Memories of Reagan/Mondale debates are faulty all around

Ron Reagan, Jr., the largely unsuccessful liberal commentator who has literally made a living out of being a breathing embarrassment to his father’s legacy, has a new book out where he goes…there. He tries to answer the question of whether Ronald Reagan was already showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease when he was president — specifically during his debate performance while he was running for reelection in 1984 against Walter Mondale.

Even as one of millions of conservatives born in the 1960s for whom Reagan was his first contemporary political hero, I actually look at this subject with great interest and curiosity, and with almost no partisan agenda.

The reason I can say this with confidence is that one of the most vivid political memories of my youth (at the age of 17) was watching in utter embarrassment as my hero was unable to come close to completing his closing statement in one of the two national televised debates in 1984. I can remember being mortified as Reagan started to describe driving down the California coast and then seemingly got lost only to be embarrassingly pulled over to the side of the road by the moderator Edwin Newman, who sheepishly had to take the keys out of the old man’s hands.

Here is the official transcript of that ending:

REAGAN: Several years ago I was given an assignment to write a letter. It was to go into a time capsule and would be read in 100 years when that time capsule was opened. I remember driving down the California coast one day. My mind was full of what I was going to put in that letter about the problems and the issues that confront us in our time and what we did about them, but I couldn’t completely neglect the beauty around me — the Pacific out there on one side of the highway shining in the sunlight, the mountains of the Coast Range rising on the other side, and I found myself wondering what it would be like for someone, wondering if someone 100 years from now would be driving down that highway and if they would see the same thing. And with that thought I realized what a job I had with that letter. I would be writing a letter to people who know everything there is to know about us. We know nothing about them. They would know all about our problems. They would know how we solved them and whether our solution was beneficial to them down through the years or whether it hurt them. They would also know that we lived in a world with terrible weapons, nuclear weapons of terrible destructive power aimed at each other, capable of crossing the ocean in a matter of minutes and destroying civilization as we know it. And then I thought to myself: what are they going to say about us? What are those people 100 years from now whether we used those weapons or not. Well, what they will say about us 100 years from now depends on how we keep our rendezvous with destiny. Will we do the things that we know must be done and know that one day down in history 100 years, or perhaps for those people back in the 1980’s, for preserving our freedom, for saving for us this blessed planet called earth with all its grandeur and its beauty. You know, I am grateful for all of you giving the opportunity to serve you for these four years and I seek re-election because I want more than anything else to try to complete the new beginning that we charted four years ago. George Bush, who I think is one of the finest vice presidents this country has ever had, George Bush and I have crisscrossed the country and we’ve had in these last few months a wonderful experience. We have met young America. We have met your sons and daughters.

NEWMAN: Mr. President, I’m obliged to cut you off there under the rules of the debate. I’m sorry.

REAGAN: All right, I was just going to…

NEWMAN: Perhaps I should point out that the rules under which I did that were agreed upon by the two campaigns.

REAGAN: I know, yes.