On May 22, 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan answers reporter's question during news conference in the East Room of the White House.

On May 22, 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan answers reporter's question during news conference in the East Room of the White House. mark reinstein/Shutterstock.com

Analysis: I Assessed a President's Fitness to Serve—But I Didn't Write an Op-Ed

When my colleague became worried about President Reagan, he took his concerns to the chief of staff—not a newspaper.

The anonymous senior official in the Trump administration who published an op-ed in The New York Times on Wednesday describing an internal “resistance” movement is, as the White House put it, a coward. If the writer truly believes the president is not fit to lead the country, he should have done what my colleague James Cannon did when he had similar reservations about President Ronald Reagan.

I served for many years as an aide to Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee. When Baker took over from Don Regan as Reagan’s chief of staff, I went over to the White House as an assistant to the president. It was a time of political crisis. The Iran-Contra scandal had recently been exposed. Some wondered if the upcoming congressional hearings would implicate the White House and the president. Others doubted that the president was up to the task of negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev, the charismatic leader of the Soviet Union.

Reagan’s health, meanwhile, was less than optimal. For several weeks in the fall of 1986 the president had been recuperating from surgery. Would he be able to adequately perform his duties?

Things were bad enough that Baker’s former Senate colleagues assumed he would become the behind-the-scenes decision maker, the power behind the president.

That was never the case. But Baker, who’d heard tell of disorder at the White House, asked me and Jim Cannon, another longtime aide, to interview staffers and find out what was going on. I thought it was rather a mess, but Jim was positively disturbed by what he had learned.

On his initiative, Jim wrote an internal memo questioning whether Reagan was physically or mentally fit to continue as president. The memo began with a shocking recommendation: “Consider the possibility that section four of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment might be applied.” That amendment, of course, specifies that the president may be removed if the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet declare him “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

The whole situation was quite surreal. Baker, however, took the matter firmly in hand. “We will see for ourselves whether there is any merit” to the memo, he said.

In his capacity as the new chief of staff, Baker organized a lunch meeting with Reagan in the Cabinet Room. While the topics were general in nature, all those present understood that we were meant to determine whether there was any reason to further consider the Cannon memo. We probed the president’s recollection of Iran-Contra and asked ourselves if he demonstrated the capacity to lead the country over the next two years. (Jim was not in attendance.)

At the end of the lunch session, we reassembled in Baker’s office down the hall from the Oval Office. He began the discussion, stating that in his opinion the president was fully engaged: His statements on Iran-Contra were consistent with earlier statements and his health was not an issue. None of us disagreed. The issue raised in the Cannon memo on the Twenty-Fifth Amendment ended at that very moment.

In Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984–1988, the journalists Doyle McManus and Jane Mayer published information on the Cannon memo. They noted that the Baker team “briefly considered invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to relieve President Reagan of power.” The operative word is briefly. If there had been any serious consideration, the country and the world would have known.

Although nothing came of Jim’s memo, things were done in the right way. He didn’t deliver an anonymous, self-righteous, and self-justifying op-ed to a national newspaper. He shared his concerns with the people who could act if there was truly anything to worry about, and then he let the matter go.

I keep in my office a framed copy of my appointment as assistant to the president. It stated that I would serve “at the pleasure of the president” and that I would perform my duties with “integrity, prudence and ability.” I took that description seriously. If I had thought that these obligations were in conflict because the president was unfit—if I had disagreed with Baker’s verdict— I would have walked out.

Tom Griscom served as White House Director of Communications for President Ronald Reagan.

Image via mark reinstein/Shutterstock.com.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.