How old is too old to be U.S. president?

June 19, 2008|By Theo Lippman Jr.

From late-night comedians to the AARP Bulletin and every talking head on cable television, age is getting to be a major issue in the presidential race. That's because if Sen. John McCain wins, he would be the oldest man ever elected to a first term.

I haven't counted, but I believe I have seen close to a dozen reruns recently of Ronald Reagan's put-down of Walter F. Mondale on the age issue in the 1984 presidential debate. But it isn't really being put in context.

Many readers of The Sun who are old enough to remember 1984 may also remember that the paper played a role in the event. The journalist who asked the question that led to Mr. Reagan's answer was Henry "Hank" L. Trewhitt, The Sun's diplomatic correspondent.

Mr. Trewhitt prefaced his question by saying that members of the president's staff had said Mr. Reagan was tired after the previous debate, and "I recall that President Kennedy had to go for days with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?" Good question.

The president said, "Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." Clever answer.

But Mr. Mondale, at 56, was already that October night older than the average age of all the presidents on their first days in office from 1901 to 1981, and he had spent four times as many years in Washington in the Senate and as vice president as Mr. Reagan had as president. So the reply was a non sequitur. However, the audience and the nation loved it. The old man is quick on his feet, people thought, so he couldn't be too old. Actually, it wasn't fast thinking at all. His media consultant, Roger Ailes, had prepped him the night before the debate that such a question would come up. Mr. Reagan was 73 then. He came into the White House when he was 69 years and 11 months old. If Mr. McCain is elected, he will take the oath of office when he is 72 years and five months old. That would be the oldest ever at the first day of a presidency.

I would guess that the men in the White House in their 40s, 50s and 60s were not having severe memory loss and other aging problems.

Last year in his book Um ... : Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, author Michael Erard cited a scholarly study by a British psycho-linguist of Mr. Reagan's 1984 debate performance. He made more slips of the tongue, had five times more pauses and uttered 15 fewer words per minute than in the 1980 debates. An American scholar in the field said the differences were merely normal aging in one's 70s. The British scholar said they were the signs of mental disease.

Mr. Reagan was reported to be showing signs of Alzheimer's in 1992, and the family announced formally that he was diagnosed with the disease in 1994. He died from it in 2004.

To end on a cheerier note, Mr. Erard points out that President Dwight Eisenhower, who was 63 as he began his eight years in the White House, soon got the reputation as a bumbler and blunderer. But he created that reputation on purpose. "Before one press conference," Mr. Erard wrote, "Eisenhower's press secretary, James Hagerty, was concerned that reporters would ask Eisenhower whether or not the United States would use atomic weapons against China to defend American allies in Taiwan. 'Don't worry, Jim,' Eisenhower said. 'If that comes up, I'll just confuse them.' Which he did."

Theo Lippman Jr., a former Sun editorial writer, is a card-carrying member of AARP. His e-mail address is theolippman@aol.com.

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