A REASSURING GREAT CONSPIRACY
The great conspiracy that concealed that Ronald Reagan was struck by his Alzheimer's while he was still in the White House as U.S. president seems to have survived the accounts of the death of his loyal wife who shielded him from exposure.
It's hardly an earth-shattering scoop that Reagan was often fumbling for words and names in his final years. His stalwart champion, Nancy, and key aides, could not conceal that from the public. But they certainly threw a cloak over the significance of the major extent of that so that the popular myth is that Alzheimer's did not cruelly ravage him until around 1994, five years after he left the presidency.
Not everyone co-operated. His son, Ron, who has always marched to his own drummer, defied and angered his mother and brother when he said a couple of months ago in a book about his father that he thought Reagan already was suffering towards the end of his first term.
When you sift the tides of information about Reagan over the decades, and connect the few but persistent mentions, the earlier reality of this form of dementia which robs the memory more each day cannot be dismissed as a nightmarish claim by his enemies.
In fact, I first found out about it in 1987 and have written about it several times. But I have never before made the point that actually I find it rather reassuring.
A few acerbic wits like Bill Maher couldn't let her funeral pass without pointing out that maybe Reagan was the final blow in winning the Cold War but Nancy really was running the presidency in the final two years, just like Woodrow Wilson's wife had taken over for him.
Yet despite all the Doomsday scenarios in books and all the movies with Armageddon twists, isn't it reassuring that it is quite likely that the most powerful leader in the world was mentally ill while he could blow up the world using the codes carried by an aide. Yet we all muddled through thanks to the steely wife and insiders like Colin Powell, the four-star general turned National Security Adviser who stayed close.
My peek inside the Oval Office at the president who carried file cards in his pocket even to comment on the weather came in 1987 through Bill Stevenson, the spy author who moved easily in the world of world secrets, as I detailed in a column about his death that appeared Dec, 3, 2013, as a blog (blog.johndowning.ca) titled The Intrepid Bill Stevenson.
Bill, the author of best sellers that were turned into great movies, and his wife, Monica, an award-winning 60 Minutes producer, were great hosts at their Rosedale home. And their guests were famous figures from the front pages of major newspapers.
So when he phoned on a Friday to invite me to a Sunday barbecue, it was a golden invitation. Except I was exhausted by playing Editor of the Toronto Sun while we were short-handed and just wanted to escape to my cottage on the Trent.
On Monday, Bill appeared in my office to deliver his latest column for me and related with great satisfaction that I had missed an affair that I would have remembered for the rest of my life.
"Ross Perot flew in to tell us that he had just met with Reagan in the Oval Office to tell him of what he had found out the last time he flew to Hanoi to insist to the North Vietnamese that they had to release all the American POWs and MIAs that they still had in their prisons despite their claims of ignorance," Stevenson told me.
"Why didn't you tell me Perot was coming," I yelled in frustration at not meeting the legendary billionaire
'"Because I think the CIA is tapping our phones because of the book that Monica and I are writing about the Prisoners Of War and the Missing In Action. Perot says they tap him," Stevenson said.
Then he dropped a bomb. He said Perot and Reagan had often met but that Perot said it was really strange this time. Only Powell was with them in the Oval. But Reagan fished a file card out of his pocket to read aloud: "Hello Ross, how are you? Isn't it nice out today, especially in the Rose Garden."
"You're telling me that the President of the United States is so ga ga that he needs a card to greet an acquaintance," I demanded of Stevenson. "Yes, Perot said there was no doubt that his mind is going," he replied.
Perot became controversial for his obsession to save the American soldiers left behind in the Vietnamese ruins after the war ended. He was always talking about plots and assassinations.
But he did make four billion selling companies to GM and Dell and had enough support in the country to run for president twice. And there were some news stories about his regular reporting back to the White House on his secret trips as a special envoy of the president on the POW issue.
Not exactly an observer to be ignored.
And Stevenson, who used to SCUBA dive with Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, and then go over to Noel Coward's cottage next door in Jamaica for martinis, was not exactly a dupe when it came to chronicling world figures.
So Stevenson and Downing believed what Perot told us. And we didn't write a damn thing. Who would have believed us then? Apparently most people don't even believe it now.