IA-Sen: Chuck Grassley Exhibits Symptoms of Frontotemporal Dementia

{Originally posted at my blog Senate Guru.}

First thing’s first.  I’m not a doctor.  I’m not suggesting that Republican Chuck Grassley has any particular illness.  Simply, I have noticed that Chuck Grassley, over the last many months, has been making increasingly bizarre, aggressive, explicit, and violent remarks – and that such comments coincidentally happen to be early symptoms of dementia, particularly frontotemporal dementia.  It stands out to me because, as a political junkie, I have long considered Grassley to be among the most mild-mannered denizens of the Capitol.  2009 has apparently become the year that the 75-year-old Grassley (he turns 76 next month) has shed his mild-mannered image, perhaps by choice, perhaps not.

In response to the story this Spring about AIG executives receiving exorbitant bonuses after the company was rescued by a massive infusion of public dollars, Grassley said on March 16, 2009:

“I suggest, you know, obviously maybe they ought to be removed, but I would suggest that the first thing that would make me feel a little bit better towards them [is] if they would follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say I’m sorry and then either do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide.”

Grassley added, “In the case of the Japanese, they usually commit suicide before they make any apology.”

The comment was rude, racist, and extremely aggressive, even violent.

The next day, still critical of AIG executives, but in an attempt to tone down the violent “suicide” comment from the previous day, Grassley went the more sexually explicit route:

“From my standpoint, it’s irresponsible for corporations to give bonuses at this time when they’re sucking the tit of the taxpayer,” Grassley explained.

When talking about government spending, “sucking on the teat” is not in and of itself bizarre rhetoric, but that Grassley used the more sexually explicit “tit” instead of “teat.”  In fact, such a nuanced difference might have flown under the radar entirely if not for a sexually explicit comment Grassley made at a budget hearing toward the end of the same month as his earlier comments, on March 26, 2009:

But yesterday he [Grassley] regained his bounce on the Senate floor, livening up an otherwise dull budget hearing with a joke about banging another senator’s wife. His opening came after he pressed Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad to include an amendment of his to a budget resolution by bringing up the fact that Conrad owed him a favor.

“Oh, you are good,” Conrad responded.

To which Grassley replied: “Well, your wife said the same thing.”

Sure, this comment, in a vacuum, could be one Senator good-naturedly ribbing a colleague.  But a joke intimating sex with a colleague’s wife, told, again, at a budget hearing, seems like bizarre behavior.  Further, when you add up these comments, what you have is a pattern of behavior.

Last week, Grassley’s pattern of behavior was reinforced by his take on health care reform:

We should not have a government program that determines if you’re going to pull the plug on grandma.

In fairness, this one comment has become a sick talking point of many Republicans shilling for corporate interests.  Nevertheless, it particularly stands out for Grassley given that, when he is not flying off the cuff, he is one of the GOP’s key negotiators on health care reform.  He should have had the self-control to avoid such aggressive rhetoric.  But that’s been Grassley’s pattern lately.

So what we have seen from Grassley in 2009 – and this is just in public; no telling what his comments and actions are in private – is a pattern of bizarre, rude, physically aggressive, sexually explicit, and even violent remarks.  Such a pattern even led The Iowa Independent to the headline: “Grassley: Strategic or just eccentric?”  Eccentric may be putting it mildly.

Grassley is not the first Republican Senator in recent years to have his mental health questioned.  During his 2004 re-election bid, the Kentucky media began openly questioning Jim Bunning’s mental health after a similar pattern of bizarre comments and actions.  Also, in 2006-2007, Pete Domenici’s mental health was questioned after a pattern of erratic behavior including reportedly walking around the Capitol in his pajamas.  Subsequently, in late 2007, Domenici revealed that he had a degenerative brain disease and opted against a 2008 re-election bid.  Domenici was 75-years-old at the time of his 2007 diagnosis, the same age Grassley is now.

Now for the coincidental symptoms.  If you hop over to WebMD.com, best friend of the armchair hypochondriac, you can find a page that lists symptoms of dementia.  Such symptoms include “having trouble finding the right words to express thoughts,” “having trouble exercising judgment,” and “having difficulty controlling moods or behaviors” while noting that “agitation or aggression may occur.”  What especially caught my eye was the following passage:

The first symptoms of frontotemporal dementia may be personality changes or unusual behavior. People with this condition may not express any caring for others, or they may say rude things, expose themselves, or make sexually explicit comments.

Agitation or aggression?  Check.  Personality changes or unusual behavior?  Check.  Saying rude things?  Check.  Making sexually explicit comments (again, at a budget hearing!)?  Check.  Lack of inhibition?  Check.

Again, I’m not suggesting that the 75-year-old Chuck Grassley has frontotemporal dementia.  I am, however, noting that Grassley’s pattern of behavior over the last six months coincidentally happens to match the early symptoms of frontotemporal dementia.  With Grassley turning 77-years-old before Election Day 2010, it would not be unfair or unwise for Iowans to get a clean bill of health from Grassley before signing him up for another six-year term (at the end of which he will be 83-years-old).

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