On the surface, President Donald Trump and former President Ronald Reagan have striking similarities: Both made their mark in the entertainment industry and as public figures prior to making a foray into politics late in life.
Following the Friday release of Michael Wolff’s explosive Trump administration tell-all Fire and Fury, the president is now bringing up his Republican predecessor as a kindred spirit for also being “unfairly” deemed mentally unfit for office.
On Saturday, Trump invoked “the Gipper” on Twitter, saying that the Democrats and mainstream media “are taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence.” The president then referenced Reagan again on Sunday, declaring in response to Wolff’s damning book: “Ronald Reagan had the same problem and handled it well. So will I!”
Reagan’s declining mental state
Reagan, who held office from 1981-1989, and was 69 at his first inauguration, began to exhibit signs of a possibly declining mental state late into his first term. In 1984, the Washington Post noted, the then-president faltered during the first general election debate. Witnesses at the time quoted by the Post described the commander in chief as “oddly disoriented and confused with regard to many of the subjects,” as well as “not as confident or sure of himself in this particular debate.” This prompted speculation over his fitness for the presidency.
“I think, when you look at that performance,” Reagan’s competitor, Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, later told the New Yorker, “there’s some question whether he wasn’t beginning to lose it. But in the second debate, he looked alert again.”
A 1988 study on Reagan came to the conclusion that the president had “some cognitive impairment” during his presidential debates in 1980 and 1984 — though the researchers found they could not conclude the impairment affected his “policy judgments and ability to make decisions,” the New York Times noted.
Another major public failing for Reagan’s memory came when the president was questioned on the Iran-Contra Affair. In 1987, Regan had given several conflicting statements regarding shipments of U.S.-made arms being sent to Iran, the Los Angeles Times reported. Speculation at the time was directed toward a government cover-up, rather than Reagan’s mental health. That same year, the Post noted, Reagan had discussed the scandal in “vague terms” during a televised address, and noted his inability to recall some information about the affair when testifying before Congress.
In private, those who encountered and worked with Reagan recounted even worse mental failings. The president’s son recalled seeing his father being given scripted index cards for five-minute phone conversations. Psychology Today noted the then-president would at times confuse films he had made with reality.
Journalist Leslie Stahl recounted an even more staggering account in her 2000 book Reporting Live, when she described an encounter with the president in the summer of 1986, during which she was told she couldn’t ask any “questions at all, about anything.”
“Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was,” Stahl wrote, as quoted by Mother Jones. “He gave me a distant look with those milky eyes and shook my hand weakly. ‘Oh, my, he’s gonzo,’ I thought. ‘I have to go out on the lawn tonight and tell my countrymen that the president of the United States is a doddering space cadet.’ My heart began to hammer with the import … I was aware of the delicacy with which I would have to write my script. But I was quite sure of my diagnosis.”
Response from Reagan and his administration
Such reports of Reagan’s mental failings are somewhat in line with what Wolff says of Trump’s own behavior — claiming in Fire and Fury that the president was incapable of recognizing old friends at Mar-a-Lago, for example — there are key differences in how Reagan’s mental failings were dealt with by the president himself and those around him.
Reagan used “humor to help deflect concerns about memory and stamina,” presidential historian Mike Purdy noted in an email to Mic. Regan would respond to incidents such as dozing off in meetings by joking. “I have left orders to be awakened at any time during national emergency, even if I’m in a cabinet meeting,” he’d say.
To deflect from his failed memory over the Iran-Contra affair in 1987, the Los Angeles Times noted, Reagan said, “I’d like to ask one question of everybody. Everybody who can remember what they were doing on Aug. 8, 1985, raise your hand.”
“I think it’s possible to forget,” he continued. “Nobody’s raised any hands.”
But the president did seem to take his mental health seriously in terms of his responsibility. As a candidate in 1980, he told the New York Times he would resign from the presidency “if serious evidence of senility or mental deterioration were detected,” vowing to be periodically tested for senility by a White House physician, and continue to release public reports on his health.
Four White House doctors told the New York Times in 1997 that they “saw and spoke with” the president daily, and had concluded that “beyond the natural failings of age [they] never found his memory, reasoning or judgment to be significantly impaired.”
Reagan’s failings, those close to him noted, also never seemed to put the country in any actual danger. Conversely, some have claimed Trump’s erratic tweets are dangerous.
According to an unnamed aide quoted by Mother Jones, though Reagan “tuned out — a lot ... because he was so likable, everyone had so [much] personal regard for him — everyone protected him.”
“He was intellectually vacant, but I never felt the country was in any danger,” the aide said.
These responses to Reagan’s potential mental troubles stand in stark comparison to Trump’s reaction to slights on his mental shortcomings, Purdy noted — such as his boast about being “like, really smart,” and attacking Hillary Clinton in the wake of Wolff’s book.
“Trump ... lacks the light touch of the Great Communicator and might be best dubbed as the Great Counter-Puncher,” Purdy said. “Any perceived slight against Trump is met not with humor, but with attacks on those who do not support him 100%.”
