These are early days, but Marco Rubio has so far been able to deftly navigate around the landmines clumsily set by the press on his pathway toward the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
Since revealing his candidacy on Monday, Rubio has subjected himself to interviews with news outlets that are probably quite skeptical of Republicans in general, let alone a candidate as unapologetically hawkish as himself. From NPR, to Univision, to a variety of impromptu press gaggles, Rubio’s openness with the media contrasts greatly with Hillary Clinton’s stage managed presence.
Rubio managed to avoid cementing the impression that he is “the candidate of yesterday” on the issue of gay marriage when he told Univision’s Jorge Ramos without hesitation that he would attend the same-sex wedding of a hypothetical loved one. Democrats will find that this response complicates their mission to frame Rubio’s opposition to same-sex marriage as an outgrowth of personal animus toward gays and lesbians.
On Friday, Rubio defused another bomb set by the political press on the matter of his age. Specifically, whether or not he is experienced enough to lead the nation:
Reporter asks: "Is 43 old enough to be president?" @marcorubio replies: "I know 44 is, which is what I turn in May"
— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) April 17, 2015
Rubio’s response was a strong one insofar as it cannot be spun into a two-day story. But this episode says much more about the press than it does the Florida senator. The Democratic Party has fancied itself a party of youth and vigor since at least the 1960 campaign. Over the last half century, Democrats have benefited from the political media’s complicity in the effort to characterize theirs as a forward-looking party abounding with fresh ideas.
This narrative has also been advanced by the fact that Democratic presidents are often comparatively young. John Kennedy was only 43-years-old when he was inaugurated the 35th President of the United States. Jimmy Carter was a spry 52 on inauguration day. Bill Clinton, the youngest governor the nation had seen in four decades when he became the chief executive of Arkansas in 1978, was only 46 when he was elected to the White House. Barack Obama took the oath of office when he was 47-years-old.
Each of these presidents defeated Republicans who were older than they were, often by decades. Despite the best effort of those Republicans to frame their age a net plus — a gift that bestows wisdom, moderation, and invaluable experience — it was often the Democratic narrative that took hold of the national zeitgeist. And that narrative invariably suggested that the aging figure leading the GOP was a figure to be dreaded.
Ronald Reagan was portrayed by the left as a warmongering eccentric, and his age played a significant role in their unfounded fears. “If John F. Kennedy were alive today, he’d be younger than I am,” a fictional Reagan said in a 1986 Halloween episode of the popular British satire program Spitting Image. “I’m 75-years-old, and I’ve got my finger on the button.” When asked why the puppet Reagan wasn’t dressed up for the holiday, America’s 40th President explained, “I just couldn’t think of anything more scary than that.” He proceeded to hurl a live grenade into the Oval Office, presumably killing his wife and most of his Cabinet.
When a 72-year-old Bob Dole ran for the White House, a Time Magazine cover story asked if he was “too old to be president?” The story’s subhead also asked if Dole was “too old-fashioned a politician to lead his radicalized party?” Time should be commended for the latter question, which exposed its naked anti-Republican bias far more honestly than did the former.
“A new Democratic Party television commercial takes a not-too-subtle swipe at Senator Bob Dole, age 72,” The New York Times noted in the spring of 1996. “After a shot of him side-by-side with Speaker Newt Gingrich, the announcer warns: ‘Their old ways don’t work. President Clinton’s plan — the new way.’”
“Racism and sexism have long been taboo in mainstream American politics, but in this Presidential campaign there is a high tolerance for ageism,” The Times observed accurately. “In fact, Democrats say it may be their ticket to keeping the White House in November. In this election year, it seems, maturity is out and youth and vigor are in.”
Many will recall how John McCain’s 71 years were terrifying to both reporters and Barack Obama supporters alike in 2008. In spite of the fact that three-quarters of Gallup poll respondents did not see McCain’s age as a negative, many in the press appeared disinclined to agree. “A lot of people in this swing state, and around the nation, see John McCain as a ‘wrinkly white-haired guy,’ and it’s hurting him,” a McClatchy dispatch from August of that election year read.
Compounding the issue is McCain’s appearance. His Vietnam injuries make it hard for him to raise his arms. His left cheek protrudes somewhat, the result of melanoma surgery eight years ago, and last month he had a small patch of skin removed from the right side of his face. A biopsy found no evidence of cancer.
“Of course, there is no guarantee that someone elected at a younger age will be better-equipped mentally for the office than someone older, but the demands/stresses of the presidency are such that we can see how a person in their late 40s / early 50s would be more likely to meet the enormous demands of the job than someone in their late 60s / early 70s, all other factors being equal,” Opined Joseph Lazzaro for The International Business Times in the summer of 2012.
He noted that the challenges that the president will face in the years following that election would be immense (he had no idea), and it would be best for the sitting president to be as vivacious and engaged as possible.
With the above as a backdrop, where does Mitt Romney, who, in January 2013 will be age 65, sit?
One could make a strong argument that Romney is too old to be president. True, the presidency of 2013 — unless the geopolitical landscape changes substantially before then — will not have the acute tension/stress of the Cold War era, but every other responsibility/demand that scholar Rossiter listed remains.
And that suggests that candidates in their late 40s / early 50s will remain best-suited for the U.S. presidency, all other factors being equal.
Of course, Hillary Clinton cannot be expected to be held to this same standard. The reporter who dares ask her about her age (she will be 68 by the time she takes the oath of office) will be deemed by their colleagues “ageist,” “sexist,” or some other scarlet letter that will hamper their career prospects. This form of peer pressure is remarkably effective.
Those in the press who do tackle Clinton’s age have determined that her years have bestowed upon her a great wisdom and a presence of mind that she will find of great value as commander-in-chief.
Writing in Time Magazine this week, the psychologist Dr. Julie Holland gushed over Clinton’s years. She noted that Clinton is representative of an aging American population, and is biologically primed for leadership.
As a psychiatrist, I will tell you the most interesting thing about menopause is what happens after. A woman emerging from the transition of perimenopause blossoms. It is a time for redefining and refining what it is she wants to accomplish in her third act. And it happens to be excellent timing for the job Clinton is likely to seek. Biologically speaking, postmenopausal women are ideal candidates for leadership. They are primed to handle stress well, and there is, of course, no more stressful job than the presidency.
Even this absurdity was met with howls from the feminist community. Some seem to have determined that to acknowledge Clinton’s age, even in praise, is to demonstrate a depth of prejudice that justifies dismissal from the public square.
So, get ready for a campaign characterized by a level of hypocrisy from the press that was previously unimaginable. For those who lived through the last two presidential election cycles, that might seem implausible. Buckle up. You ain’t seen nothing yet.