20 OCTOBER 1984, Page 8

US election

The senility issue

Nicholas von Hoffman


The Reagan-Mondale debate turned out to be a media story. For months reporters in Washington have been looking at the 73-year-old President and speculat- ing about whether he can still cut the mustard, but neither the speculations nor observations found their way into print. There are unspoken, intuited limits to what one dare say and questioning Mr Reagan's physical, as opposed to his political, fitness for his job has been just over the line. Hence for the first 24 hours after the debate the political stories centred on which of the two men had outpointed the other.

Then the Wall Street Journal, the na- tion's largest daily which is resolutely pro-Reagan, ran a long, front-page piece discussing the heretofore undiscussable.

That was the signal. If the Journal, which equates Ronald Reagan with a second baptism, dared bring up the sub- ject, then others could safely take up the topic and many immediately did so. The evening of the day the Journal story appeared, ABC led with a piece on geriat- rics in high places on its big news show, as did CBS and Dan Rather who also made the todder-dodder issue their lead story. The piece the network put on the air was a carbon of the Journal's enterprising effort. The Rather show even found the same pro-Reagan 'expert' to quote, saying: 'I am very concerned as a psychologist about his [Reagan's, not Rather's] inability to think on his feet, the disjointedness of his sentences and his use of the security blanket of redundancy . . I'd be con- cerned to put him, in a corporate presiden- cy. I'd be all the more concerned to put him into the US Presidency.'

Four years in the White House have not done to Ronald Reagan's mien what they did to Jimmy Carter, who entered the job firm of face and left it a sagging bag of wrinkled skin. Yet for the first time televi- sion commentators have begun to say that the turkey-necked President looks old. What they said was not as damaging as what they showed. For several days we saw snippets of Reagan in the debate looking querulously into the camera saying, `er . . ahm . . . ah.' They picked out de- licious little quotations like these to replay: 'Yes, there has been an increase in pover- ty, but it is a lower rate of increase than it was in the preceding years before we got there. It has begun to decline, but it is still going up . . . in 1980 or 1979, a person with a fixed income of $8,000 was $500 above the poverty line — and this maybe explains why there are the numbers still in poverty. By 1980 that same person was $500 below the poverty line.'

The President has been making the same meandering goofs and gaffs since he assumed office, but in the days after the Journal article he had to suffer the media's anvil chorus pointing them out and under- scoring them. In short order the people around Mr Reagan began blaming each other for the embarrassment their chief had to undergo. It was said that in the preparations for the debates the boss had been 'psychologically conditioned to lose', that he had been set up to debate with a `mean' Mondale and was thrown off stride when a 'nice' Mondale showed up. Sen. Paul Laxalt, Mr Reagan's friend and cam- paign chairman, said the pre-debate drill the dear man had been subjected to was like 'being brutalised by a briefing process that doesn't make any sense'. In Washing- ton people exchanged giggly descriptions of Mr Reagan being gang-banged by a mob of lawless facts. There was the President, hands tied behind his back, having data force-fed into his mouth.

For several months, the media have been battering and nattering at Mr Mon- dale almost exclusively because the repor- ters have not been able to get near enough to Mr Reagan to get a clean shot at him. In four years the President has had 26 press conferences as compared to 99 given by Dwight Eisenhower at a similar time in his presidency. He has kept himself safely out of range. But spritz on Fritz, like all games,

gets tiresome when it goes on too long. There are only so many ways of saying the guy sounds like a coffee-grinder. Reporters were bored writing stories about how boring the Democratic candidate is, tired of calling him tiresome and pining for the new angle which the debate gave them. Now, of a sudden, fate has given reporters a way of writing about Mr Reagan whether or not he agrees to have press conferences and answers their questions. Against this the President has but one way to defend himself. Convening a board of gerontologists to certify he is not falling apart will only spread the idea that he is. He must begin to make himself available on the same impromptu basis that the younger Mondale does. But actor though Mr Reagan may be, he is a Hollywood actor, not trained in commedia dell'arte ad-libbing. At the peak of his powers Mr Reagan needed a script to be effective. Left to his own verbal devices, he. is tp danger of saying things like trees cause air pollution or a missile, once launched, can be recalled.

So do the Reagan managers hide him or let the wolves of the Fourth Estate get their long postponed chance to sink fangs in an old man's flesh? For Ronald Reagan the rest of the campaign may become a pro- longed physical examination as press and public alike squint at the ancient mustard- cutter and guess how sharp his blade remains.

The only even vaguely comparable situa- tion in American history occurred after Woodrow Wilson suffered a coronary occlusion which paralysed his right side and laid him out with such force that he vanished from the public for two months. His doctor lied about what was wrong with him but as the weeks went by with no bills signed, nothing done, Republicans in the Senate demanded to take a look at the sick man. Wilson was propped up in bed in a dim room so that his paralysed arm was under the bedclothes and two Senators were allowed in to talk to him. Though his speech was thick, Wilson held his own and at the end of the meeting Sen. Albert Fall, whose hate for the President was recipro- cated, said: 'I have been praying for you, sir.' To which Wilson answered: 'Which way, Senator?' Ronald Reagan's severest test will be the next debate. The stress leading up to it would incapacitate a lesser man; knowing the issues and having answers will not suffice. He's being asked to‘shed 20 years, but it is much, much easier for a younger actor to play an old man than the other way round. All of which may damage the President's amour propre but not his elec' tion changes. When they love you they love you. In 1944 Franklin Roosevelt, suffering from arteriosclerosis and heart, disease and looking like death warmed over, won an easy re-election to a fourth term. 'The age issue,' as it has come to be called, has put a youthful skip in Mr Mondale's walk, but it has not really damaged Ronald Reagan.