Nancy Reagan and Her Husband’s Alzheimer’s

The researcher who read Reagan's letters discusses the progression of his Alzheimer's.
The researcher who read Reagan’s letters discusses the progression of his Alzheimer’s.

Did Nancy Reagan cover for her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease while he was in office?

One of the world’s leading experts on Reagan and his letters is a friend of mine whose job it was to read through and summarize all his correspondence – or at least all that could be found. Allison Asher has graciously allowed me to share her comments from Facebook. Her conclusion from having read thousands of Reagan’s letters? Reagan was not significantly impaired until around 1990. Here are her comments in full:

Ok, so I’m irritated by enough posts claiming that Nancy Reagan was “covering for Reagan’s incapacity” due to Alzheimer’s in his final few years in the White House to say this:

No, she wasn’t. At least, not in any kind of a substantive way.

How do I know this? Because I know when the Alzheimer’s started kicking in hardcore, and it was after he left office. He was not seriously incapacitated by Alzheimer’s when he was in the White House.

How do I know this? Am I a Republican, a Reagan-worshipping Tea Partier who thinks the Gipper could do no wrong?

No. It’s because I’ve read thousands of his private handwritten letters to friends, family, strangers, from 1922 (when he was 11) to 1994, six years after he left office. Seventy-one years of letters literally written in his own handwriting. You get pretty familiar with someone’s thought process with that much data.

I worked as a researcher at Stanford on the first collection of his private letters, for a book that came out in the early 00s [A Life in Letters]. It was my job to read everything, summarize the content of the letters, and present the summaries to the authors, who then culled about 1500 for the book. Reagan was an incredibly prolific writer, and most historians rank him up around Jefferson and Washington for the number of letters he wrote in his lifetime. We had nearly 10,000 in our archive, and that’s not all of them.

I’m fairly sure that no one else in the world except for Reagan himself has read so many first-hand accounts of his thoughts.

So yeah – I’m an authority on this. His handwriting started to change around 1990, and his letters stopped sounding like himself. They started sounding like someone else was telling him what to say. But all throughout his time in office, he sounded like himself. His handwriting was consistent. His thoughts were clear. He wrote about substantive things in his letters up until he left office.

So I’m no Alzheimer’s expert, but I’m gonna take that as an indication that he was still functioning with most cylinders intact. Dislike the man and his policies all you want, but them’s the facts.

 Update and Correction: “1922” instead of “1933,” so actually 71 years of letters.

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