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Reagan’s 77 Years Are Beginning to Show : A Tired President Jokes About His Age

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Times Staff Writer

President Reagan, at 77 the oldest American President ever, cracked a couple of jokes Friday about his advanced age.

Speaking in London’s 15th-Century Guildhall, Reagan said: “It is comforting to be near anything that much older than myself. . . . Some even see my election to the presidency as America’s attempt to show our European cousins that we too have a regard for antiquity.”

But the President’s light remarks did little to dispel concern about his physical condition after the arduous journey to Moscow.

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Reporters who got a close-up look at the President toward the end of his brief stay in London said he was slurring his words and his speech was barely audible.

For most of his presidency, Reagan’s boyish charm and dark brown hair have tended to blur the fact that he was born in 1911 and began his first term when most men his age had been collecting Social Security benefits for five years.

Now the years are beginning to show.

White House officials say Reagan is in excellent condition, but it was obvious to his traveling companions that often he was fighting fatigue--and sometimes losing the struggle.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater acknowledged under questioning about Reagan’s appearance that he had not slept well.

Reagan insisted that he was getting a full night’s sleep, but his wife, Nancy, 12 years younger than he, confided that the eight-hour time difference had caused her to wake up at 3 a.m. in Moscow.

When the presidential party left Moscow for London, Howard H. Baker Jr., the White House chief of staff, denied that Reagan’s fatigue had affected his talks with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. But he acknowledged that the President looked and felt tired.

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At times, Reagan’s voice seemed weak, with no energy behind it. On the last day in Moscow, the President nodded off during a ballet at the Bolshoi Theater.

In London, in his appearance at the Guildhall, Reagan’s face seemed more deeply lined than before.

Aware of his vulnerability to jet lag, Reagan began his 10-day trip with an extraordinary rest stop in Helsinki, which he combined with a state visit to Finland.

He arrived at 1 o’clock in the morning, so that he could make the eight-hour flight during his normal waking hours, and cleared his schedule the following day.

As a result, the official welcoming ceremony was delayed until almost 36 hours after his plane landed. Reagan made one major speech in Finland but his voice was weak, and he seemed to lack energy.

Arriving in Moscow, Reagan was far from his typical bouncy self. He descended stiff-legged from the plane, holding to the rail and to his wife. He remained somewhat stiff-legged as he and the 77-year-old Soviet president, Andrei A. Gromyko, reviewed an honor guard. A bit later, though, he took a lively stroll down Moscow’s historic Arbat, greeting Soviet citizens. And he seemed to have no difficulty in climbing into a carriage.

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Gromyko’s wife, Lidiya, may have spoken for the President as well when she told a reporter who asked how she was holding up during a visit to Leningrad with Mrs. Reagan:

“Of course I’m tired. I am 77 years old. How could I not be tired?”

Reporter Rupert Cornwell observed in the London Independent that Reagan’s performance brought to mind an aging actor on a farewell tour, calling up all the stagecraft he had learned in a lifetime, in an impressive but poignant performance.

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