If you watched Joe Biden’s drive-in town hall Thursday night, I’m pretty sure that when you turned off the TV (or the computer or whatever), you weren’t thinking that Biden suffers from dementia.
You were probably thinking what I was thinking — that Biden had it exactly right when he said he wouldn’t trust Donald Trump on vaccines, but he would trust Dr. Fauci. He also had it exactly right on how to hold an event during a pandemic, something Trump brazenly ignores.
The truth is Trump has foolishly set a very low bar for Biden at an event like this — Trump repeatedly says Biden doesn’t even know where he is or if he’s alive — and so, of course, Biden easily cleared it. In fact, he packed as many details on issues into one town hall as Trump typically does in a year.
Yes, Biden does stumble over words, often rushing to finish his thought before the stutter sets in. Yes, he has trouble sometimes with digressions that he fails to bring back to the original point of the story. At times, his arguments can lose their power, not to mention their thread. He’s not a great speaker, and I never thought he’d be a great candidate. But that doesn’t mean someone suffers from dementia, either. He’s a gaffe machine. He was a gaffe machine in his first presidential run in 1988.
But no one with anything like full-blown dementia can stand up for more than an hour taking questions without consistently losing his or her way. Anyone who is suffering from dementia, who is caring for someone who has dementia, who has seen a person you love lose everything to the disease, knows better. Certainly I know better. I’m still grieving the death a year ago of my wife, Susie, from complications related to early-onset Alzheimer’s. We were married for 49 years. We were together for the length of the entire terrible, life-stealing, mind-stealing, identity-stealing disease. I’ve earned some knowledge here.
And so, dementia is the one thing I’ve never said about Trump. As Bob Woodward, who had 18 conversations with Trump for his latest book, said when asked, it was something he never thought to dig into.
It was funny/sad when Trump talked about acing a cognition test. You’re supposed to ace it. If you don’t ace it, it can be an early sign you may have problems. I have called him ignorant. I’ve called him a sociopath. A narcissist. A demagogue. A bully. A racist. The list goes on. But I don’t say he has dementia. He does go on long, fact-challenged rants that make no sense whatsoever. If you’re old enough to remember vinyl, you may also remember playing a record backwards in search of some supposed hidden truth. That’s often what it sounds like to me listening to Trump. Injecting bleach? Is that dementia? Thinking he knows more than scientists/generals/everyone else? Is that dementia? Lying when telling the truth would do him better? Is that dementia?
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Over the past week, a number of former members of the Trump administration, some of whom were, like John Bolton, in the room, have come forward to say Trump is unfit to be president. I wouldn’t argue. None of them mentioned the clear deterioration in his speech patterns, which could mean a hundred different things. They cited his lack of empathy. They cited the fact that he ignored advice. They cited the fact that the only thing he cares about is his re-election.
I’m 71. I sometimes have to struggle for a word I’m thinking of writing. Can I still write a coherent argument (all snarkiness welcome here)? But I do worry about developing Alzheimer’s. You bet I do. I know few people my age who don’t worry about it.
I have too much insight into the disease. My wife died at age 70. She was diagnosed with what probably was Alzheimer’s at age 65. I knew she had cognitive and memory issues for a few years before her diagnosis. Most others didn’t see it. I know the stigma that comes with a diagnosis, so I kept the secret close. When the doctors and social workers met with us to discuss her diagnosis, a discussion that lasted several hours, I thought that would be the worst day of my life. Within two days, Susie had forgotten the diagnosis altogether. Maybe she chose not to remember it. I don’t know for sure. When someone is suffering from dementia, there are so many things you don’t know for sure.
And soon after the diagnosis, I had to convince her she couldn’t drive any more. She had made a wrong turn and had driven 50 miles north while I frantically called every hospital and police department in a 20-mile radius. Finally, she had a fender bender, and the police found me, although she couldn’t remember her phone number. When Trump jokes that Biden doesn’t know where he is, I know what it means to not know where you are and how frightening that is. I also know what her loss of freedom meant to her. Note to Bill Barr: It’s worse than wearing a mask.
When Susie first took the cognition test that Trump said he aced (but which he hasn’t, of course, released), she answered 19 of the 30 questions correctly — putting her just across the border line into what could be dementia — before undergoing an exhaustive two-day examination. The last time she was able to take the test, which is a rudimentary gauge of cognition level, she scored a 6.
Eventually we needed 24-7 help, and eventually she would rarely recognize me or our daughter. Losing your memory is not what some people think — that you’re blissfully ignorant. You’re often afraid. You don’t understand where you are. You can be paranoid. You can be belligerent. You’re living in a world which you cannot possibly understand. It is a terrible thing to witness.
So when Trump and his allies question Biden’s mental acuity, I have to admit it gets to me. They’re not making a serious diagnosis. They’re trying to do what they did with Hillary Clinton and her supposed health problems in 2016. Well, it’s four years since the election, and she seems just fine. Meanwhile, Trump goes for an unplanned trip to the hospital, and we have no idea why. He had a problem once walking down airplane stairs and holding a drink, and we have no idea why. We know why he ridicules Biden, though. It’s because he’s Trump.
It’s not as if I expect anything different or better from the Trump administration or from Fox or from right-wing talk radio or from the depths of social media, but I can’t help the anger I feel. I’d love for those accusers to spend a few 24-7 days at a memory care institution or at a house where lives are routinely disrupted in caring for a husband/wife/mother/father/son/daughter/brother/sister who has the disease.
I’m still grieving the great loss in my life. I know the cruelty of the disease. I know that the cruelty of pinning it on an opponent naturally appeals to Trump. As Adam Serwer brilliantly noted a few years ago in the Atlantic when trying to explain Trump, he said that for the president and his supporters, cruelty is the point.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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