In the summer of 1986, reporter Leslie Stahl was finishing up a stint as the White House correspondent for CBS News. As per tradition, she was due a one-on-one with the president in the Oval Office, and for hers, she took along her husband and eight-year-old daughter. When the Gipper's press secretary told Stahl that she wasn't allowed to ask questions, the journalist was angry. But when she saw how frail and confused the 75-year-old statesman was, her frustration turned to fear.
"Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was," she would later write in her 2000 memoir, Reporting Live. "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. My heart began to hammer with the import. I was aware of the delicacy with which I would have to write my script. But I was quite sure of my diagnosis." Ultimately, Stahl didn't say anything, either immediately after the meeting or in last two years of Reagan's presidency. When Mother Jones asked why she kept quiet in 2011, she said it was because he later "recovered" and acted normally.
It's unlikely that such an episode would remain under wraps today, when people—even those who don't have direct access to the president—have no problem speculating openly about the president's mental state. A group of psychiatrists have been calling for tests of Trump's mental health for months. In December, Charles Pierce of Esquire said that Trump was "in severe cognitive decline, if not the early stages of outright dementia," citing his own father's slide into Alzheimer's. On January 3, an MD who is a senior editor at the Atlantic called for "a system to evaluate elected officials’ fitness for office—to reassure concerned citizens that the 'leader of the free world' is not cognitively impaired, and on a path of continuous decline."
When Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury came out two days later and painted the president as a petulant, intellectually vacant manchild, questions about his mental fitness mounted. The onslaught was so severe that Trump felt compelled to defend himself as "like, very smart" and a "very stable genius" in a series of tweets. (That in turn inspired a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania to introduce the "Stable Genius Act," which would require presidential candidates to undergo mental health testing.)
Trump also said on Twitter that his political enemies were "taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence." As usual, it's not clear what exactly he means, but for the most part, members of the media in the 80s—even those who might have been privately against Reagan's politics—didn't question whether he was suffering from dementia, at least not in print. Despite a series of public gaffs and private instances in which he behaved like he did with Stahl, it wasn't until Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1994 that any significant number of people retroactively questioned whether he was afflicted with dementia in office—something his doctors and the scholars who study him continue to vehemently deny.
John Heubusch, the director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, says that the one time an uproar did occur over the former president's mental health was when he flubbed his debate performance against Walter Mondale in 1984. "However, just a few weeks later, he performed brilliantly in a second debate, crushed his performance, and disarmed the issue entirely with his famous line related to not wanting to exploit a younger candidate’s youth and inexperience with the wisdom of his older age," he told me.
But even if few said the words "dementia" or "Alzheimer's" out loud, people were concerned about Reagan's brain, at least in part because at 69 he was the oldest person to ever be president. According to a 1993 Washington Post story campaign, staffers curtailed reporters's access to Reagan as early as 1980 and did so again three years into his presidency. They reported that the president "mangled facts and sentences," and gave "rambling, sometimes confusing" answers, while expressing concerns about his age and health. This gels with what Richard Abrams, a history professor and Reagan expert at the University of California Berkeley, remembers about his subject of study. He told me that several memoirs published even before the end of Reagan's first term mentioned his eyes glazing over at meetings and his habit of repeating anecdotes over and over.
"Reporters did not fail to notice occasions when Nancy Reagan, standing behind her husband, would quietly prompt him when he was speaking or responding to questions," he said. "It generally understood that Reagan was largely a hands-off president."
Still, the closest anyone came to making that a mental health issue was a New Republic story from 1987 by Gail Sheehy which asked of the Iran-Contra scandal, "What did the President forget and when did he forget it?" Although the cover asked "Is Reagan Senile?," the actual copy of the column doesn't get into the s-word.
"The most convenient explanation for the president's mental predicament is that he's getting old," Sheehy wrote. Then she goes on to blame an inability to self-reflect and an optimistic personality for his failures as a politician: "It was his stock-in-trade to 'forget' facts that interfere with his perception of himself as pure in motive and true to his word."
So even the liberal New Republic didn't frame his personality as necessarily being the product of failing mental health. It wasn't until Reagan's 1994 diagnosis that most people went back and started legitimately questioning if he had been afflicted while serving as commander-in-chief.
In 2011, Ron Reagan published a book about the emotionally distant relationship he had with his father that made headlines for suggesting the president began to show alarming signs of forgetfulness during his first campaign, and that things deteriorated from there. "As far back as August 1986 he had been alarmed to discover, while flying over the familiar canyons north of Los Angeles, that he could no longer summon their names," Ron wrote. He also said that during surgery related to a horse-riding accident in 1989, doctors discovered probable signs of Alzheimer's. (Besides being shocking, the claim was also dubious: Newspapers at the time did not report any surgery at all.)
The rumors Ron—a liberal atheist despite his father's views—started in his book were further spread in 2015 by Bill O'Reilly in his widely condemned and shoddily sourced book Killing Reagan, which frequently referred to the former president as "confused."
His son's allegations aside, Reagan's behavior doesn't sound too far away from Trump's. It's possible that the main difference is the media landscape—a constant need for fresh content and cable-news takes has fueled an environment in which outrageous statements are often the stuff that careers are made of. Then there's the fact that we all have direct access to Trump's interior life via Twitter.
Paul Kengor, a political science professor at Grove City College who's written seven books about Reagan, says Reagan almost certainly would not have attracted scrutiny even if he had access to the medium. According to the author, the 40th president was said to have "no ego" or any need to satisfy some sort of emotional longing for validation, and therefore he didn't give critics nearly as much to go on.
"Reagan’s sense of self-security was such that the cruel barbs by liberals calling him a 'moron' and 'idiot' and 'warmonger' and 'fascist' and 'Nazi' and everything else didn’t bother Reagan," he told me. "He shrugged it off. He didn’t care. Not only does Trump care about such charges, but he’s obsessed with them to a shockingly unhealthy degree, and he can’t control his impulse to respond repeatedly and often immaturely. Trump invites some of these charges when he does things like fire off childish early-morning tweets extolling his 'very stable genius' nature—something, incidentally, that Ronald Reagan would have never done."
Heubusch of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation says that the existence of Twitter isn't helping Trump. "No doubt, I think President Trump himself would admit that it’s his own social media tactics that are likely stoking the tremendous fires surrounding his presidency. His tweets concerning his own 'genius,' his IQ, etc. simply beg for invitations to examine his mental capacity, his personality, his intelligence—you name it."
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