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. Geoff

    It does not seem strange to me that a son might notice the mores subtle signs of the disease sooner than those dealing with him as a formal iconic authority figure. People in the early stages of Alzheimers can be come quite adept at compensating for their growing disability and relying on a spouse or others they trust to help fill in the blanks....this can on for quite a long time. Reagans demeanor clearly changed after he got shot and many people around him attributed it to that trauma.. Nancy became more fiercely protective of him in his second term all of which is consistent with spousal behavior the early stages of Alzheimers. Ron Jr. does not allege any grand conspiracy or even that his Father was out of control, just the wry and probably accurate observation of someone intimately familiar and able to see the more subtle signs of a sad devolution.

    January 14, 2011 11:18 pm at 11:18 pm |
  2. L.A. Voter

    I'm sorry, but when the news of Reagan's diagnosis was released surely I cannot have been the only American who felt like they'd finally received a letter mailed years before. This endless revisionism doesn't change the fact that stories were rife throughout Ronald Reagan's presidency about how his mind wandered, and how he sometimes couldn't tell the difference between his movies and what was really going on. Saturday Night Live did a sketch whose whole point was that the doddering, absent-minded presidential persona was a cover for a crafty international strategist. It was funny because no one thought he was all there anymore. In fact (and feel free to check me on this) I believe when I first looked at the photo section of Donald Trump's "The Art of the Deal" the photo of Trump with the Reagans was inscribed "Nancy and Reagan Reagan."

    The fact is, all the signs were there. They were widely canvassed in the media anecdotally, as much a part of his persona as Gerald Ford tripping. His family and doctors may have refused to ask or suggest what all these signs may have indicated, but that would have to have been a deliberate side-stepping of the logical conclusion. Just because they refused to ask if Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer's while he was in office, it doesn't mean he didn't have it.

    January 14, 2011 11:25 pm at 11:25 pm |
  3. megan

    Ron I"m proud of you telling the truth about your father these old fart only seen dollars sign. we know your mother step to the plate and did what she had to. I will buy your book.

    January 14, 2011 11:38 pm at 11:38 pm |
  4. h4x354x0r

    "I don't recall, Senator."

    Reagan repeated that one sentence over, and over, and over during the Iran-Contra scandal hearings near the end of his presidency. At first, I thought he was just playing dumb. Now, I think he was telling the truth. He might have been "In command" as Duberstien claims, but that doesn't mean he wasn't already being affected by it. I've watched age-related dementia overtake several people in my life. I'm fairly certain Reagan did experience the early stages of the disease while still in office.

    January 14, 2011 11:43 pm at 11:43 pm |
  5. volsocal

    President Reagan was a better leader with lead in his chest and any affliction one wants to apply than most men (including his kids) could ever be. One can only hope that his leadership qualities and perspective will skip a generation and continue.

    January 14, 2011 11:46 pm at 11:46 pm |
  6. RebeccaGrace

    I recall President Reagan when he was Governor and while running for President in 76 and 80.The same man during these years was not the same man later in his presidency. I believe his capacities started to diminish, not immediately after, but in a gradual period of time after the assassination attempt. He struggled for words, Nancy would complete his sentences and frankly, he became more and more dependent on his closest aides, Ed Meese and Michael Deaver and even Al Haig, to make decisions. It is common but unspoken knowledge amongst Secret Service agents that he often dozed or simply slept during meetings. Make no mistake, he was a great communicator with prepared speech, but he did not run the White House for most of the last four years of his presidency.

    January 14, 2011 11:48 pm at 11:48 pm |
  7. Kanoxolom

    Everyone in his cabinet knew he had Alzheimer's before the end of his first term, the fact that Ronald Reagan was a vacant-minded puppet President is hardly newsworthy...

    January 14, 2011 11:49 pm at 11:49 pm |
  8. guest123

    Of course his cronies are going to say that. I would expect nothing else. But, Alzheimers doesn't suddenly come on like a light switch. He probably did have some symptoms but they were mild enough for him to cover or to be explained away as something else. He certainly wasn't in full-scale dementia while in office, though.

    Can someone explain to me the deification of Reagan? Does no one remember that those weren't such great days? Not as bad or disastrous as the Bush jr years, of course, but hardly idyllic either. I wouldn't even consider him the best or most effective Republican president of my lifetime. He was a damned good marketer but the substance wasn't anywhere near as good.

    January 14, 2011 11:49 pm at 11:49 pm |
  9. sweetpea

    Of course he had Alzheimers while he was in office. It was SO obvious, its just no one wanted to admit it... Glad someone is FINALLY ACKNOWLEDGING THE TRUTH!!!

    January 15, 2011 12:07 am at 12:07 am |
  10. Jose Garcia M.D.

    In 1986, I was a third year medical student at the University of Miami. In my Neurology rotation that year, one morning during morning rounds, we briefly listened to a speech by President Reagan. Our Neurology professor/attending who was listening also to the speech and specialized and did research in Alzheimer's disease, to our surprise made this statement "Oh my God Reagan has Alzheimer's." The residents and other student on the team, we all looked at each other and dismissed his comment. The attending repeated it again "he has early Alzheimer's" Those comments were shocking that a sitting President could have Alzheimer's disease and remained vividly in my memory. When President Regan later was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, I wondered if that Neurology professor was right all along!

