Thanks to Modern Electronics, the President's Hearing Seems to Be Right on the Button

updated 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

During a press appearance at his California ranch two weeks ago, Ronald Reagan was asked if there was anything he might do to get the Soviets to return to arms-control talks. The President paused but did not reply; the reporter, who was several feet away, repeated the question. Standing next to her husband, Nancy Reagan lowered her head and, hardly moving her lips, muttered the words, "Doing what we can." With her cue, the President then responded: "We're doing what we can."

In May, at a news conference for foreign TV networks, the President amiably urged reporters, "Don't hesitate to speak up. Even with this button in my ear, I, uh...." Then he laughed.

It is no secret that Ronald Reagan's hearing is impaired. For almost a year he has worn a marble-size hearing aid tucked in his right ear, for which he has absorbed a measure of ribbing—mostly good-natured. Occasionally he's even joked about it himself.

Still, the question of the President's hearing has been a matter of concern around the White House. Because of the "old-age stigma" attached to hearing-aid wearers, the last thing a 73-year-old President up for reelection needs is something to call attention to his accumulation of anniversaries.

The President is among 18 million Americans who suffer some degree of hearing loss. But while 40 percent of those whose hearing is impaired are 65 or older, age has nothing to do with Reagan's difficulties, according to Dr. John William House, a Los Angeles specialist who has treated him since 1979. The President's impairment, he says, dates to his early Hollywood days, when a .38-caliber blank was fired too close to his right ear on the set of the 1939 film Code of the Secret Service. The cochlea (inner ear) was damaged. Dr. House, who concedes that the President has not been tested in a year, describes Reagan's hearing loss as "moderate—a 35 percent impairment" in the right ear, with Reagan's left ear in the normal range. Until recent technological advances, says House, there was no hearing aid that suited the President's particular problem of hearing the higher frequencies.

Washington Post columnist Lou Cannon claims to have been the first to report on Reagan's hearing difficulties. "During the 1980 campaign his people jumped all over me, saying I was taking cheap shots at him," recalls Cannon, insisting that the hearing of a President is an issue of legitimate public concern. Later there were reports of President Reagan turning up the TV sound to almost unbearable levels and of White House aides speaking so loudly to be heard that conversations sounded like arguments. The U.S. Chief of Protocol, Selwa ("Lucky") Roosevelt, who is also partly deaf in her right ear, has been relieved to find herself placed to the left of the President on receiving lines. That way, she explains, a military aide announces the names of approaching guests into her good ear, and she, in turn, passes on the names to the President into his good ear.

Last September the President was first spotted wearing his hearing aid, a battery-powered, intracanal model, one of two given him by the manufacturer, Starkey Laboratories Inc. of Minneapolis (retail price: $1,500 each). Now, White House correspondents note that instead of saying "What?" to every other question, Reagan may miss only every 10th or 12th question.

Newsmen can well understand how the President can bobble a question yelled at him from across the White House lawn while a waiting helicopter is revving up. But many are skeptical of Reagan's claim that the domed ceiling of the Oval Office presents an acoustical problem. "There's something funny about this room, where, if you're sitting there out under the dome, it's hard to hear," he has reportedly explained. Some have wondered if it isn't all a clever ploy to play for time before answering a hard question or, perhaps, to avoid answering a sticky question altogether. Most White House veterans doubt that Reagan is being evasive. "It isn't like that with Reagan," says one reporter. "He doesn't get conveniently deaf like Averell Harriman, who used to turn down his hearing aid."

Hardly anyone in Washington claims that Reagan's hearing problem has hindered him in any significant way. As time passes, he seems less self-conscious about it. He makes joshing references to his hearing device by saying, "Gee, I thought I had this turned on." Dr. House says the President told him he is so comfortable with his hearing aid that he has even worn it—forgetfully—into the shower. And on one occasion when a reporter shouted, "How's your hearing?" an unruffled President deliberately cupped his hand around his ear, flashed a wide grin and shouted back, "WHAT?"

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