this post’s concern with our inability to see and understand Reagan “misplaced” ?

      Like

    • sglover permalink
      9 October 2012 2:31 pm

      As I understand it, you are fretting because Reagan’s Alzheimer’s went unnoticed or unremarked even after he exhibited it in a televised debate. I don’t deny that this is a justifiable concern. I am saying that whatever the state of Reagan’s mind in 1984, well before that, from 1980 on, he had already bamboozled millions of Americans into voting for a program that never added up. Well before the 1984 debates Reagan had **already** shown a blithe indifference to many inconvenient facts, but the reasons were ideological, not clinical — and he was still broadly popular (though never as much as his hagiographers claim).

      Look, I don’t think we have any significant disagreement here. Consider my original comment a hair-splitting quibble, which I’m prone to.

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    • 9 October 2012 2:46 pm

      “don’t think we have any significant disagreement here. Consider my original comment a hair-splitting quibble, which I’m prone to.”

      Me, too. It’s pedant central here. Sometimes for good, sometimes not. But, on the other hand, it’s a partial antidote to the casual disregard for fact and logic which dominates the Internet.

      Like

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