The other members of the Presidents Club knew what was happening to Ronald Reagan when they talked to him at the funeral of Richard Nixon this spring. It was confirmation of the whispers and rumors they all had been hearing about his failing memory. None was ready to use the dreaded word Alzheimer's just then, but it was in the back of their minds.
George Bush told friends he was profoundly worried about his old compatriot. Jimmy Carter confided just a few weeks ago to a companion that Reagan's responses were not right. And Jerry Ford thought Reagan seemed hollowed out. Yet on that solemn day in Yorba Linda, California, when the Presidents came one by one down the stairs, Reagan looked every inch his former self to the millions of television viewers. At the top step he paused a bit, gave that smile of his, and the crowd burst into applause despite the somber nature of the moment. He still seemed invincible -- the man who survived falls off horses, colon and skin cancer, prostate problems and even an assassin's bullet in the chest.
But those close to him knew he was facing another assailant. One friend called him about that same time to talk about Nixon and what he had meant to Reagan's own political career. Nancy Reagan, also on the line, prodded his memory, and when it engaged, Reagan did well. He could recall talking to Nixon back in 1960 about switching parties, but Nixon wanted him to campaign as a Democrat for Nixon, which he did. Asked what Reagan had finally thought about Watergate, the epic scandal of this age, Reagan fell silent. "Forgive me," he said, "but at my age, my memory is just not as good as it used to be."
As word spread about his condition, there was a gentle conspiracy among the politicians and even the journalists: Let Reagan talk about it when and if he wanted to.
That time came last Saturday, when he released a handwritten letter to his fellow Americans: "I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease . . . Nancy and I had to decide whether as private citizens we would keep this a private matter or whether we would make this news known in a public way . . . We feel it is important to share it with you."
As always, Reagan gave it a wonderful Hollywood twist. "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life," he wrote. "I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead." The swell of sympathy and affection was instantaneous and overwhelming, from the man on the street to Bill Clinton. Speaking Saturday night at a political rally in Oakland, California, the President said that Reagan's letter had "touched my heart," and the news brought gasps from the crowd of Democrats.
Reagan has fallen victim to a scourge that kills more Americans than all other ailments except heart disease, cancer and strokes. There are 4 million people with Alzheimer's in the U.S., and 100,000 die every year. It is a mysterious, insidious malady that attacks and destroys brain cells, gradually causing memory loss, confusion and personality changes. Toward the end, many victims no longer know who they are or recognize their loved ones.
There is no cure, and the most recent treatment, the use of a drug called tacrine, merely improves intellectual performance in some patients. Death generally comes within eight to 12 years of the diagnosis.