Wissot: We’ve survived a senile president before | VailDaily.com
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Wissot: We’ve survived a senile president before

I remember the moment as if it happened yesterday. It occurred in the second 1984 presidential debate between President Ronald Reagan and his challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale. Reagan was 73 at the time and in his closing statement he abruptly left the topic he was addressing, the tax code, and unbelievably began to babble about a time in his past that he was driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in California.

I almost spilled my drink all over myself watching this bizarre moment on television. I thought, my God, the man has lost his mind and in the process the election, too. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Reagan recovered from that mental lapse and later on in the debate delivered this wonderful zinger: “I want you to know that 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.”

Considerable controversy surrounds the suspicion that Reagan was senile while he was president. A medical doctor and scientific investigative reporter, Lawrence K. Altman, issued the following disclaimer in 2011: “As a follow-up to questions about Alzheimer’s, my extensive interviews with his White House doctors, key aides, and others, I found no evidence that Mr. Reagan exhibited signs of dementia as president.”

Respected journalist, Leslie Stahl, contradicts Altman’s assessment when she reports that she observed disturbing signs of dementia when she interviewed him in 1986. “Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was. 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.”

Even if Stahl is correct, and Reagan was senile during his second term in office, it didn’t stand in the way of his achieving what his presidency is probably best known for: rapprochement with the Soviet Union and accelerating the end of the 40-year-long Cold War between the two countries. Senility was also not the cause of the most damaging scandal of his administration: Iran Contra, an inherently flawed clandestine scheme to sell arms to Iran and use the proceeds to fund the rebel Contra group in Nicaragua who were trying to topple that country’s leftist government. A terrible blunder by the Reagan administration and not the president’s alleged mental deterioration was the cause of that fiasco. 

I bring up Reagan and claims that he was senile in light of the fact that the Trump administration is drawing upon and using in their political ads disinformation provided to them by Russian trolls which claim that Joe Biden has lost some of his marbles.

To which my reply is: so what? What if he has? If Reagan’s memory miscues didn’t derail his presidency, why should Biden’s senior moments be a sign of his incapacity to govern?

I personally don’t think anyone over 70 should be running the country. I say that as a 75-year-old. I know my cognitive capacities have declined and my mental sharpness is not what it was 20 years ago. Small signs of brain warp tell me that.

Like I can vividly see what Brad Pitt looks like from his many movies and public appearances but I can’t for the life of me remember his name when I want to refer to it in conversation. Thank goodness my regression hasn’t gone full Monty; I never have trouble remembering Angelina Jolie’s name.

I wish we were choosing our president from two qualified candidates in the 35-70 age bracket.

But we’re not. I never thought I’d ever again be voting for a candidate, in this case Joe Biden, who is older than me. But I am. The last time that happened was 2004 when I voted for John Kerry.

Donald Trump at 74 and Joe Biden at 77 are probably forgetting people’s names and losing track of dates and events that they once easily remembered. Again, who cares? They are more likely to drop dead in office than they are to be carted off to a memory center.

I’m well aware that Joe Biden is no Ronald Reagan. But he’s not running against Reagan and his legacy. He’s running against an incumbent president who has wondered in public if injecting disinfectants into the body might be a treatment for COVID-19 and claimed that the noise from windmills causes cancer.

I’m at a loss to find words which accurately depict Trump’s mental state.

Idiocy? Lunacy? Imbecility?

Your pick. Good, old fashioned senility never looked better.


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