Does Nancy Pelosi Really Have Dementia?
In October 2019, we learned that Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi — who has represented California in Congress since 1987 and is currently speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives — might have Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. It was an explosive revelation because, well, what else are you going to do when your boss looks like this?
Pelosi, at age 80, is an icon for Democrats in government, so her diagnosis came as quite a shock. But if there’s one thing that history has taught us about leaders with dementia, it’s that they’re typically more concerned about their legacy than any specific political agenda. And while the details of Pelosi’s health problems remain murky, the facts surrounding her leadership role are pretty clear. She’s been effective at getting things done for decades, which makes sense given her impressive memory and attention span.
“She just keeps running on auto-pilot,” says former Republican Congressman Tom Davis, who served in Congress from 1981 to 2011. “The fact that she can function at such high levels tells me that she hasn’t suffered significant cognitive decline.”
Davis says he doesn’t know enough about Pelosi’s current condition to comment directly on whether she actually does have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. He did note that many people suffering from these conditions may appear outwardly normal until much later in life. However, he said that Pelosi seems to be acting normally right now and that his own father died from Alzheimer’s after serving in Congress for 20 terms.
While it’s impossible to say for certain how Pelosi will fare during her next term in office without knowing more specifics about her health issues, it’s worth noting that most forms of dementia take years to develop into full blown cases. Many experts believe it takes around 10 years before someone goes from having early symptoms of dementia to having full-blown Alzheimer’s, though those timelines vary based on each person. In general, mild forms of the disease start showing up in middle age and severe cases begin appearing in older age. So, even though Pelosi is technically over the age of 60, she could still have early signs of dementia.
Still, there are plenty of reasons why Pelosi’s case is particularly alarming. For starters, no woman has ever held the position of Speaker of the House (or president) of a major party. That means Pelosi has had to work extra hard to prove herself time and again. She also happens to be one of the most powerful figures in America.
Former President George H.W. Bush famously referred to himself as “the luckiest man alive” after winning reelection twice despite failing to secure a second presidential term for his son, Jeb. While it’s true that Bush never really faced a serious challenger, he didn’t need to face voters every four years either. So, it’s likely that Bush wasn’t feeling all too lucky back then. But Pelosi certainly isn’t.
It should come as little surprise that the last few months haven’t exactly gone smoothly for Pelosi. The first female Speaker of the House has dealt with everything from accusations of sexual harassment to allegations of anti-Semitism. Then, just a month ago, Pelosi suffered through yet another bout of controversy after remarks made by the Congressional Black Caucus regarding gun control legislation went viral.
Despite the chaos, Pelosi remains committed to her job. Her ability to run the House effectively has earned her praise from both sides of the aisle. A number of Republicans praised Pelosi following the news of her possible diagnosis earlier this year, including Sens. Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Orrin Hatch, and Mitt Romney.
“Speaker Pelosi is tough, smart and knows how to get things done,” Sen. Marco Rubio wrote in March 2020. “I hope my successor listens to her advice. I think she’ll be a valuable source of information for anyone considering a run against her.”
But critics have accused Pelosi of being out of touch with modern politics. Just look at the way she handled questions about COVID-19 vaccinations at a town hall meeting earlier this year. When asked if she believed vaccines were safe, Pelosi responded simply, “Yes.” Some viewers took issue with her response, accusing Pelosi of supporting dangerous quackery.
If Pelosi truly does end up developing Alzheimer’s, it’s unlikely that her colleagues will call for her immediate resignation. Instead, they’ll probably urge her to step down once she’s unable to perform her duties effectively.
That certainly wouldn’t be unprecedented. Former Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly developed Alzheimer’s in 2007, and former Speaker John Boehner retired from Congress in 2015 after 18 terms. And some speculate that former President Ronald Reagan may have had Alzheimer’s in the final stages of his career.
So far, Pelosi hasn’t publicly commented on the possibility that she has Alzheimer’s, nor has she announced plans to resign. We’ll wait and see how Pelosi handles herself in the coming weeks and months ahead.
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