How old is too old to run for president?
When he entered a hospital Wednesday with chest discomfort and needed two stents to combat a blocked artery, the 78-year-old Sanders also put a new spotlight on the candidacies of Joe Biden, 76, Elizabeth Warren, 70, and even President Donald Trump, 73. At the moment, those four are the frontrunners in the 2020 race for the White House.
In Macbeth, Shakespeare wrote, “Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I’ve often mused that the strutting and fretting and, in some cases, the “idiot” part of that line are apt descriptors for many politicians. But how close should a chief executive be to exiting stage right (or left, depending on your perspective) before it becomes an issue? How concerned should we be that the sound and fury of day-to-day life as leader of the free world might inspire a cardiac event?
Last month, former president Jimmy Carter, now 95, was asked by a reporter what it would take for him to run again, considering he hasn’t reached his two-term limit under the Constitution.
Carter made headlines by answering, with perhaps an oblique reference to the current state of politics, that he hoped there was an age limit to the job. Then he added, “If I were just 80 years old, if I was 15 years younger, I don't believe I could undertake the duties I experienced when I was president."
Some of you might be tempted here to add snarky comments about how well Carter handled those duties while in his tender 50s, but such comments, inappropriate though they may be when considering a life of service, really do get to the heart of the matter.
Should age count more than ability? Are some people more sharp, energetic and qualified to lead at 90 than others are at 40? Should age alone be an inhibitor?
In a Washington Post op-ed, professors James Chappel and Sari Edelstein, who study aging at Duke University, noted that some of the world’s most revered leaders, such as Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill, did quite well in their 70s. The positive side of age imight include, “a heightened awareness to issues of inequality and discrimination, a wealth of policy expertise, and the adroitness and diplomacy that comes with years of experience in the government.”
Age doesn’t always equate to forgetfulness or old-fashioned thinking. Hard as it may be for a youth-centered culture to believe, it also can equate to wisdom.
Lastly, Americans ought to consider that representative government might not be so representative if it doesn’t reflect the aging of the population at-large. The Washington Post used Census data to come up with a mythical average American. Turns out it is a white woman, age 52.
The Census also shows that the median age in this country was 38.2 in 2018, and is rising fast. The median in Maine is 44. In Utah, the youngest state, it’s still a mature 31.
Meanwhile, the average age of a president at the time he was sworn in is 55.
Years ago, a senior leader at the newspaper used to chide me whenever I published a political cartoon poking fun at the age of Bob Dole, who ran for president in 1996 at the age of 73. Dole was about his age, he would remind me, and that was in no way an indicator of how well he could do the job.
I will admit I understand his concerns a lot better now that I have entered my 60s. But I also admit I am now keenly attuned to any little sign of my own cognitive decline.
Politics aside, I sincerely hope Bernie Sanders recovers from his current troubles and continues to be a voice in the debate over the nation’s future. But, while I would never disqualify him because of age, I think it would be a good idea to require all presidential candidates to undergo an independent physical and cognitive examination, regardless of age.
The results shouldn’t necessarily end anyone’s campaign, but voters ought to have some idea of what they might be getting.