Is Age Just a Number?
Question: How Old is “Too Old” to be President?
Most of us agree — discrimination is wrong.
Discrimination, whether based on race, gender, sexual orientation or any other human characteristic is a bad thing. We must stand up for the rights of everyone.
Trouble is, we don’t stand up for everyone.
Take older people for instance. What about the rights of seniors? When do we draw a line and say to someone — you’re too old?
65? 70? 75? 80? When?
Clearly, all ages should not be considered as equals. Some people are too young to do certain things. Everyone understands why age-minimums are necessary. No one wants to see a 7-year-old behind the wheel of a car. Kids shouldn’t be able to buy a bottle of vodka. Children should be forbidden from working in coal mines. So, age restrictions can be good thing. Laws are designed to protect young people from hurting themselves, and harming society. There’s near-universal agreement on this, at least in this country.
However, lot’s of fully-capable older people are forced to end careers and retire early. Maximum age restrictions apply to many occupations, presumably to protect public safety. Some examples of this include forced retirement for airline pilots, air traffic controllers, and law enforcement personnel. Again, there seems to be near universal agreement on age maximums in the greater interest of society.
As the 2020 presidential election draws near, ageism could become a major issue. Two possible Democratic challengers, perhaps the early front runners, will both be in their late 70’s should they decide to run. Former Vice President Joe Biden will be nearly 78 if he’s elected, making him 82 at the end of a prospective first term. Senator Bernie Sanders, still quite popular with many progressives, would assume office at age 79. That would make him 83 at the end of a first term, should he win and survive four years in office.
This begs the question: Is someone in his or her 70’s (or 80’s) too old to be president?
We might be jaded on this question based on history. We’re spooked by memories of what happened within the last century when at least four older men were elected to the presidency.
Ronald Reagan suffered from the early stages of dementia during the final few years in office. Dating back earlier, Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack and was incapacitated for several months. Woodrow Wilson was totally debilitated by a massive stroke and couldn’t perform his normal duties for more than a year. Franklin Roosevelt died early in his fourth term. History shows that old presidents don’t fare well. No president in history has ever held office in his 80’s.
We’ve seen how the stress of the nation’s highest office ages perfectly healthy men far beyond the normal cycle of calendar years. Consider two famous photographs of President Abraham Lincoln — the first one taken just a few years before he took office (in 1858), and the second photo showing his face just seven years later a short time before his death (in 1865):
These two photos of Lincoln, taken less than a decade apart are striking, perhaps even scary. The second photo shows a worn out man appearing perhaps 20 years older. One might even surmise the second portrait is the father of the first.
However, we don’t live in the 1860’s anymore. We’ve made considerable progress in health and medicine since then. People of means with access to good health care live longer and healthier lives than people in earlier times. In 1900, the average American male who survived childbirth had a life expectancy of 46. By 1915, it was 56. By 1941, it was 66. In 1975, it was 76. Today, it’s about 78.
So, there’s both good news and bad news for Biden and Sanders. The good news is….both may be perfectly fit for office, mentally and physically. The bad news is….by the time either president-elect gets sworn in, statistically speaking, he should already be dead.
Hypocrisy abounds, not just in how our popular culture often portrays senior citizens as feeble and incapable, but also how the most important functions of government usually rely on people with lots of experience. This is a glaring contradiction. Polls suggest a sizable percentage of voters wouldn’t support an older candidate, blatantly citing concerns about age. However, members of the Supreme Court have the option of fulfilling appointments for life, should they chose to do so. Since the founding of the republic, some of our greatest jurists were seniors who rendered extraordinary judicial decisions which greatly enhanced the quality of life for millions in this country, and their descendants.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, who fought in the Civil War as a young man, was eventually appointed to the Supreme Court by Teddy Roosevelt. He later served as Chief Justice until 1930. Holmes rendered some of his most respected judicial pronouncements while in his 70’s and 80’s. No one questioned Holmes’ abilities, even up until his retirement from the bench at the ripe old age of 90. Why would Holmes’ years of wisdom be cherished as an asset while labeling some prospective presidential candidates today as too old? To this day, many consider Holmes as one of the greatest minds ever to serve in government. So, why not grant Biden or Sanders the same opportunity and consideration? So long as they appear healthy and are given a clean bill of health, shouldn’t they be given the benefit of doubt?
Fact is, today ageism has become the last acceptable form of open discrimination in America. Whether we admit it or not, most of us make unfair assumptions and sweeping generalizations about older people solely based upon their age. While most of us wouldn’t care if the doctor performing an operation was white or black, male or female, straight or gay — if questioned most of us would likely prefer the surgeon who’s 45 versus the one who’s 75.
Given the critical role personality plays in social media and how politics is viewed as mass entertainment, campaigning (and governing) have became a continuous loop of theatrics. Donald Trump created a new era of 24/7 political reality television. Now, there may be no turning back to boring, studious, wonkish leadership. From this point forward, the lines between governing and entertaining might be indistinguishable. Given what’s happened, popular entertainers may be the best examples of what to expect if an octogenarian were to assume the presidency. Many of our most popular entertainers continue to act, sing, dance, and tell jokes well into their 80’s and even 90’s. Some haven’t lost a step and don’t miss a beat. Apparently, we don’t discriminate based on age when it comes to the things that amuse us. But governing may be a different matter.
To be clear, I too have concerns about electing an old person to such an important position of leadership. Biden and Sanders might be too old to run, and certainly would carry the baggage of mass concern should either end up winning. I too find myself silently thinking, “Gee, I wish they were 20 years younger. I’m not sure I can vote for a 78-year-old.” Admittedly, that’s discrimination.
While age may be “just a state of mind” as the familiar saying goes, in reality everyone’s number comes with preconceptions, whether deserved or not. Ageism is indeed the last widespread form of discrimination.