Reagan's son: Father showed signs of Alzheimer's in White House
January 14th, 2011
08:32 PM ET
11 years ago

Reagan's son: Father showed signs of Alzheimer's in White House

(CNN) - Former President Ronald Reagan's youngest son suggests in a new book that his father showed signs of Alzheimer's disease while he was in the White House.

In the book titled "My Father at 100," which is due out next week, Ron Reagan writes, "Three years into his first term as President … I was feeling the first shivers of concern that something beyond mellowing was affecting my father."

He writes about watching his father's first debate with Walter Mondale, the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee.

"I began to experience the nausea of a bad dream coming true," Ron Reagan writes. He adds: "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 the younger Reagan also admits, "I've seen no evidence that my father (or anyone else) was aware of his medical condition while he was in office." He then questions: "Had the diagnosis been made in, say, 1987, would he have stepped down? I believe he would have."

Former president Reagan disclosed he had Alzheimer's disease in 1994, five years after he left the White House. Questions have been raised in the past about whether he developed the disease while he was still in office, but suggestions that he did have been widely dismissed.

In an effort to set the record straight, four of the president's White House doctors spoke to the New York Times in 1997 to say the president didn't show evidence of the disease until 1993 and that he was mentally sound while in office. The newspaper reported the doctors said, "they had taken the unusual step of discussing their former patient's medical history publicly because neither they nor Mr. Reagan had covered up any illness, and because they did not want history to see them as having done so."

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon who interviewed the former president more than 100 times said he interviewed him after he left the White House and did not see a difference.

“I think I would have noticed,” Cannon said in a statement. “There’s simply no evidence he had Alzheimer’s while in the White House.”

Cannon said Reagan was “lucid” during their last interview in 1991.

Some people who served in the Reagan administration also are dismissing Ron Reagan's new claims.

Kenneth Duberstein, who served as Reagan's chief of staff at the end of his second term, told CNN Chief National Correspondent John King: "I think Ron these days is mostly in the business of trying to sell books. That's what I think." About the older Reagan, Duberstein said: "Day in, day out, from beginning to end, he was in command. He was fully in command."

Bill Bennett, a CNN contributor who served as education secretary under Reagan said, "In all my interactions with the president, I never witnessed anything in him to give me any concern."

CNN's Senior Political Analyst David Gergen, who was director of communications for Reagan, told Wolf Blitzer on CNN's "The Situation Room:" "I'm sure Ron has written a good book. I look forward to reading it, but I'm surprised he's revived these claims." Gergen added, "I think (Ron Reagan) got this wrong, but he's a good fellow."

Filed under: Ronald Reagan
soundoff (112 Responses)
  1. ybs

    Actually, Reagan showed signs even before the election! But believe me... there you go again... well...

    January 14, 2011 08:43 pm at 8:43 pm |
  2. jr

    Anyone that really watched his public performances in his second term and didn't recognize that he was losing it had their eyes closed.

    January 14, 2011 08:58 pm at 8:58 pm |
  3. Former Republican - Now Independent

    It was at the beginning of his second term that I began to believe there was something wrong, but I never thought that it was something so serious. Thank God we got through the remainder of his presidency without anything going really wrong. Like other presidents, Reagan's staff hid things well.

    January 14, 2011 09:00 pm at 9:00 pm |
  4. commentoor

    I agree. I am not sure I though so at the time, but I definitely had this thought when it was later announced that he had the disease. In his public appearances at that time, he definitely was effected by something.

    January 14, 2011 09:21 pm at 9:21 pm |
  5. Robert

    Everyone knows this already. Towards the end of his first term and worsening during his second he showed all the tell tale signs. The 'Alzheimer stare', forgetting his words mid-sentence etc. His Alzheimer was even the recurring joke on Spitting Image. Mistaking the big red 'Launch Nuke' button for the alarm clock button at his bedside was one of the best ones.

