Donald Morrison: All the president's marbles
MIAMI — For a brief, troubling moment the other day, I forgot my iTunes password. Never happened before. Still, it's no big deal. I can recall names, dates, movie titles and other trivia with a nimbleness that evokes eye-rolls from my family.
But I am worried about our president. He and I are the same age and were college classmates, though I didn't really know him then. Lately, he seems to be forgetting things, mangling words and sentences, losing his train of thought and otherwise exhibiting the common signs of dementia. Perhaps even of Alzheimer's, the neurodegenerative disease that causes most cases of dementia and eventually affects one in three senior citizens.
I am not alone in this concern. Seventy mental health professionals sent a letter to the president's physician last year after noticing signs of impairment. Among those: diminished complexity of thought, slurred and rambling speech, over-reliance on superlatives, failure to recognize old friends, decreased fine-motor coordination, difficulties reading and listening, and low impulse control. The 70 experts recommended that Trump be tested for cognitive decline. There was no response.
'I'M VERY NORMAL'
Since then, his symptoms seem to have gotten worse. In the space of a few days recently, our president called Apple chief executive Tim Cook by the name "Tim Apple," thought Venezuela was a company, mixed up his father's and grandfather's birthplaces, and said "oranges" when he meant "origins." Then, out of the blue, he declared, `I'm very normal.'"
In fairness, it is normal for somebody pushing 73 to forget a name now and then. But mistaking your dad for your grandad is a bit more serious. In addition, muffing words — like "oranges" for "origins" — is what experts call semantic paraphasia, an early sign of dementia. Worse is phonemic paraphasia, or making up words — as the president has with "capsicle" for capsule, "Chrissus" for Christmas, and "Nambia" for Namibia? Zambia? Nobody knows for sure. And let's not even discuss his famous Twitter coinage, "covfefe."
More troubling are the president's unscripted speeches. Consider his recent appearances before the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Conservative Political Action Conference. He wanders, repeats himself, has trouble sticking to a topic and makes easily discredited misstatements (e.g., windmills cause cancer). Experts call this tangential speech, a sign of severe cognitive decline.
The president didn't used to be like this. Science writer Sharon Begley examined several of Trump's TV interviews from the 1980s and '90s and compared them with similar recent footage. In the earlier period, she concluded, "he spoke articulately, used sophisticated vocabulary, inserted dependent clauses into his sentences without losing his train of thought, and strung together sentences into a polished paragraph." Today, by contrast, "Trump's vocabulary is simpler. He repeats himself over and over, and lurches from one subject to an unrelated one."
Of course, the president may be deliberately simplifying his language to better connect with supporters. He may also be making use of misstatements, inconsistency and repetition to enhance his likeability or stir passions. But he also exhibits that sort of linguistic behavior with more sophisticated listeners. And he is famously vain about his education, intelligence and articulateness. As he said in 2016: "I have the best words."
SEEN THIS BEFORE
The president was a mildly competent executive for most of his career and, you could argue, for the first days of his presidency. His recent actions, however, seem not to meet that standard: reversing himself abruptly on such matters as WikiLeaks, immigration, health care and the Mueller report; rage-tweeting against opponents and allies alike; firing brigades of underlings who question his more unconventional proposals, like family separation or closing the southern border.
The National Institutes of Health maintains a list of mid-stage Alzheimer's symptoms. On it: "impulsive behavior," "inappropriate outbursts of anger," "delusions, paranoia" and "restlessness, agitation," especially in the evening. Sound familiar?
I am not saying the president has lost his marbles. But he is clearly not the man he once was. Besides, we have seen this tragedy before. Ronald Reagan struggled with dementia during his last years in office. We — and he — did not deserve that sad, potentially dangerous ordeal.
Thus, for the sake of our country — and as a gesture of concern for an old classmate — I make this plea: Mr. President, please get help.
Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and Advisory Board member.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.