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Reagan a Guiding Force Till The End of Term

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

WASHINGTON -- President Reagan's son Ron has written a book that unfairly, and without any evidence, questions his father's mental capacity in the early to middle years of his presidency.

In what appears to be a self-serving decision on his part to insert a heavy dose of unfounded sensationalism to boost the sales of his book, Reagan suggests his father was already showing early signs of Alzheimer's in the White House, years before he was diagnosed with the disease in 1994.

"I've seen no evidence that my father (or anyone else) was aware of his medical condition while he was in the office," Reagan writes in his book, "My Father at 100," which is published in time to commemorate the 40th president's centennial birthday on Feb 6.

"Had the diagnosis been made in say, 1987, would he have stepped down? I believe he would have," Reagan wrote in a purely hypothetical and deceitfully speculative observation.

Reagan has no medical credentials whatsoever, least of all on the signs of Alzheimer's. He was rarely in the White House at any length of time to personally observe his father, presidential aides say -- certainly not in the meetings that mattered.

So what evidence does he put forth to claim that his father was already showing signs of the disease long before he revealed his condition in a poignant public letter five years after leaving office?

Reagan says he recalled seeing his father on the phone in the Oval Office using prepared note cards during his conversation, a common "talking points" practice used by presidents in the past and since. The president used such cards, often written in his own hand, long before he ran for elective office when he made his living as a public speaker. And he sometimes used them to communicate his positions at high-level meetings and in telephone calls on complex legislative, foreign policy or national security issues.

To conclude that this practice was in any way a sign that he was "losing it" is preposterous and unfounded. If anything, his conclusions about the note cards reveal an abysmal ignorance about the tools Reagan used to be sure there was never any misunderstanding of what he conveyed in phone conversations and high-level strategy meetings.

There is considerable evidence to refute Reagan's observations about his father. Perhaps the best evidence was revealed by one of the president's top White House advisers, Martin Anderson, in his book, "Reagan's Secret War," which reveals how deeply Reagan was guiding national security negotiations with the Soviets to reach an historic nuclear arms treaty near the end of his presidency.

Anderson's book -- written with his wife, Annelise -- was based on declassified top-secret transcripts of high-level meetings with the president's national security advisers. It shows him fully engaged in complex strategic negotiating discussions as he reached out to Russian leaders to dramatically reduce nuclear arsenals on both sides.

"Reagan chaired 355 meetings of the (White House's) National Security Council or its smaller and more secretive component, the National Security Planning Group. Minutes were found of 192 of them, and of these, more than 80 have been declassified for use in this book -- those that were most revealing of Reagan's thinking and decision-making on national defense, arms control and dealing with the Soviets," the Andersons write in their book's introduction.

The book is perhaps the most accurate evidence published so far of Reagan's hands-on policymaking in national security matters. It reveals numerous letters, written in Reagan's own hand, to Soviet leaders up to and including Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who went toe-to-toe with Reagan in one-on-one meetings -- with no note cards, either.

Perhaps the weakest observation of all in Ron Reagan's book is Reagan's disappointing first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. "My heart sank as he floundered his way through his responses," he writes. In one part of the debate, repeatedly shown on the nightly news in the past week, the president seemed to be struggling to make his point.

But an expert on aging told NBC News that she saw that clip in a different way, calling it a mere "lapse of memory," noting that the full tape shows him "getting back on track again."

He was in clear control of the second debate, so much so that he carried 49 states. He went on to pass significant tax reforms that cut the top tax rate to 28 percent, and at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, ordered the Evil Empire to "tear down this wall." Eventually the wall did come crashing down along with the Soviet Union.

Over the course of my journalism career, I had many interviews with Reagan in the '70s and '80s, two of them in the Oval Office. In both, he was knowledgeable and fully in command of the issues, as he was in the many news conferences he held in primetime -- when he was pummeled with tough questions, not the softballs President Obama gets today from a compliant White House press corps.

Ron Reagan, who rejected his father's conservatism, said he was a man who was "hard to know." But Americans knew him as a man who spoke so clearly and convincingly he was known as "the great communicator." He never lost those skills and cognitive powers over the course of his presidency.

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