This February 6, 2011 marks the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Reagan died June 5, 2004 at the ripe old age of 93. Ironically, throughout that long life, he had been a model of fitness. If not for Alzheimer’s disease, it is quite possible we might be watching news clips of an elderly Reagan blowing out a bunch of candles on a huge birthday cake.
That Reagan lost his life to the scourge of Alzheimer’s is, of course, well-known. The issue has re-emerged with the comments by his son, Ron, speculating that Reagan might have begun experiencing the disease earlier than disclosed, during his presidency even. That speculation is not new, and has been vigorously debated before, including by experts on the disease and Reagan’s physicians. I’m not going to rehash the debate here.
What I would like to do, however, is use this as an opportunity to report something on Reagan and Alzheimer’s that has been missed over the years. Indeed, less known were Reagan’s quite significant, and rather moving, private actions, during his presidency, on behalf of those suffering the disease. As a Reagan biographer who spent several summers researching presidential papers at the Reagan Library, I swerved into these actions unexpectedly.
Remarkably, Reagan had been highly active in confronting Alzheimer’s from the start of his presidency. He would make eight separate statements on the disease, averaging one for each year in the White House. In these, he called Alzheimer’s “devastating,” an “indiscriminate killer of mind and life.”
His final presidential statement came November 5, 1988. It is chilling to read now, as it foretells Reagan’s own condition in his final years, and given that it came precisely six years to the day (November 5, 1994) when Reagan would announce to the world that he himself had the disease:
“Alzheimer’s disease ranks among the most severe of afflictions, because it strips people of their memory and judgment and robs them of the essence of their personalities,” explained Reagan. “As the brain progressively deteriorates, tasks familiar for a lifetime, such as tying a shoelace or making a bed, become bewildering. Spouses and children become strangers. Slowly, victims of the disease enter profound dementia.”
That was Reagan himself in the end—robbed of his essence. It was an eerie harbinger of what was to come.
While those presidential statements fell through the cracks of history, less-known still, but quite poignant, was Reagan’s behind-the-scenes correspondence with Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, daughter of beautiful Hollywood star, Rita Hayworth. Hayworth was suffering a premature decline due to, of all things, Alzheimer’s disease.
Reagan was concerned about Hayworth, whom he had known since his days as head of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s. Tucked away in the Presidential Handwriting File at the Reagan Library are touching letters exchanged between Reagan and Yasmin Aga Khan.
The first was dated November 15, 1982, in which Khan thanked Reagan for signing a proclamation creating National Alzheimer’s Awareness Week. She detailed her mother’s condition and how it had early on damaged the actress’s emotional well-being, leading to bouts with alcohol, which made her “very difficult” as a mother.
Reagan responded immediately. His two-page letter on White House stationary was dated November 19—an impressive turnaround given major demands in the world at the time. The 40th president referenced his own parents, including his father’s “very great drinking problem” and how his mother, “bless her soul, continually told my brother and me that this was a sickness and that he could not help it, so we must not hate him but understand and love him.”
Reagan said he was grateful that “today we have real knowledge of Alzheimer’s disease,” and hoped for a cure. He thanked Khan for her efforts: “God bless you for what you are doing. You will be in my prayers.”
On May 14, 1987, Rita Hayworth died. The president telephoned Khan to offer condolences, and released a public statement expressing regret. Two months later, on July 28, Khan wrote to ask Reagan if he would be an honorary patron for the 1988 Rita Hayworth Gala, which had the goal of raising $1.5 million for Alzheimer’s research. Not even a week later, Reagan responded, saying he would be “very pleased and honored…. Thanks for asking.”
Rita Hayworth’s case is just one example of President Reagan’s concern, public and private, for this disease and its victims. Little did he know it would one day claim him, too.
The centennial of Reagan’s birth brings all sorts of remembrances, from celebrations by conservative groups to symposia by academic centers and universities. These gatherings will discuss numerous aspects of Reagan’s life and career, from the Cold War to tax cuts to Hollywood. And with Ron Reagan’s recent comments, the role of Alzheimer’s will be front and center. Alas, for Ronald Reagan, there was much more to that story.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. His books include "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism" and the newly released "Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century."