In Richard Schenkmann and Kurt Reiger's book, "One Night Stands with American History" one can find a lot of amusing, fascinating and strange tidbits from America's past. It's a fun read but, I did find this interesting passage that made me shudder- twice.
"In her book, Reporting Live, former CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl wrote that she and other reporters suspected that Reagan was "sinking into senility' years before he left office. She wrote that the White House aides 'covered up his condition' and journalists chose not to pursue it. Stahl described a particularly unsettling encounter with Reagan in the summer of 1986, her 'final meeting' with the president, typically a chance to ask a few parting questions for a 'going-away story.' But White House press secretary Larry Speaks made her promise not to ask anything.Although she'd covered Reagan for years, the glazed-eyed and fogged-up president "didn't seem to know who I was," wrote Stahl. For several minutes, as she talked to him in the Oval Office, a vacant Reagan barely seemed to realize anyone else in the room. Meanwhile, Speakes was literally shouting instructions to the president, reminding him to give Stahl White House souvenirs. Panicking at the thought of having to report on the night's news that the president of the United States is a doddering space cadet." Stahl was relieved that Reagan soon re-emerged into alertness, recognized her, and chatted coherently with her husband, the screenwriter. "I had come that close to reporting Reagan was senile."
It is this kind of insider gossip that really makes me question how seriously Stahl, and so many people in this industry, takes her role as a journalist. She seems to miss a crucial point- a matter of duty and responsibility. She has chosen to reveal the information about her suspicions of Reagan's declining mental health but only for her book and only when that information had become obsolete and the fact was irrelevant.
After all, the state of the president's mind is no small detail. A person with the control of the United States nuclear arsenal at his disposal, whose alertness and mental agility could spell the difference between survival of the the human race or its obliteration. surely the public has a right to know that the person with the very real potential of destroying the world might have come unhinged. It never seems to cross her mind at all. This isn't a matter of some foolish sexual misconduct, as in Clinton case. None of the reporters had many qualms in pursuing that matter in all its gory unseemly details.
In fact, Reagan's mental state might very well have been a factor in the disasters that befell his second term. The Republican revisionists have done a fairly good job at cleaning up the mess, not unlike the photo-doctors in Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four. Reagan's magnificence today goes unquestioned and his legend is in no danger of being exposed as a sham.
People like Palin and Bachmann are scrambling over themselves to attempt to steal some of Reagan's "stardust" no matter how illegitimate the comparison might be. One viewing of Reagan at his best puts paid that comparison in an instant, of course. Even when at his senile Reagan made a lot more sense than either Bachmann's unpredictable ignorant and at times frightening pronouncements or Palin's laughable, meaningless "word salads."
Using a lot of metaphorical Vaseline and gauze to cover the lens of history, the Republican myth makers have been extremely effective at the creation of Ronald Reagan- Great American President. It helps a lot if you are ignorant of American history and are very un-curious.
Looking over the evidence, I am inclined to disagree with Stahl's assessment of Reagan's mental state, although quite often in the early stages of Alzheimer's, the lapses come and go. Reagan's son, Ronald Reagan, Jr. (not the other one) has confirmed the Reagan's last years as president were affected. The motif of son's keeping their father's secret is a subject for many theatrical productions.
Still this kind of admission is, in some ways, excuse-making for some of the more embarrassing abuses of power that characterized Reagan's second term. Few people who have looked into the history- the true one and not the manufactured one- can deny that Reagan, for whatever reason, deceived the American people repeatedly about the Iran-Contra scandal and, when evidence emerged of the lies, lied about lying.
For example, take this video clip of two Reagan speeches. First the lie and then lie about the lie.
By March of 1987 he changed his story again and said "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.")
But even that's not accurate. Top secret NSA documents, dated January 17, 1986 prove only that Reagan was aware of the arms trade agreement with Iran but actually gave official authorization - signed by the president himself- for the program.
I hereby find that the following operation in a foreign country (including all support necessary to such operation) is important to the national security and due to its extreme sensitivity and security risks, I determine it is essential to limit prior notice, and direct the Director of CIA to refrain from reporting this Finding to the Congress as provided in Section 501 of the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, until I otherwise direct.The foreign country mentioned, the document shows, was Iran. and the the president's policy was as follows
The USG will act to facilitate efforts by third parties and third countries to establish contact with moderate elements within and outside the Government of Iran by providing these elements with arms, equipment and related material in order to enhance their credibility of those elements in the effort to achieve a more pro-US government in Iran by demonstrating their ability to obtain requisite resources to defend their country against Iraq and intervention by the Soviet Union..
