How To Tell You’re Too Old To Be President
Whenever I encounter words like “Boomer,” “GenXer,” and “Millennial” used to explain political behavior, it’s normally my practice to quit reading. Cant invariably follows. As anybody old enough to remember the Kennedy assassinations and the Vietnam War understands, so-called “Boomers” have been bitterly divided about every significant issue in American politics all their lives.
So no, knowing my birth date tells you nothing about my politics.
Only that I’m too old to be president.
Not that I’m in danger of being drafted, understand. For that matter, there’s never been a time when I wouldn’t have regarded a politician’s existence as an unmitigated horror. Glad-handing and grinning like an opossum all the time? Giving after-dinner speeches every night? Forever seeking to ingratiate oneself with strangers? Little solitude and no privacy? No thanks.
No matter. I’m definitely over the event horizon. So that’s my answer to a question recently posed by the Boston Globe’s Robert Weisman: “Question for Democrats: Are some candidates too old?” Illustrated by photos of Sen. Bernie Sanders (77), former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (76), and former vice-president Joe Biden (76), the article asks if it’s “ageist” to think the presidential train has left the station without them.
Supposedly, Weisman writes, “a growing movement of older Americans bristles at the notion that gray hair is a deficit.” He quotes Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, to the effect that “any call for young blood without evidence that an old person is incompetent or that a young person can do the job better is like saying a black person can’t do the job, or a woman can’t do the job.”
Um, no it’s not. I’ll tell you what’s “ageist.” Life is ageist. The calendar is ageist. Elsewhere, the Globe cites Eric Schneidewind (73), who recently stepped down as AARP president to the effect that “[s]aying people are ‘too old’ is reflective of an outmoded idea.”
I do hope that Schneidewind is enjoying his well-earned retirement.
Anyway, I can’t tell you Applewhite’s age, because her Wikipedia entry doesn’t say, and google’s no help.
So anyway, here’s the deal: my hair’s not gray, it’s white. One of those shaggy-haired Irish guys like Tip O’Neill or Teddy Kennedy, if you’re old enough to remember them. I’m marginally younger than all three putative septuagenarian Democratic candidates. I’m in excellent health — I’ve always been lucky that way — and good physical condition. Never smoked, always stayed in shape. Physiologically younger than my years. All that.
And still too damn old to be president.
Anybody in their mid-70s who tries to tell you they don’t feel the transmission slipping as time’s winged chariot draws nearer is definitely bluffing. Maybe your judgement’s sounder, but your memory’s not what it was, solving complex problems is more difficult and new ideas are harder to absorb.
Maybe not too old to write newspaper columns nor even to serve as a Supreme Court justice like 85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Although I’m guessing she’s hanging on out of patriotic duty.) While hardly comparable, both are sit-down jobs well-suited for old duffers with their wits about them.
Think of the wise counselor, Mentor, in Homer’s Odyssey. Or of Casey Stengel, managing the New York Mets.
Although, come to think of it, “The Old Perfessor” himself retired at 75.
So should all three putative over-75 Democratic candidates retire from presidential politics. Actually, there’s little point discussing Bloomberg, who has no constituency outside lower Manhattan and zero chance. According to Edward-Isaac Dovere in The Atlantic, however, Biden and his handlers believe that having Bernie Sanders in the race “might help neutralize the issue of Biden’s age.”
Well, it says here that the amiable former vice-president is definitely kidding himself. By now, Sanders is a cult candidate, overshadowed by younger members of the progressive movement he did much to promote — bless his cantankerous heart. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and possibly Sherrod Brown all share Bernie’s appeal to progressives without his advanced age and grating personality.
Also, few establishment-oriented Democrats — they’re still permitted to vote — are ready to forgive the personal attacks that helped Trump pillory the 2016 Democratic nominee as “Crooked Hillary.”
Meanwhile, Biden remains 76 years of age and pondering a grueling two-year physical and emotional ordeal that is an American presidential campaign, which, assuming all went well, would see him celebrating his 82nd birthday in the White House.
Always assuming the job didn’t kill him first.
I had a talk about this with an eminent brain scientist recently, a bit younger than myself and contemplating his own retirement. He mentioned differential rates of physiological aging, the strain of the office, intellectual decline, the prevalence of hidden transient ischemic episodes, and a couple of other aspects of aging I’ve forgotten.
Then he said, “Honestly, I couldn’t vote for anybody over 75.”
Honestly, nobody should.
Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and columnist for The Arkansas Times. He has written for Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Monthly, The Nation, Esquire, and Slate. His books include The Higher Illiteracy (1988), Widow’s Web (1993), Fools for Scandal (1996), and, with Joe Conason, The Hunting of the President: The Ten Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton (2000).