Ages loom large in election

The Middle Ages

Staying young, growing old and what happens in between

June 22, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER

We seem to have settled the issues of race and gender this election season (although that might be optimistic), so only one rude and divisive issue remains on the table: age.

John McCain is old, there's no getting around it. He'd be 72 at his inauguration, the oldest president ever.

His hair is white, he protects his cancer-scarred face with a silly hat that makes him look like he is a member of the cast of Cocoon and he moves like the Tin Man because of all the injuries and torture he suffered during his time as a prisoner of war.

Barack Obama is young by comparison. At 47, he would be the fourth-youngest president ever, four years older than Teddy Roosevelt and John Kennedy and one year older than Bill Clinton.

But Obama has also picked a fight with the baby boomers, sneering at us for clinging to our Woodstock-Vietnam history and our old ways of doing things.

Although "generations" seem to be separated by only a decade these days, these two candidates are truly a generation apart. Obama is younger than McCain's oldest son.

I am not sure which of these guys makes the rest of us boomers feel more old, but it isn't a pleasant feeling for a demographic that might be in denial, but also votes.

All the way back in February, Anna Quindlen, writing for Newsweek, said that age was a legitimate issue this election because the presidency ages a person in dog years. "Each year in office is roughly equivalent to seven years in the life of an ordinary citizen."

You can tell, she wrote, by the before and after pictures. Even that cockeyed optimist George W. Bush looks significantly grayer and more careworn than he did eight years ago.

Adam Nagourney, writing in The New York Times last week, noted that surrogates in both political camps are trotting out "code words" that will sink into the subconscious of the electorate and plant the seeds of doubt about the other candidate's age.

McCain is "confused" on an issue. Or he has "lost his bearings." Obama is referred to as unformed or unsophisticated, Nagourney wrote.

All of this can cut both ways with us boomer voters.

We can be insulted by Obama's condescension and suspicious of his youth and inexperience. Or we can look at McCain and see, in the half-light, ourselves, recognizing that the presidency is not a second career you take on in retirement, like working at Home Depot three days a week.

There are something like 78 million of us who will begin to retire this year, and for us, age is an issue. One that we feverishly deny, as Quindlen wrote, with diet, exercise, Botox and inappropriate clothing. Or one that we acknowledge with discomfort when our steady gait or our vocabulary momentarily deserts us.

I would argue that age - more than race or gender - is the elephant in the room this election season. It is an issue more deeply personal than the economy or the war. We can agree to disagree with either candidate on their proposed solutions to these pressing dilemmas.

But if either McCain or Obama makes us uncomfortable with who we are as aging boomers, he is likely to pay a price on Election Day.


Read recent columns by Susan Reimer at

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