Though Trump’s first physical while in office will not take place until Jan. 12, the president has also not been forthcoming about his health. A four-paragraph letter from his personal doctor in 2015 proclaiming the then-candidate would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”is the only provided evidence of his state of well-being.
Mental health professionals, meanwhile, are weighing in about Trump’s mental health, issuing stark warnings that question the president’s fitness for office — a far cry from the concerns about Reagan that were often dismissed. In the book The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, 27 mental health professionals discussed the president’s mental state, offering a “consensus view that Trump’s mental state presents a clear and present danger to our nation and individual well-being.”
The book’s editor, Dr. Bandy Lee, spoke with lawmakers in Congress about her concerns, Politico noted, warning them: “He’s going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.”
While Reagan’s staff seemed to take his mental state seriously, though, questioning it and compensating for it accordingly when necessary, it seems that when it comes to the Trump administration — if Wolff’s book is to believed — they may have private concerns about the president’s mental state, but they are not taking steps to address it.
“It’s absolutely outrageous to make these types of accusations and it’s simply untrue, and it’s sad that people are going and making these desperate attempts to attack the president,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in an appearance on Fox News. “What I think is really mentally unstable is people that don’t see the positive impact that this president is having on the country.”
In an interview on Meet the Press, Wolff claimed that though the 25th Amendment is “alive every day” in the White House, staff tend “look away” when it comes to the commander in chief’s mental instability.
“It’s how to rationalize this and how, and you can’t confront it. You can’t say ... this is a moment a time. This is a breakdown,” Wolff told host Chuck Todd.
Reaction to Reagan in the media
Though Trump is claiming that the media’s response to Fire and Fury echoes their attitude towards Reagan, there are, again, some key differences.
“President Trump’s recent comment about the media ‘taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence’ is not an accurate reflection of how the media covered concerns about Reagan’s fitness for office,” Purdy said. “The media did not question Reagan’s mental stability and intelligence, but his memory and stamina.”
While reports against Trump throughout his presidency have been quick to question his intelligence and mental stability — even going so far to question his literacy and whether he’s a sociopath — the reports on Reagan were predominantly focused on his memory, and the senility that could come with old age. A Washington Post article from 1987 had the headline “Reagan and the Age Issue.” About Iran-Contra, that article asked: “The question, they say, isn’t ‘What did the president know and when did he know it?’ but ‘What did President Reagan forget and when did he forget it?’”
Though the media didn’t shy away from Reagan’s potential memory problems, the issues weren’t treated nearly as seriously, or as prominently, as the media frenzy now surrounding Trump. According to the New Yorker, “There has been something of a respectful silence in most quarters about Reagan’s possible mental impairment prior to leaving office.”
Indeed, though quick to point out the president’s memory problems, the 1987 Post article concluded: “Based on what we know, there is no reason to believe that Ronald Reagan isn’t up to the job. His obvious memory lapses don’t provide the basis for a broader judgment about his mental fitness.”
A separate Post article from the same year also explains away Reagan’s Iran-Contra memory failings as not being anything new for the president, noting that Reagan had similarly failed to recall certain information before a federal grand jury in 1962.
Even Stahl didn’t sensationalize her alarming meeting with the president, saying in an interview with Mother Jones: “Because Reagan seemed to ‘recover’— I decided I could not go out on the White House lawn and tell the public what his behavior meant. So I never did a report.”
There are clear differences in the potential mental failings between Reagan and Trump, and how they were treated by those in and out of the White House, But the most obvious reason why Trump’s comparison seems unwise is that, for Reagan, these mental failings were later found to be more than just “fake news.”
Reagan was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1993, four years after his presidency had ended. Though it cannot be determined when exactly Reagan’s symptoms began — and whether his troubles in office were linked to the disease — there is speculation that his mental failings in office could be more than just cases of poor memory.
In 2011, Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan, made headlines when he speculated that his father’s condition could have began while he was still in the White House. He wrote about a growing sense of alarm over his dad’s condition in his book, My Father at 100.
“Given what we know about the disease, I don’t know how you could say that the disease wasn’t likely present in him during the presidency,” the younger Reagan told the New York Times.
A more scientific study of Regan’s condition was performed in 2015 by researchers at Arizona State University, who published a report in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease on his speaking patterns as compared with former president George H.W. Bush.
The study, the New York Times noted, detected speech patterns linked to the onset of dementia — although the findings do not prove that Reagan exhibited symptoms that “adversely affected his judgment and ability to make decisions in office.”
Reagan’s diagnosis demonstrates that questions about a president’s potential mental health could be more than just a “witch hunt.” By claiming he has the “same problem” as the former president, Trump may have inadvertently made a case for why his mental state should, in fact, be under scrutiny.
“It is appropriate and a necessary part of our democracy that the media and public ask critical questions about the mental and physical health of candidates and actual presidents regardless of party, especially for those past their their late 60s,” Purdy said. ”The presidency is a complex and difficult job that prematurely ages the incumbent, and requires mental stability, physical stamina, intelligence, and an ability to be on task 24/7 for four years.”