When a Debate Flop Raised Concerns About Ronald Reagan’s Fitness to Run for Re-Election

by Pelican Press
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When a Debate Flop Raised Concerns About Ronald Reagan’s Fitness to Run for Re-Election

In 1994, five years after Ronald Reagan left the White House, the former president wrote a letter to the nation, revealing that he was “one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.”

“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” Reagan said. He died at his home in Los Angeles ten years later, at age 93.

A decade before Reagan’s public diagnosis, concerns about his age and mental acuity dogged his 1984 re-election campaign, as well as his second term. Members of the press, the public and Reagan’s inner circle questioned the then-oldest president’s ability to execute the functions of his office, but their worries were mostly swept aside by warmhearted quips and political maneuvering. Some 40 years later, the truth about what happened—and what should have been done—is still a matter of heated debate.

Debate debacle

Joan Mondale, Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan pose on the stage after the first presidential debate on October 7, 1984.

Joan Mondale, Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan pose on the stage at the first presidential debate on October 7, 1984.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The question of Reagan’s age was rarely discussed until 1984, when the 73-year-old president, once nicknamed the “Great Communicator” for his skill at delivering speeches, performed extremely poorly at the first debate of the 1984 election cycle, paling in comparison with his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale.

In his 2010 memoir, The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics, Mondale recalled his opponent’s behavior, detailing how Reagan “mangled” his trusty anecdotes, gripped onto the podium and “even started forgetting some of his lines.”

“It was actually a little frightening,” Mondale wrote.

A poll conducted after the October 7 debate showed that the incumbent’s lead over Mondale had dropped from 18 to 11 points. Forty-nine percent of voters thought Reagan was no longer as sharp as he once was.

The campaign wrote the debate off as a bad night. Paul Laxalt, a senator and general chairman of the Republican re-election campaign, blamed Reagan’s debate preparation, which he claimed “brutalized” and “smothered” the president with too many statistics. Reagan admitted that he had done “a lot of homework myself, probably too much of it, without sitting back and relaxing.”

In his controversial 2011 memoir, My Father at 100, Ron Reagan, one the president’s sons, pointed to the debate as an early sign that his father suffered from undiagnosed mental health problems while still in office.

“My heart sank as he floundered his way through his responses, fumbling with his notes, uncharacteristically lost for words,” Ron wrote. “He looked tired and bewildered.”

1984 Presidential Debate: Reagan v. Mondale

The public became increasingly aware of the president’s age in the aftermath of the debate. The Wall Street Journal, widely seen as sympathetic to Reagan, ran an article headlined “New Question in Race: Is Oldest U.S. President Now Showing His Age?”

Politically, Mondale was too tame of an opponent to push the issue, in part because he worried about the optics of berating an old man. As Mondale reflected in his memoir, “Reagan’s performance underscored the point I was trying to make: He was not engaged and in command of the issues. But it had never been my style of politics to jump on something like that.”

Even in the days immediately after the debate, a majority of voters saw Reagan as the more presidential—and electable—figure of the two.

Two weeks later, at the second and final debate between Mondale and Reagan, the president came prepared for questions about his age and mental fitness. He delivered a now-famous quip that revitalized his public image: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Mondale only won one state in the 1984 presidential election. He later said that his refusal to capitalize on Reagan’s fitness for office meant his campaign effectively ended with the second debate. “I knew he had gotten me there,” Mondale told journalist Jim Lehrer in 1990.

Reagan signing

Ronald Reagan was once the oldest president to serve in office, starting his second term at 73 years old.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Second-term troubles

Reagan’s landslide victory largely answered the public’s questions about the president’s health. Some columnists, like the Chicago Tribune’s George de Lama, argued that Reagan’s age worked in his favor, proving he was there to govern above the fray of petty partisan politics.

But in the fallout of the 1986 Iran-Contra affair, Reagan’s fitness to run a White House in crisis, as well as his knowledge of and role in the scandal, came under greater scrutiny. In a famous “Saturday Night Live” skit from 1986, a comedian portraying Reagan speaks like a kindly old man, feigning ignorance in front of a reporter before turning back into a “mastermind” behind closed doors.

A confidential report from inside the White House—made public knowledge only just before Reagan left office in 1989—painted a different picture of the president.

Howard Baker, the incoming chief of staff, dispatched aide James Cannon to put together a confidential diagnosis of the problems in the White House.

When Cannon arrived, he found “chaos,” as he later told Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus, co-authors of Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988. “There was no order in the place. The staff system had just broken down. It had just evaporated.”

Reagan table

Some officials in the Reagan White House grew concerned about the president showing signs of his age.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Staffers told Cannon that the president was “inattentive,” “inept,” “lazy” and uninterested in the job. They freely signed Reagan’s initials on official documents, often without explicit authorization. As for the aging president, Cannon recalled, “all he wanted to do was to watch movies and television at the residence.”

The first recommendation that Cannon made in his report to Baker was to “consider the possibility that section four of the 25th Amendment might be applied.” The amendment allows for the vice president and a simple majority of the cabinet to remove the president if they determine that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

Once Baker and Cannon met with the president directly, their concerns were alleviated. “Reagan seemed relaxed and animated,” Mayer and McManus wrote. “He seemed so alert and attentive that Cannon began to wonder about everything the White House staff members had told him.”

Ron, the president’s son, was unconvinced that officials would have needed to invoke the 25th Amendment if the president had been made fully aware of his mental health status.

“Had the diagnosis been made in, say, 1987, would he have stepped down?” Ron wrote in his memoir. “I believe he would have.” Reagan himself said as much when he was first elected in 1980, telling the New York Times, “If I were president and had any feeling at all that my capabilities had been reduced before a second term came, I would walk away. By the same token, I would step down also.”

Reagan receives the 1987 Tower Commission Report on the Iran-Contra affair.

Reagan receives the 1987 Tower Commission Report on the Iran-Contra affair.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Upon the publication of Ron’s book in 2011, Lawrence Altman, a doctor who covered the president’s health for the New York Times, wrote that in extensive interviews with White House doctors, “I found no evidence that Mr. Reagan exhibited signs of dementia as president.”

Altman added, “Moreover, until Ron Reagan’s memoir appeared, no other family member—and not Edmund Morris, the official biographer who spent seven years with Mr. Reagan in the White House—publicly hinted that he showed evidence of Alzheimer’s as president.” (It’s worth noting that Ron told Altman he didn’t intend to imply that his father had dementia prior to leaving office; instead, Altman wrote, Ron simply pointed out “that the amyloid plaque characteristic of Alzheimer’s can start forming years before it leads to dementia.”)

Taken together, these accounts of Reagan’s mental state leave no clear diagnosis about his fitness for the job. Some days were good, and some public appearances were bad.

Now, as 81-year-old Joe Biden—the oldest American president to date, a title he’s held since taking office in 2021 at age 78—fights to secure the Democratic nomination amid a renewed public conversation about age, mental fitness and the presidency, Reagan’s struggles with cognitive health are enduringly relevant.

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