WASHINGTON – It doesn’t quite have the ring of “Morning in America” and “I Like Ike.”
But the phrase “Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.” is getting an unlikely moment in the spotlight as President Donald Trump has taken a detour into the politics of dementia three months before the election.
Trump, 74, attempted to demonstrate his mental fitness by reciting five words — in order, importantly — over and over in a television interview broadcast Wednesday night. The Republican president said that collection of nouns, or ones like them, was part of a cognitive test he had aced while declaring that his likely Democratic opponent, 77-year-old Joe Biden, could not do the same.
In a battle of septuagenarians, the Trump campaign has long tried to paint Biden as having lost some of his mental sharpness. But the gambit has yet to prove successful in denting the former vice president’s standing in the race. That leaves Trump trying to escalate the attacks while defending his own ability to handle the mental rigors of the job.
“The first questions are very easy,” Trump told Fox News. “The last questions are much more difficult. Like a memory question. It’s, like, you’ll go: Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV. So they say, ‘Could you repeat that?’ So I said, ‘Yeah. It’s: Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.’”
He then recalled that, at the end of the test, the doctor asked him to recite it again.
“And you go: ‘Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.' If you get it in order, you get extra points,” Trump said. “They said nobody gets it in order. It’s actually not that easy, but for me, it was easy.”
Trump boasted that he dazzled the doctors because he has “a good memory, because I’m cognitively there” and delivered an unsubtle accusation about Biden.
“Now Joe should take that test because something’s going on,” Trump said. “And, I say this with respect. I mean — going to probably happen to all of us, right? You know? It’s going to happen.”
The subject of smarts — especially his own — has long fascinated the president.
Trump has been known to declare that he is “a very stable genius" and that “I have the best words” while noting that he attended the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. And about a month ago, he began telling aides that a cognitive test he took as part of his physical in 2018 could be something he could weaponize against Biden.
The president has been known to recite five words to aides in the West Wing or on Air Force One — he’d tweak the list to make it appropriate for the setting — while claiming that Biden could not do the same.
But some of Trump’s descriptions about the test and what it means don’t quite fit with what experts describe about the most common of cognitive tests given to older people. There is no bonus, and it's meant to be easy, said Dr. James Galvin, a University of Miami professor of neurology who runs a dementia center.
Galvin said what Trump described sounds an awful lot like the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, often called MoCa. It takes about 10 minutes, and the top score is 30, said Galvin, who has administrated thousands of the tests.
The MoCa “is a screening test,” Galvin said. “It’s not a diagnostic test. And more importantly, it’s not an IQ test. It doesn’t tell how smart someone is. It’s designed to be a relatively easy test because what you want to do is pick up people who have problems or possible problems.”
The last questions are not the hardest for most people, and they are usually naming the day of the week, date, month, year and where the person being tested is, Galvin said. The test does not get harder as it goes along but measures different parts of cognition, like memory, attention, spatial awareness and language. Additionally, the words the president cited would not be grouped together because they are all in some way related to one another, he said.
And the real concern would be if a subject did not do well on the test.
“I think he’s thinking of it like some sort of IQ test or SAT test, something along those lines. But it’s not anything like that. It’s just basic,” said Dr. Raymond Turner, professor of neurology and director of Georgetown University’s Memory Disorders Program. “It’s kind of a low bar to jump over. It’s not necessarily something to brag about unless you are worried about decline or something.’’
Trump, whose father had Alzheimer’s disease, has said that his former personal physician Dr. Ronny Jackson accompanied him to the test in 2018. Jackson, who is now running for Congress, did not respond to an interview request Thursday.
Questions about presidential health, mental or otherwise, tend to be closely guarded and rarely made the subject of national cable interviews. They have been part of the national dialogue before, including Ronald Reagan’s mental health during his second term, though the health woes of Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were largely kept from the public.
But the Trump campaign has leaned in on the issue, despite the boomerang effect of highlighting the president’s own verbal missteps, as a means of suggesting that Biden’s blunders meant he was not up to the job.
“Any honest voter juxtaposing President Trump and Joe Biden can see the stark difference in mental acuity and wit,” said Trump spokesperson Ken Farnaso, before adding that “it’s their track records and not their ages that are in question here, and it’s clear that President Trump’s America First agenda is a winning platform."
When Biden was asked about cognitive testing last month, he responded, “I’ve been tested, and I’m constantly tested,” before adding, “I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive capability to the cognitive capability of the man I’m running against.”
The Biden campaign quickly clarified that its candidate was referring to the rigor of the presidential campaign -- not that he had undergone specific cognitive testing. And a campaign spokesperson wasted no time rebutting Trump’s claim on Thursday.
“Donald Trump is spectacularly failing every conceivable strategic test by ramping up mentions of this subject at all,” said spokesperson Andrew Bates. “Joe Biden sounded the alarm about the outbreak early, whereas Donald Trump is still promising us the virus will magically ‘disappear.’ Joe Biden has highlighted the advice of medical experts throughout the pandemic, but Donald Trump publicly encouraged COVID-19 victims to inject themselves with disinfectant.”
“And,” Bates continued, “if that’s not enough for you, ‘Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.’”