Will Reagan Resign?

MASTERS, ROGER D.

Perspectives WILL REAGAN RESIGN? BY ROGER D. MASTERS Lastfall, it was widely rumored in Europe that Ronald Reagan would resign. As long as the 1988 Republican Presidential...

...Despite these factors, the glare of television has made it fairly apparent that President Reagan is experiencing some form of cognitive loss...
...In one case I observed, a retired teacher who could discourse brilliantly on travels to China in the 1920s went to the store four times in a single morningóthen was puzzled to find four bottles of milk in the refrigerator...
...To understand the overall situation, however, one needs to know a little about memory deficits caused by illness, old age or an accident...
...Admittedly, the scenario here may be totally fanciful...
...the contradictory impressions of what Reagan did or didn't know...
...Politically, quitting in the present circumstances could contribute to the White House's goal of "locking in the Reagan Revolution...
...Many characteristics of Wilson and FDR during their last year in office seem remarkably similar to President Reagan's...
...But the main goals now are preserving the "Reagan Revolution" and protecting the President's image in the history books...
...Thus even when signs of cognitive loss are outwardly ignored by the media, they weaken Reagan's influence on the Hill and with the press...
...As long as the 1988 Republican Presidential candidate remained uncertain, Americans were not inclined to take such talk seriously...
...But assuming Reagan is actually suffering from memory loss, as many in Europe claim, why a resignation in his last months in office...
...Medically, the President'sloss of short-term memory is becoming increasingly severe and more difficult to manage...
...Although the President is not totally incapacitated, this form of memory loss is increasingly difficult to hide (as his press conference last February 24 indicated...
...Even before the stroke that ended Wilson's ill-fated Western tour in 1919, documented evidence shows, his thought processes were seriously compromised (especially after an attack of viral encephalitis at Versailles...
...And the President himself is no longer believed on these issues, having lost control of the political initiative he held throughout his first term...
...On the political level, trusted aides tend to shield their "chief as he relies more heavily on them...
...As the Vice President running for the White House, Bush can take credit for the Reagan victories and deny responsibility for the Iran-contra affair, mistakes in Panama, or other political failures...
...The Iran-contra hearings, for example, provided numerous puzzles that can be resolved if we accept that the President has a severe memory disorder: the forgotten "finding" of November 1985...
...Park demonstrates in his case histories that the victim becomes a "caricature" of himself as habitual personality traits are exaggerated by increasingly rigid and impatient responses...
...Not only for Wilson and FDR but for such other 20th-century leaders as Ramsay MacDonald, Churchill, Paul von Hindenburg, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Pilsudski relevant evidence of illness and mental decline was withheld from the press and the public...
...For a time, his unparalleled effectiveness when reading prepared statements masked the signs from those who did not watch his press conferences and impromptu remarks with care...
...Also noticeable is an occasional tell-tale slurring of speech sounds and visible signs of effort when reading prepared statements...
...Among the leaders Park studied, two óWoodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Rooseveltówere American Presidents whose medical disabilities were kept secret...
...Those afflicted can still maintain established routines and recall old events, but have trouble establishing new memories, processing abstract information and responding calmly to unforeseen problems...
...Oddly enough, Democrats might not mind...
...While the reasons for damage to short-term memory and cognition vary, the resulting behavior is marked by rigidity, withdrawal from open discussion, stereotyped thought, stubbornness, confusion, and imagined realities...
...Both purposes might after all lead the White House to ignore conventional wisdom, especially following the June Moscow summit...
...On the other hand, well-informed foreign observers sometimes have a valuable perspective on our political situation...
...Indeed, from the Republican perspective, the provisions concerning Presidential disability in the 25th Amendment could reunite the party, helping to heal the bruises of the Dole-Bush primary battle...
...The change in public responses to Reagan has been confirmed by experimental studies of his nonverbal behavior...
...Howard Phillips, the conservative commentator, has complained bitterly that Reagan is now only "Speech-Reader-in-Chief" for the triumvirate of Treasury Secretary James A. Baker, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci...
...the physicians who treated Wilson and FDR, considering their patients' condition to be privileged information, protected the ailing leaders...
...The medical evidence of the President's organic brain dysfunction is of course not available...
...In mild cases, neurologists speak of "benign forgetfulness" when patients lose short-term memory yet can otherwise continue to function...
...When viewers are shown videotapes of the President, with or without sound, their emotional responses are less positive today than in October 1984...
...After the June summit in Moscow, Americans might find that last fall's European rumors were more prophetic than anyone on this side of the Atlantic suspected...
...Those suffering from the disorder almost invariably deny memory loss and react angrily if challenged...
...Recognition of the extent of memory loss and cognitive dysfunction is hindered by several features of the medical syndrome itself...
...Reagan might resign for two reasons, one medical and the other political...
...Consequently, a resignation on medical grounds would divert the public's attention and might allow Bush to campaign in 1988 on his own terms...
...With the overriding of his Civil Rights veto, the once powerful Reagan charisma seems definitively gone...
...That is not surprising...
...Now that Vice President George Bush seems assured of the GOP nomination, there may be some merit in pondering what appeared to be wild speculation...
...What about President Reagan himself...
...George Bush's Republican rivals were sure to cry foul...
...Were Reagan to resign this summer for reasons of health, no one could say that events were timed to influence the GOP nomination...
...the statement that all weapons sent to Iran could fit in a single plane...
...One has to presume that like Wilson in 1919 and FDR in 1944-1945, he would prefer to hold on...
...But as unscripted appearances by the President have become rather rare and his misstatements or confusions have multiplied, the evidence has been harder to ignore...
...Moreover, Bush himself had no interest in moving into the Oval Office under a cloud...
...Until the GOP Presidential nominee was clearly designated, a Reagan resignation was unthinkable...
...Accusations against Attorney General Edwin Meese further weaken the Administration...
...Bert E. Park, in his study of The Impact of Illness on World Leaders, broadly classifies these symptoms as "organic brain dysfunction" and analyzes eight heads of state in this century whose performance in office was adversely affected by the syndrome...
...Roger D. Masters, chair of the Department of Government at Dartmouth College, is a new NL contributor and author of the forthcoming The Natureof Politics...
...This condition should not be confused with Alzheimer's disease or with advanced senility...
...It is said that the forthcoming Irancontra trials may implicate Bush directly in activities that were imprudent, if not illegal...
...The Vice President's success in the Republican primaries, along with the continued weakening of Reagan's relations with Congress, change the situation radically...
...More important, careful observation of the President's facial expressions reveals increasingly frequent moments of confusion and anger typical of those afflicted with short-term memory deficits...
...Other facts are consistent with the pattern of cognitive decline...
...FDR was a sick man before he ran for a fourth term, and on returning from his Yalta meeting with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill in February 1945 his condition made normal Presidential functioning impossible, but this was not disclosed to Congress or the American people...
...Liberal critics find the President's off-thecuff statements so embarrassing that many avoid watching him altogether...
...If Reagan resigns, Democrats could hold Bush more directly accountable...
...Politics holds the clue...
...Nor will doctors generally dare to diagnose someone they haven't examined...
...Park notes that the assessment of organic brain dysfunction, like many medical diagnoses, depends primarily on medical history (though it may be supplemented by publicly observed behavior...

Vol. 71 • April 1988 • No. 7


 
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