The Corner

Politics & Policy

1984 and Today

President Ronald Reagan in a 1984 debate with the Democratic nominee, former vice president Walter Mondale (via C-SPAN)

This morning, I had a couple of thoughts about 1984 — not Orwell’s novel but the presidential year in America. Yesterday, Sam Stein of The Daily Beast tweeted, “Andrew Yang’s campaign manager just called to tell me that at tomorrow night’s debate, Yang will be doing ‘something no presidential candidate has ever done before in history.’ He declined to go further than that.” Our Alexandra DeSanctis responded, “Finish answering a question with time to spare?”

I flashed back to 1984 — not one of the presidential debates but the vice-presidential one. After Ferraro gave an answer on U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, the moderator, Sander Vanocur, said, “Vice President Bush, your rebuttal?” Bush answered, “No rebuttal.” That surprised me. I have never seen that done, apart from that moment.

I also thought about one of the (two) presidential debates — the first one. Reagan did not perform well. Not at all. Many people thought he looked tired and, frankly, out of it. The question would surely arise in the second debate, and it did, delivered gently by Henry Trewhitt (of the Baltimore Sun). He said,

“Mr. President, I want to raise an issue that I think has been lurking out there for two or three weeks and cast it specifically in national security terms. You already are the oldest president in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

The Gipper was well prepared for this. “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt,” he said, “and I want you to know that, also, I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Now, Mondale was in his mid-50s and had been attorney general of Minnesota, a U.S. senator for two terms, and vice president — but it was a great line. The crowd in the hall roared, as did people across the country, and Trewhitt knew a home run when he saw one: “Mr. President, I’d like to head for the fence and try to catch that one before it goes over, but I’ll go on to another question.”

Why do I bring up all this? Joe Biden has looked shaky, out of it, not quite up to it — policy positions aside. He will have to put this to rest, as Reagan did — whether in a debate or elsewhere. This is a big burden to bear, a big problem to solve.

Reagan was reelected in 1984. Right after his second inauguration, The New Republic ran a cover, showing Reagan throwing his head back in laughter, as I recall. The tagline was, “Is He All There?” (The article was by Carl Bernstein.) My collegiate self burned at this. (I was a big Reaganite by that point.) But people had, and have, a right to ask.

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