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Reagan’s Alzheimer’s is no laughing matter

(Opinion)—News last week that Hollywood is planning a comedy that portrays Ronald Reagan suffering from dementia in his second presidential term set off a chorus of outrage from right-wing commentators.

As strange as it may seem, for once I’m with them.

It’s not because I think the legacy of the conservative icon needs to be protected. Reagan remains my second least favorite president during my lifetime, topped only by the fear and loathing that Richard Nixon inspired during my high school days. When Reagan was sworn into office in January 1981, I was certain our nation was doomed.

No, it’s because I don’t see anything remotely funny about a disease that robs someone of his memory and makes the last years of life enormously sad and painful for the afflicted, their families and friends.

I know this because my mother had dementia. She officially died at 73 of conditions related to diabetes, but the loss of her mental faculties made her final years extremely difficult.

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It started with memory lapses and confusion, and ended with a complete inability to know where she was or how she got there. Bernice — “Niecie” to everyone in her family — needed 24-hour-a-day care, and she spent the last few months of her life in a nursing home. I was warned there may be times when she did not recognize her family, but nothing can prepare you for the day it happens.

As the disease progressed, in my mother’s mind the years faded back to her childhood growing up in Pennsylvania. She thought my father, her husband of 53 years, was her dad, and she kept asking about people no one had ever heard of before. We finally realized she was talking about friends and acquaintances she grew up with who had suddenly returned to her memory.

What happened a minute ago was lost to her, but she could describe her childhood home as if she was right there.

My wife, son and I visited her at the nursing home a few days before she died. Fortunately we had a good talk, and she even joked with us and ate her favorite dessert, ice cream. We were able to tell her how much we loved her.

I’m told that after we left, one of the nursing home patients pulled his wheelchair next to hers and asked her about her visitors. She looked at him blankly.

“You know, your son and grandson and daughter-in-law,” he prodded.

Niecie’s response was apparently matter-of-fact, with no trace of emotion or recognition. “I never saw those people before in my life,” she said.

My mother-in-law, Barbara, has also suffered from dementia the past few years. She once loved to tell jokes and was especially fond of puns, but now she struggles to remember any of them. There is only one left in her humor arsenal, which until recently she told several times to every visitor: “Did you hear about the man who had his left side removed? He was all right.” Now she can’t even recall the beginning of it.

She was a musician and teacher, and over the years entertained many thousands of people with her violin at symphony concerts in Wyoming and Colorado. But Barbara can’t remember those days very well, and she often struggles to find the right words when she’s talking. She tells a story, then often immediately repeats it.

I know that she has a hard time remembering who I am. There is confusion in her face, but on good days a quick flash of recognition and a smile. I love to see that smile because it makes me happy to still be a part of her life. I know it won’t last.

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The idea of what some in the media dubbed an “Alzheimer’s comedy” about Reagan has definitely touched a nerve, both in my life and in the lives of many people who deal with the effects of the disease every day. The criticism prompted one of my favorite comic actors, Will Ferrell, to drop out of the project less than 24 hours after it was announced.

It was made public in 1994 that the former president suffered from Alzheimer’s. Contrary to the plot of the proposed movie, though, there is no evidence that it affected him in his second term.

I don’t have much in common with Reagan’s children, who bashed the idea of a movie focusing on this part of his career, but we do share a common bond. I completely understand the pain that led one of his sons, conservative radio host Michael Reagan, to tweet to Ferrell before the actor quit the project that “Alzheimer’s is no joke … It kills … You should be ashamed.”

One of Reagan’s daughters, Patti Davis, wrote an open letter to Ferrell: “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have — I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.”

I’m sure Ferrell didn’t hesitate when he decided to quickly end his involvement in the movie. While he often plays a pompous blowhard who wrecks absolutely everything in his path, he is a well-known philanthropic entertainer who supports UNICEF, Stand Up to Cancer and Artists for Peace and Justice, to name just a few of the causes he aids. Once he realized how upsetting the Reagan project was to so many people and organizations, he did the right thing and bowed out.

Let me be clear: I respect artists’ rights to create movies and other entertainment without having their ideas censored. If anyone does go ahead and make “Reagan,” he or she has every right to do so. But they should realize that the public response may well be extremely critical. That’s the audience’s right, too.

Although I agree with the far-right commentators who objected to the making of this film, I  don’t understand why there is such a devotion to protecting his legacy from any criticism. There is a lot that Reagan did that’s worthy of everything from satire to hostility, starting with the Iran-Contra scandal.

One of my favorite “Saturday Night Live” skits was one that showed a Reagan staff meeting being interrupted by Oval Office visitors. “Reagan” made everyone hide in another room while he donned his charming persona, then when they left he brought his staff back in to discuss who they were going to kill next.

It was over-the-edge comedy, to be sure, but it had a political perspective that was worthy of exploring. Reagan could be a delightful White House host, but haven’t we all wondered whether that was the “real” Reagan? Was there a darker side to The Gipper? After all, he was an actor.

Conservatives helped kill a CBS miniseries about the Reagans in 2003 when they complained about the casting of liberal actor James Brolin as the 40th president. But the show was eventually broadcast by Showtime and earned Brolin both Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, so no one’s career was harmed. In fact, the criticism likely just made people more curious about what could be so objectionable about the miniseries.

The funny thing about conservatives’ inability to show Reagan in any negative way is that today the former president would likely be considered a moderate Republican. Despite his reputation as a tax-cutter, Reagan actually raised taxes 11 times during his two terms in the White House. There’s no way the extreme right controlling his party today would ever nominate Reagan, much less elect him.

So while I agree with those who helped at least temporarily shelve the Reagan dementia project, my opposition is based solely on personal experience with two of my loved ones. If anyone still wants to make the movie, I’m not going to picket the studio. But I’m definitely not buying a ticket, either.

 

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About the Author

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Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.

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