Reagan's doctors deny covering up Alzheimer's His mental status in office never in doubt, they say

October 05, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

When former President Ronald Reagan disclosed in November 1994 that he had Alzheimer's disease, many people suspected that the illness had begun to rob him of memory while he was in the White House.

Throughout his years in Washington, Reagan had been portrayed by many pundits and political opponents as absent-minded, inattentive, incurious, even lazy. And his presidency was marked by a succession of very public mental stumbles -- most notably his dismal performance in the first debate of the 1984 campaign, and his confused and forgetful accounting of his role in the Iran-contra affair.

But even with the hindsight of Reagan's diagnosis, his four main White House doctors say they never detected any evidence that his forgetfulness was more than just that.

His mental competence in office, they said in recent interviews, was never in doubt. They pointed out that tests of his mental status did not begin to show evidence of the disease until the summer of 1993, more than four years after he left the White House.

"There was never anything that would raise a question about his ability to function as president," said Dr. Lawrence C. Mohr, one of Reagan's physicians in his second term. "Ronald Reagan's cognitive function, belief structure, judgment, ability to choose between options, behavior and ability to communicate were totally and completely intact."

Dr. John Hutton, the chief White House physician during Reagan's last two years in office and a close family friend, said he was speaking out with the permission of the former president's wife, Nancy, chiefly to rebut published statements questioning Reagan's mental status in office.

The doctors said they had taken the unusual step of discussing their former patient's medical history publicly because neither they nor Reagan had covered up any illness and they did not want history to see them as having done so.

While the doctors said they were familiar with Alzheimer's, none is an expert in it. But a specialist -- after reviewing videotapes of news conferences and major events late in Reagan's presidency, as well as the doctors' descriptions -- said he, too, saw no evidence that Reagan had the disease as president.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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