    January 14, 2011 09:22 pm at 9:22 pm |
  6. db

    Reagan was slipping while in office, there's no question. He was often seen dozing off in meetings and displayed many instances of forgetfulness. He was a good President compared to George W. Bush but only a fair President overall. His philosophies are what led to our giant debt. He was not fiscally conservative or anything like what the Tea Party imagines. Our debt started growing out of control during the Reagan years.

    January 14, 2011 09:26 pm at 9:26 pm |
  7. Gil

    I used to be a strong republican during the early Reagan years, but felt him losing it at times to confusion and getting lost when trying to speak. The debates were an example. I'm so glad my loyalties have totally shifted from the Party of Big Business, Big Oil and Big Wall Street, not to mention the rich! This party has now joined with a ground of uneducated racists to form a mess! I have instead chosen the party for the people.

    January 14, 2011 09:36 pm at 9:36 pm |
  8. Paul

    I believe Ron is probably correct. Most people, and I had a grandmother with Alzheimer's, start to show signs long before they become mentally unsound. I believe people dismiss this claim because they are afraid of what others may think of them allowing a man with Alzheimer's to run the country. Relax people. This isn't about you. Nobody blames any of you for Ronald Reagan's disease...Ron Jr.: Sorry that you have to hear the tacky claims that you are "mostly in the business of selling books." I wonder what Nancy's uncensored, honest opinion would be...I'm nearly certain she would agree with Ron Jr. Just review some of the old footage of press conferences and other events. Sometimes, it did appear that President Reagan was in a bit of a daze or things were a bit hazy...

    January 14, 2011 09:46 pm at 9:46 pm |
  9. Marie MD

    He might be right. Reagan was protected to the maximum by Nancy and everyone around him.

    January 14, 2011 09:49 pm at 9:49 pm |
  10. nimitta

    Sorry, Ken, Bill, & David, but during that first Reagan-Mondale debate I turned to my wife and said, "I think he has Alzheimer's". It wasn't because of my medical training, actually – he was just clearly out of it, like a deer in the headlights, a sharp contrast to his usual engaged style. Like many whose dementia is intermittent at first but will become more significant and uniform as the disease progresses, Reagan's second term was marked by plenty of good days but also some bad ones. My sense is that many view him through a haze of nostalgia and admiration, forgetting all the warning signs that were evident even to an outsider like myself.

    January 14, 2011 09:52 pm at 9:52 pm |
  11. Squigman

    Here's a question, and hopefully an answer will come in the near future. When will we (as a nation and people), spend as much time on trying to cure alzheimers disease and cancer, as we must spend on finding remedies for erectile disfunction, or male pattern baldness? The first two are deadly, the other two are not. Seems we've got our priorities kinda mixed up.

    January 14, 2011 10:18 pm at 10:18 pm |
  12. Mike

    I seem to recall Reagan "couldn't recall" a lot of stuff in the Iran-Contra hearings ... you have to wonder.

    January 14, 2011 10:20 pm at 10:20 pm |
  13. Mike

    Ronald & Nancy Reagan were briefly interviewed at the opening ceremonies to the 1984 Olympics in LA. The interviewer asked President Reagan a softball question that was about as difficult to field as "How are you today?" Reagan's reply clearly indicated that he had no idea what was going on. Nancy immediately put herself between Ronald and the camera and said something to the effect of, "What the President meant to say..." The interview abruptly ended. I turned to my stepfather as said, "Reagan has alzheimer's". Reagan was re-elected later that year. Was Nancy Reagan our first female President?

    January 14, 2011 10:26 pm at 10:26 pm |
  14. Sanandra

    I don't know why the former staffers feel the need to belittle Ron Reagan (the son). It simply sounds like he was concerned about his father, and in retrospect wishes maybe more attention had been paid to his health. He didn't point any fingers, in fact, he specifically states he didn't think any staffers were aware of any potention problems. I think Kenneth Duberstein was way out of line in his comments about the younger Reagan.

