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UCI Study Calls Reagan Intellectually Impaired

December 24, 1987|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times County Bureau Chief

A UC Irvine professor's study of President Reagan's speech patterns during the 1980 and 1984 presidential debates purports to show that Reagan's intellectual abilities were less than his opponents and decreased during his first term.

Psychiatrist Louis Gottschalk, who conducted the study, said the results demonstrate the need for "mandatory testing of brain function" for U.S. Presidents.

"The results of our analysis indicate that President Ronald Reagan had significantly higher levels of cognitive impairment (including use of incomplete sentences) than former President Jimmy Carter or former Vice President Walter Mondale," Gottschalk said in announcing the results of the study.

Conclusions Called Bunk

Two of Reagan's close advisers--speech writer Ken Khachigian and political consultant Stu Spencer--immediately characterized Gottschalk's conclusions as bunk.

"I'm sure the professor is a very respected gentleman, but he's treading on thin ice with this one," Khachigian said.

As for requiring a neuropsychological test, "I think (Gottschalk) is crazy," said Spencer, whose relationship with Reagan dates back to the 1966 California gubernatorial race. "If you make all the guys in Congress take the test, you'd lose half the Congress."

Gottschalk was founding chairman of UCI's Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior in 1967. He helped develop a means of charting impairments in brain function, as demonstrated by a person's use of incomplete sentences, sudden stops in a train of thought and repetition of phrases.

Applying such data as Reagan's Oct. 28, 1980, debate with Carter, the study by Gottschalk and two associates, Regina Uliana and Ronda Gilbert, found that Reagan's impairment scores were significantly higher than Carter's.

Four years later, in the Oct. 7 debate with Mondale, Reagan's scores soared, showing more impairment than they had in 1980. Two weeks later, Reagan's impairment scores decreased substantially, but still remained higher than Mondale's, the study found.

After the Oct. 7 debate, Reagan was widely considered to have done poorly. The man dubbed "The Great Communicator" was kept on the defensive by Mondale, who attacked the President's statements on Social Security and his alleged lack of concern for poor people.

Conservative columnist William F. Buckley, a strong Reagan supporter, wrote at the time that Reagan was "concededly not in top form" for the Oct. 7 debate. But Buckley added that Reagan "hardly earned the contempt being shown for his performance."

Khachigian said Wednesday, "I wouldn't admit it to you on the night of the debate, but all of us were disappointed and discouraged afterward."

He said Reagan was upset during the debate "by what he thought was Mondale's intellectual dishonesty by ascribing to him ill motives on Social Security. . . . He kept wanting to come back to that issue."

Gottschalk, whose study is to be published in the March issue of the magazine Public Administration Review, said fluctuations in levels of intellectual impairment during the debates by all three candidates may have been caused by the stress associated with specific questions.

"Presidents and other government officials usually operate in controlled situations, so their verbal messages are fairly well structured," he said. "Television debates, on the other hand, open them to closer scrutiny and require them to perform extemporaneously, so it is an opportunity to objectively assess how their intellectual capacity reacts to stress.

"An American President doesn't have to be an Einstein, but it seems that some kind of mandatory testing of brain function should be required," Gottschalk said.

He said it would not be a test of IQ or personality, but a neuropsychological test to determine cognitive function and brain dysfunction.

Khachigian, a longtime Reagan speech writer who helped prepare the President for the debates, said Gottschalk's study appeared to be "psychobabble" and "just sounds bizarre to me."

Khachigian said that to conclude from the debates that "candidates ought to submit to some kind of mental urine test in the future" was "dumb."

"Here you had 90 million people watch these debates, and they wind up voting for the President 49 states to one," he said.

"The fact that some scholarly research uncovers impairments that people can't see when they're watching television seems to me ludicrous. I think that in some respects (the professor's proposal) is anti-democratic--the notion that we are going to trust some panel of doctors over the perceptions and interpretations of millions of Americans who have access to the same visual communication that anyone else does. It just smacks to me of 'Brave New World,' '1984' kind of stuff."

No Sign Seen

Spencer, another longtime political consultant to Reagan, said that "I've seen no sign" of any mental deterioration in the President. "He's still got the memory of a computer," Spencer said, although in speaking, "when he's searching for something, he tends to hesitate and tries to put it in good form before he speaks."

Spencer said he last saw Reagan 10 days ago in Washington. "He was in great shape. The man is in great physical condition, good muscle tone, agility as well as alertness."

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