Pulitzer Prize winner Art Cullen, editor of The Storm Lake Times in Iowa, has an op-ed in the Guardian this week where he expresses some concern over the leaders in the 2020 Democratic primary. It’s not a criticism of their various policy proposals, but rather something far more basic and obvious. The two people leading in the polling, along with a couple of the longer shots in the second tier, are really, really old. Is this something we should be worried about?
Call me ageist. As someone who knows a psychologist I can attest that Trump is batty and losing it more each day. Bernie impresses as a grumpy and impatient Trotskyite, Biden as a familiar Irish pol who wants to hug you up and keep you warm hearkening to days when unions had teeth and Scranton had steel. They confront a candidate written by Rod Serling for the Twilight Zone.
Warren seems a pup in their presence. Young of mind, she is a fan of Game of Thrones. She is full of vim and vigor and maybe is no more likely to die of a stroke than Pete Buttigieg, 36. She could beat me in a foot race any day of any distance. But if she wins she will be 74 at the end of her first term — same as Reagan at the end of his first four years.
Einstein and Edison were brilliant as old men. Mark Twain got sour and dour. Dwight Eisenhower was a fine president but seemed ancient when he departed office at 71. He left us with grave warnings about Soviet empire and US militarism.
If you click through to read the entire piece (well worth your time), you’ll see in the opening paragraph that Cullen is approaching the subject from a position of experience. He’s already past the age of Social Security eligibility and shares a number of complaints that are all too common. Failing eyesight, lapses of memory, a penchant for afternoon naps and fond reveries about the good old days that probably weren’t all that great in reality. Trust me, I can relate. I read that first paragraph aloud to my wife and she immediately thought I might have written it.
Yes, getting older can take a toll on you, no matter how careful you were about your health over the course of your life. The biggest danger remains the risk of seeing your mental faculties slowly slip away. This is particularly true when you’re talking about the person we’re going to hand the nuclear codes to next. So is this a valid concern for voters as they look over the field of candidates? Are we being “fair” if we judge Trump (72), Sanders (77), Biden (76) and Elizabeth Warren (69) based on how long in the tooth they are?
My default answer has always been no. After all, people age at different rates. Some are already slipping in their fifties while others remain sharp as a tack into their nineties. Surely we’ll be able to tell if any of them are a bit too far down the road after watching them in the debates and seeing how they hold up through the rigors of more than a year on the campaign trail, right?
Maybe not. As the author points out, the voters don’t exactly have a 100% success rate in this department. We only learned after the fact that Nancy Reagan and Al Haig were basically running the country for much of Ronald Reagan’s second term. And if you drop down from the national level to the various governor’s mansions around the country, you’ll find a history of plenty of people who stayed on the stage for a few too many encores.
In the end, it’s up to each voter to make up their own minds, or what’s left of their minds at least. As I said, I’ve traditionally never given the age of the candidates much consideration. But now I do think about it quite a bit more than I used to. And that’s only because I’m on the edge of that Social Security qualification age that Cullen writes about. And I too find myself more frequently reminiscing about something that happened in the 70s while being unable to remember what I just got up and walked into the kitchen for. Honestly, if I were running for President this year I’d advise you to take a pass on me.