The President’s Mind: Trump, Reagan, and Mental Health in the Oval Office

By Kaleena Fraga

On Twitter last week, President Trump accused his critics of “taking out the old Ronald Regan playbook and screaming mental instability and intelligence…” Trump later added “Ronald Reagan had the same problem and handled it well. So will I!”

These tweets were in response to reports in the new Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury, which suggest that the president is mentally unfit for his role. Trump’s response attempts to equivocate these suggestions with similar accusations levied against Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Reagan was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but there is no definitive proof that he suffered from it while in office, or that it inhibited him from performing his duties.

Reagan and Walter Mondale Shaking HandsStill, he did face speculation of diminishing mental capacity during his presidency. In the aftermath of a poor performance in Reagan’s first debate with Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, a New York Times op-ed wrote that there were “legitimate questions that arise when the oldest President in the history of the Republic is seeking re-election to a term that would last from the end of his 73rd year to the end of his 77th…the issue of aging and its effects cannot be avoided.”

Reagan seemed to shake off such doubts in the second debate, when he responded to a probing question about his age by saying:

“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.”

In 2011, Ronald Reagan’s son contested his father’s doctors who, at the time of his presidency, had denied seeing any signs of Alzheimer’s. In his book My Father at 100, Reagan suggests that his father did suffer from Alzheimer’s while in office and that, if properly diagnosed, he would have stepped down.

The 25th amendment is supposed to protect the country in the event that the executive is unable to react to the demands of the office. Although it’s been invoked a handful of times since its ratification in 1967 for events like surgery, it’s never been used to permanently remove a president from power.

Trump too faces accusations of a declining mental state. He, like Reagan, is a president in his 70s.  For now, at least, questions of the president’s health are all conjecture. Trump will undergo a physical on January 12th and, although there will be no psychiatric exam, the results will be released to the public.

Then again, according to a recent study, as many as half of all U.S. presidents have suffered from some mental illness. Most for depression–including John Quincy Adams, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln–and others with probable bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, and alcohol dependence.

One thought on “The President’s Mind: Trump, Reagan, and Mental Health in the Oval Office”

  1. Great post! An interesting wrinkle to the Reagan 1984 debate line is its author: Roger Ailes. Nor was the 1984 campaign the only time Ailes crafted a perfect rejoinder for a candidate. In 1988, knowing that Dan Rather would go after Bush on Iran-Contra, Ailes prepared the then-Vice President with the reply: “It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?” Hard to think of anyone who looms as large as Roger Ailes in the creation of the modern GOP (https://www.npr.org/2016/07/22/486994538/roger-ailes-unparalleled-impact-on-the-public-sphere).

    Liked by 1 person

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