    January 15, 2011 12:08 am at 12:08 am |
  11. Savannah

    Anyone who watched the latter part of Reagan's funeral already knew that he had more than a little Alzheimer's. The Pastor/Reverend who spoke commented on going the the Whitehouse to see him many times a few years before the end of his presidency and spoke sorrowfully about Mr. Reagan's deteriorating condition and how Nancy and the VP had to help him.

    January 15, 2011 12:08 am at 12:08 am |
  12. JB

    Never voted for Mr. Reagan, but never noticed any symptoms. Obviously, any manifestations of this disease, or any strain of dementia, would have been outted immediately during that time.

    January 15, 2011 12:08 am at 12:08 am |
  13. Henk in Colorado

    Ronald, I'll never forget you. Even if you already would have had some symptoms back then, you were more man then, than any of the presidents that followed you.

    January 15, 2011 12:14 am at 12:14 am |
  14. amsjll

    Does it matter? Its certainly possible a very close relative, such as a son, would know the person so well that in retrospect they saw signs long before diagnosis. Even those who worked with him every day didnt know him all his life so how would they notice the little things? OR its possible Ron jr. is just flapping his gums to sell books. Either way, its quite irrelevant so many years later.

    January 15, 2011 12:15 am at 12:15 am |
  15. Margie

    I know. Do you all who are old enough, remember. He used to be giving a press conference. In the middle of a sentence he would start to walk off the stage, and someone would have to call him back. A lot of people suspected it when they announced after he left the white house.

    January 15, 2011 12:16 am at 12:16 am |
  16. jcj7161

    BS as usual..everyone knew it but not one will admit it.....thanks again to the US press for "protecting" us Americans

    January 15, 2011 12:19 am at 12:19 am |
  17. Patti

    I remember watching Ronald Reagan on TV when he was in office. My husband was a physician and I asked if he knew what was wrong with the president. We didn't know it was Alzheimer's but it was very clear this was not a mentally stable person. When he was finally diagnosed, I said Ah ha! We knew it and he was definitely showing signs while in office.
    I agree with his son.

    January 15, 2011 12:20 am at 12:20 am |
  18. Eduardo E. Silva

    It is sad that Junior is addressing President Reagan memory this way. President Reagan was a great President and still admired by many of us. His legacy will no be diminished, by silly remarks. I agree with Kenneth Duberstein's remarks "I think Ron these days is mostly in the business of trying to sell books. That's what I think."

    January 15, 2011 12:25 am at 12:25 am |
  19. Carrie

    This doesn't surprise me. After my mother was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer's and I learned more about the disease, I could see symptoms going back six years and possibly longer. It is very easy to look back and attribute some of their behavior to the disease and it is harder for those closest to that person to see what is really going on.

    January 15, 2011 12:31 am at 12:31 am |
  20. Sarah

    Generally it's close family members who first recognize that something isn't right. It can take years from that point before a diagnosis is made. I recall the first time I saw my step-dad do something "off" that made me think, what just happened there? It was another five years before anyone was ready to acknowledge that something was wrong, and a couple years after that before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. But in looking back, I firmly believe that was the first time I saw a sign of what was to come. So I think Ron may well be correct in his assessment, but it doesn't mean anyone covered anything up. It just means Alzheimer's is a complex and difficult condition to diagnose, and it doesn't happen all at once.

    January 15, 2011 12:32 am at 12:32 am |
  21. Mano

    I was a young man in the 80's, but I remember people always making fun of a doddering Reagan, particularly in his second term. I knew nothing about Alzheimer's at the time, and thought it was just part of his aging. Maybe it was at that time. He did seem a little confused. That's still no excuse for being a horrible person. An awful lot of people liked him though. Image is everything I guess. Who remembers what he had to say about homeless people? What a swell guy.

    January 15, 2011 12:36 am at 12:36 am |
  22. ReaganFan

    Wow.. talk about a son trying to make a buck off his fathers name and good standing, he needs to go to work for one of the tabloids where he can make up these type of stories and people eat them up. What a sad little man Ron Reagan has shown himself to be.

    January 15, 2011 12:51 am at 12:51 am |
  23. mary Ellen Brooks

    It's about time someone brings this issue to the forefront. RR was the same age as my mother. I remember watching him during his first term and publicly stating something was wrong with him. I remember sitting with my mother saying he seemed doddering and she agreed with me. It was truly worrisome to think that the president of the US had less command of his faculties than that elderly woman sitting across from me. Reagan did have dementia while in the WH. Sure he could read and deliver a speech. So could my elderly parents. But I doubt he had much going on in there besides what he was told.

    January 15, 2011 12:51 am at 12:51 am |
  24. Tanbiker2

    Of course he did. He demonstrated that abundantly during the Iran Contra hearings, but it may all have been a lie as he pretended to be senile to get his corrupt underlings off. Well, he succeeded, but the happiest memory is that when the Alzheimers really set in he couldn't even remember ever having been president of governor of California. That was the best revenge. May every right wing Republican including John McCain and Sarah Palin suffer the same fate. America will be a better place when they, like Reagan, are all gone.

    January 15, 2011 12:54 am at 12:54 am |
  25. Wayne

    What the hell difference does it make. He is gone. This country is not the sort to learn from it's mistakes anyway. Never has been nor will it ever be. Let it go and move on to another or should I say , the next mistake. Why waste a lot of time on nothing?

    January 15, 2011 12:59 am at 12:59 am |
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