Memories of Reagan/Mondale debates are faulty all around

John Ziegler Contributor
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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.

So, while I was relieved that Reagan hung on and won reelection, I was hardly shocked when years later we learned that Reagan had Alzheimer’s, and I wondered whether that night at the debate had given us our first glimpse of his slow decline. But I never went back and fully researched the chain of those events until news of his son’s book came out, and what I found was utterly fascinating.

It has also always been my very strong impression that Reagan’s botched closing statement was, first of all, much worse than it actually reads in the above transcript or looks on video (the Reagan Library has the entire debate up on YouTube). But while this is certainly reassuring, it is not the revelation that I found jaw-dropping.

The narrative of the two Reagan/Mondale debates is that clearly Reagan was listless, tired and confused in the first debate and that this raised the issue of his age in the second debate. It is then universally accepted that Reagan killed the issue at that time and won the election by joking that he would not make Mondale’s youth and inexperience an issue in the campaign.

This narrative has caused great confusion about the actual sequence of events, not only for me, but for most of the posters of debate videos on YouTube (many of which misidentify the first and second debates) and for even Walter Mondale himself. You see, Reagan’s rambling closing statement that had to be cut off in the middle happened at the end of the second and final debate, the very same one which is known almost totally for Reagan’s age joke. If you read this interview with Mondale, amazingly, it is very obvious that he is under the exact same misimpression, referencing how Reagan got lost on his “West Coast trip” in the first debate, but then recovered in the second debate to win the election.

There are several significant elements to this revisiting of history. First, it is remarkable how a narrative can be so powerful that it even convinces otherwise sound memories to reorder dramatic events in our collective subconscious as if commanded over time to conform to it (even when, like Mondale, we were directly involved!). Second, it shows that even in 1984 a sharp/funny eight-second sound bite can totally trump a rambling three-minute effort to close the debate, even when the power/point of the joke could easily have been diffused by the poor closing. And finally, we should all be more hesitant to diagnose anyone with Alzheimer’s just because they have a memory lapse. Otherwise, a whole lot of otherwise functional people will be condemned, including me, Walter Mondale and maybe even Ron Reagan, Jr.

John Ziegler is currently a documentary filmmaker who most recently released a movie on the 2008 election called, “Media Malpractice… How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted.” He has also been in radio talk show host in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Louisville and Nashville. Ziegler has written two books and has appeared live on numerous national television shows including the Today Show, The View, Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC.