President Trump is fond of Ronald Reagan comparisons. As he campaigned on a promise to “Make America Great Again,” Trump cited Reagan's presidency as the last time America was great.
But Trump might have thought twice before tweeting Saturday that the media is “taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence.”
The news media did indeed question Reagan's mental health at times, but such questions were at least somewhat validated by the 40th president's Alzheimer's diagnosis in 1994 and his son's 2011 claim that Reagan displayed symptoms of the disease while in office.
If Trump's aim is to dismiss concerns raised by Michael Wolff's “Fire and Fury” as completely unfounded, then Reagan is not the best historical reference.
Trump's characterization of Reagan coverage isn't quite right. Journalists didn't speculate about Reagan's “stability and intelligence” so much as wonder whether his memory lapses — sometimes apparent in public — could impair his ability to govern.
A New Republic magazine cover in May 1987 asked, directly, “Is Reagan Senile?”
A Washington Post article from the same year began by noting that “Washington wags with an eye on past scandals have taken to rephrasing the central question of Watergate to fit the Iran-contra affair: 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?'”
Two months earlier, Reagan had managed to discuss the Iran-contra affair in only vague terms during a televised address from the Oval Office. He later testified before Congress and professed his inability to recall some information.
Reagan famously struggled toward the end of the first general-election debate of 1984. A college debate coach interviewed by United Press International said after the event that the president had appeared “oddly disoriented and confused with regard to many of the subjects.” Pro-Reagan members of a focus group convened by The Post said the president's performance gave them pause.
Here's an excerpt from an Oct. 9, 1984, report:
“It was apparent that he was not as confident or sure of himself in this particular debate,” said Sanford Johnson, a Republican who works in marketing for a chemical firm and had come to the debate with no doubt that he would vote for Reagan. “That raises the question that maybe he is too old and his mind isn't as sharp as it used to be.”
Johnson said Reagan's debate performance caused him to shift. He is now only leaning toward Reagan and wants to watch him very carefully because he does not want a president who is not up to the job.
The New York Times revisited the issue of Reagan's mental fitness in 1997. “Even with the hindsight of Mr. Reagan's diagnosis, his four main White House doctors say they never detected any evidence that his forgetfulness was more than just that,” the Times reported. “His mental competence in office, they said in a series of recent interviews, was never in doubt.”
For Trump's purposes, Reagan might serve as evidence that a president can remain capable into his 70s, despite periodic memory lapses. (Wolff reports in his book that Trump has begun to repeat himself in conversation more frequently.) Reagan's example does not, however, help Trump make the case that it is unfair for reporters to inquire about his mental health, at all.