    January 14, 2011 10:38 pm at 10:38 pm |
  15. steve

    Alzheimer's disease does not suddenly develop when the diagnosis is made. The pathology takes some time. I do remember Reagan falling asleep at meetings and Nancy shielding him from reporters. I had suspected he might have it when he was in office. It is all very well that his former physicians have said they did not suspect he had it. If they did suspect and did not act on it (he should have bee removed from office), then they are at fault and would protect themselves. What I want to know is whether he had laboratory testing for reversible causes of dementia (B12, folate, thyroid tests, test for syphilis, and a brain MRI) while he was in office. If he did, then that would be a smoking gun. It would mean his physicians suspected dementia and evaluated him for it. BTW, I am a neurologist.

    January 14, 2011 10:48 pm at 10:48 pm |
  16. ShamanNora

    I think many people were aware he was experiencing some form of dementia. I sure did, and that concerned me a lot to have a president that couldn't think straight. And when he fell asleep with the Pope, and fumbled his way through questions – it was obvious he was not all there.

    January 14, 2011 10:48 pm at 10:48 pm |
  17. ShamanNora

    On top of that, I found it hilarious that people kept calling him the greatest president we ever had.

    January 14, 2011 10:48 pm at 10:48 pm |
  18. Wire Palladin, S. F.

    Ron the younger is usually correct. I appreciate his work for Americans, Bennett has always had a problem facing reality

    January 14, 2011 11:00 pm at 11:00 pm |
  19. raoul

    i am thinking that if we have to seriously ask this question, then the whole nation might be having the same condition. how can anyone forget nancy standing by his side mouthing his answers. this was while he was president of the united states. we should not be asking if he had alzheimers, we should be wondering what stage he was in.

    January 14, 2011 11:01 pm at 11:01 pm |
  20. Carla

    All one would have had to seen was the look on his face when asked any question on the stand. He looked utterly lost and helpless. Many have seen that look before in the faces of our loved ones who have some form of dementia. When he said that he did knot know, he really did not know. That he was left in office is the scary part!

    January 14, 2011 11:06 pm at 11:06 pm |
  21. diane

    I was visiting relatives in Ireland during President Regan's last year of office. My Irish cousin told me she couldn't believe how he was president as it was obvious to her he had dementia. She had a medical degree. She wanted to know what was wrong with the American people for allowing him to stay.

    January 14, 2011 11:13 pm at 11:13 pm |
  22. Sherri

    I think that President Reagan showed the signs of dementia and Alzheimers quite often while in office. And , I have to wonder, didn't anyone around him notice this? And, if they did, why wasn't anything done; or why werent' steps taken to insure the integrity of the office.

    January 14, 2011 11:13 pm at 11:13 pm |
  23. Paul

    I'm no fan of Reagan but I believe the behavior he exhibited in office was due to his being shot in 1981.

    January 14, 2011 11:14 pm at 11:14 pm |
  24. Petrus in Seattle

    Ok - I may be way off base here - but wasn't there a saturday night live skit while reagan was president (or perhaps very shortly after) where they made fun of his memory problems?? I remember a skit where he was first being asked questions about Iran Contra affair, gun running for the Sandinistas and the actor playing Reagan answered each question "well, I can't recall" ... and then the progressed to additional questions including very basic things like the clothes he was wearing and what he had just been doing earlier that same day, etc - and he gave the same answer each time. I swear there was some skit like that back in the day where they were making fun of his "I don't recall" answer to questions and generalizing it to other parts of his life....

    January 14, 2011 11:17 pm at 11:17 pm |
  25. Ray Keith

    Ronald Reagan was a class act from beginning to end. He was a great President and I credit him with setting up the conditions for the fall of the Iron Curtain. He proved that Democracy and Capitalism will ALWAYS trump Communism. If his son wants to tarnish his Dad's legacy then I have to feel sorry for him. His Dad was a great man and leader something his son will NEVER live up to even if he lives 200 years!

    January 14, 2011 11:17 pm at 11:17 pm |
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