Reagan and the 1994 GOP sweep

Following the ins and outs of this year's midterm elections can make a voter feel trapped in a time warp.

Parallels to 1994 abound with great frequency: dissatisfaction with one-party control in Washington, anemic approval marks for Congress and the president, nagging worry about the country's direction, and generally a foul mood.

It's almost as though, come Nov. 8, the political landscape for Democrats might change as dramatically as it did for Republicans in that earlier contest.

What always seems to be missing in remembering 1994 is a story that broke the weekend before Americans went to the polls that year. Its precise impact on the GOP landslide – gaining 52 House, 8 Senate, and 10 gubernatorial seats – was never measured by opinion researchers and will forever be a mystery. But as a historical footnote to a momentous time, the revelation is so politically intriguing it merits speculation.

On Nov. 5, 1994, the Saturday prior to Election Day, former President Ronald Reagan announced in a handwritten letter that he was "one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease." By using the future tense in the first sentence and later saying "At the moment I feel just fine," the hero of Republicans, then just hours away from their stunning victory, was characteristically upbeat – and deliberately keeping future darkness at bay.

Near the end of his letter, the words are vintage Reagan, a combination of personal humility and national reverence: "When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead."

The letter, with its sympathy-provoking individual disclosure and stirringly sunny larger sentiments, became big news instantaneously. Television networks either led weekend broadcasts with the announcement or carried reports near the top of their programs. What Reagan revealed and wrote appeared on the front pages of Sunday's newspapers across the country.

Despite the 1994 campaign's cacophonous climax, Reagan's letter wasn't a one-day story. Numerous follow-up dispatches applauded his candor and his ability, through the sensitivity of his prose, to acquaint Americans with the cruelty of Alzheimer's.

Indeed, on Election Day itself, newspaper editorials commented on what one called "Mr. Reagan's Revelation." David Broder began his syndicated column for The Washington Post: "The simple, poignant words of President Reagan, disclosing that he has Alzheimer's disease, would have brought tears at any time. Coming as they did, at the end of a midterm campaign distinguished mainly by its ugliness and tawdry dishonesty, Reagan's words were a needed reminder that generosity of spirit is not incompatible with political success."

The newsworthiness of the disclosure was indisputable. It was a compelling human-interest story about a prominent figure, who departed the White House in 1989 with an approval rating of 63 percent.

Looking back to 1994, one wonders how much of a boost Republican candidates got from the sympathy Americans felt for this respected, even beloved figure.

Timing is critical in two pursuits in which Reagan excelled: acting and politics. Twelve years ago, a former movie star-turned-politician performed a curtain-closing role in that midterm's democratic drama.

To call the Republican takeover of 1994 the Gipper's last win would be an overstatement. But Reagan played a part – and left the nation's political stage with his country clapping.

Robert Schmuhl is a professor of American studies and journalism at the University of Notre Dame. His collection of essays, "In So Many Words: Arguments and Adventures," has just been published.

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