Dole's age isn't the problem, it's the sense that he's yesterday's man

July 24, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Most of us who have passed our 39th birthday (and then some) don't particularly revel in the arrival of another one, but Bob Dole had more reason than most this week to wish that his 73rd had come and gone with a bit less fanfare -- or was it dissecting?

The flood of stories about it, along with reports on the state of his health, the life expectancy of folks his age and lengthy recapitulations of his medical history, demonstrated the irresistible nature of a ''hook'' in the news business.

In one sense, the Dole campaign brought the furor on itself, defensively releasing detailed results of Mr. Dole's latest medical checkup indicating that he's in great shape for a man his age. Mr. Dole volunteered to undergo an independent examination as president if his physical or mental health ever came into serious question.

There is good reason politically for his campaign to combat ''the age issue,'' in light of a CBS News/New York Times poll this week in which 34 percent of 979 voters surveyed (40 percent among those who themselves were over 65) said they thought the senator's age would be a problem for him in getting elected.

Even given his vigorous appearance, rigorous schedule and very positive medical reports, the fact that if elected he would be the oldest man ever to reach the presidency naturally gives many voters pause. (Ronald Reagan was ''only'' 69 when he took the oath of office in 1981 and he completed two terms).

Mr. Dole for a time toyed with the idea of making a pledge to serve only one term if elected but thought better of it, no doubt understanding that such a promise would focus even more attention on his age, not to mention starting him out as a lame-duck president. One obvious motivation for such a pledge was to entice retired Gen. Colin Powell to go on the Republican ticket with him, but Mr. Powell wasn't buying.

At any rate, Mr. Dole's age assures heightened interest in his selection of a running mate. He has emphasized that he wants a younger person with no serious health problems. Regardless of a president's age, the history of vice presidents succeeding to the presidency commands voter attention to the choice.

Vice presidents move up

Since the start of World War II, three vice presidents -- Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford -- have been elevated to the presidency by a vacancy at the top, and two others -- Richard Nixon and George Bush -- came close as a result of a serious illness of the presidents under whom they served or, in Mr. Bush's case, the assassination attempt against Mr. Reagan.

All these circumstances made Senator Dole's arrival at his 73rd birthday much more of a potential headache for him than trying to blow out that many candles on a birthday cake. But more troublesome for him than his chronological age is the perception that he is a man of the past without a specifically articulated vision for the country's future.

While he has a history of ill-tempered observations in political adversity at least as far back as 20 years ago when, as a vice-presidential nominee himself he ranted about ''Democrat wars,'' similar lashings-out now risk being interpreted as the toll of advancing years. Every time he demonstrates pique at a reporter's question or at negative reactions to a campaign decision like passing up the recent NAACP convention, inevitably it's written or said that ''Bob Dole is losing it.''

Perhaps the best thing for him about this epidemic of ''Dole is 73'' stories is the fact that it has come nearly four months before the voters go to the polls. Any new snappishness, however, risks another round.

Unfortunately, Mr. Dole can't emulate departed comedian Jack Benny, who got laughs for many years by insisting he never got older than 39. Running for president when you're 73 is no laughing matter, but it doesn't have to be politically fatal either, if the candidate demonstrates not only physical and mental vigor but also a real sense of direction for the country. That's Senator Dole's real problem, not his age.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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