The final paragraph states that this arrangement applies only to moderate elements and if it could shown that the contacts within Iran were not moderate, the arms deal would close shop. As it turned out, what Reagan, George Bush, Sr, Donald Regan, McFarlane and Poindexter felt was skilled diplomacy turned out to be hopelessly naive, since it was impossible to determine, given the limited independent and verifiable sources, who was moderate and who was radical inside Iran. Because it was conducted in such a incredibly careless way- through a series of con men and shady characters- untold sums were simply pocketed.
At the initial meeting some ten days prior to the signing of the above finding, there had been arguments over the proposed arm shipments. After the whole embarrassing mess became public, Secretary of State George Shultz would later reveal to the Tower Commission, investigating the illegal shipments that George Bush had supported the arms-for-hostages deal at this meeting, as did President Reagan, Casey, Meese, Regan and Poindexter. Shultz reported that he himself and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger both opposed further arms shipments.
This could one of the reasons why as president George Bush, Jr. on November 1, 2001, issued Executive Order 13233 which limited public access to papers of all presidents since 1980. A 1978 law provided for the release of presidential papers 12 years after the president leaves office, so Ronald Reagan’s papers would have been released next year. Reagan issued an order in 1989 that called for disclosure of most of his official papers 12 years after he left office but under the new executive order the papers can be kept secret even if the president in question wants them released. President Bush’s father was vice president during the Reagan administration.
As far as the arm shipment arrangement, there could be, for political and legal reasons,no oversight and this allowed all kinds of chicanery and skullduggery. Still worse, against Congress clear and direct orders, some of the money gained by illegally selling weapons to our enemy was recycled into funding the Contras, a group fighting the leftist government in Nicaragua. The very public investigation reminded viewers of the previous Republican scandal of Watergate and again many were saying this was grounds for impeachment. Hearings were held, careers were ruined.
At some point in the middle of Reagan's second term, the signs were pretty obvious that he was losing his touch. He was constantly being caught up in one half-truth after another. And still worse, he seemed to be losing interest. Like Bush Jr., he appeared happiest when he was at his ranch with Nancy. Meanwhile, others were filling the vacuum.
When Reagan spoke in public, you could sense every staff member of the White House holding their breaths, whispering a prayer to what god might be listening, and standing poised to pick up the debris. (But then it was probably like that for all of the eight years of the George Bush's administration and nobody has claimed him to be senile.)
I recall the strangely uncomfortable mix of disgust and despair when in a press conference, Reagan denied four times a certain critical point in the scandal of selling arms to Iran, that Israel, one of the third parties, was involved in the arms shipments to Iran. Reagan stated unequivocally they were not. He was clearly getting flustered and annoyed. He finished the press conference, still clearly baffled and upset, only to have a statement issued to the press twenty minutes later completely revising that adamant denial. He was having trouble remembering what the press already knew and what he had already said he didn't know.
It is clear now that Reagan was stating one policy to the American people- a policy of firmness and strength- while conducting an altogether foolish opposing policy behind closed doors. He reassured them and then he would admit this but not that.. later that but not this. All very embarrassing but it's all forgotten now. The fixers of history have come along and whitewashed all that they could and now everybody emulates America's greatest president.
So, Is all this talk of the president's creeping senility another example of the whitewashing of history?
In any case, Stahl's shrugging of her responsibility to report her suspicion - and not even on the point of discretion, since she was willing to put it in her book- is a mark against her credentials as a respected journalist. Although there was a suspicion that Reagan was becoming detached from reality, nobody had the courage-the strength of character- to step forward and suggest the cause.
More importantly, because she is still a practicing journalist, why should we trust her judgment today?
It's only fair to ask, when we watch her rather fawning interview of Speaker of the House John Boehner, in which the man breaks down in tears repeatedly, what does she know that she is not telling us? Does he have some kind of emotional problem because it certainly seems like inappropriate behavior. Especially given that the subject is really quite ordinary. Are we really expected to have confidence in a person who may or may not be on this side of normal? This is, after all, the man who stands third in line to the presidency. Don't we have a right to know, even of suspicions?
What revelation will Lesley keep from us for the sake of her next book?
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