Are You Too Old to Be President?| March 7, 2023
Biden's senior moments are a bipartisan concern
Through much of elementary school, I had the distinction of being the youngest in my class with the oldest parents.
One day, a classmate taunted me that my father was too old to be president. The incident occurred a few years after John F. Kennedy had become America’s youngest elected president and people were enamored with his apparent youth and vigor. (Teddy Roosevelt, America’s youngest president, assumed office following the assassination of President McKinley.)
In retrospect, my classmate’s insult might have been labeled a micro-aggression, but back then, I sufficed with going home crying to my mother.
My mother, who had little formal education but held a master’s degree in chinuch, gave me a homework assignment. Open an encyclopedia and look up the average age at which US presidents were inaugurated. That average age was 54. (It’s even higher today.) My father could still make the grade! I shared the research with my classmate, and he was humbled.
Neither of our fathers ever became president, but with 2024 in sight, an old classroom debate has become a major campaign issue.
While the Constitution sets a minimum age of 35 to become president, there is no upper age limit. Republican candidate Nikki Haley, a spry 51, is demanding that presidential hopefuls 75 and older take a cognitive test. Donald Trump, going on 77, is agreeable. Trump challenged President Biden, who would turn 82 after Election Day, to play along.
While many commentators criticized Haley for indulging in age discrimination, many Americans are duly concerned. A recent AP poll showed that just 37 percent of Democrats approve of Biden seeking a second term, based on his age.
Before Biden, America’s oldest president was Ronald Reagan, who was 78 after his second term. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease five years later, but some aides and White House reporters were already detecting signs of cognitive decline by the middle of his second term.
There are no checks and balances when it comes to age. Five of the nine Supreme Court justice are over 62. According to GovTrack, 68 senators are aged 60 and up, and the current 118th Congress is the third oldest on record since 1789.
It’s way too early to predict if 2024 will pit the octogenarian Biden against the soon-to-be octogenarian Trump, and if this portends that America is turning into a gerontocracy — a term first attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who once opined: “It is for the older man to rule and the younger to submit.”
Super-Agers vs. Youth
Even if it’s the presidential candidates who should belong to the submissive class, and agree to physical and cognitive testing, they too have a right to privacy, and there are no assurances that they would level with the American people.
A white paper published in 2020 by Dr. Stuart Jay Olshansky for the American Federation for Aging Research quoted Dr. David Scheiner, who served as President Obama’s personal physician, and suggested that voters should never accept a candidate’s declaration of health at face value.
Dr. Olshansky, a longstanding researcher at the University of Illinois–Chicago School of Public Health on the upper limits of human longevity and its public policy implications, concluded: “Chronological age should not be a relevant criterion used to judge presidential candidates.”
He did, however, accept the recommendation of Obama’s doctor that sitting presidents and candidates should voluntarily make their medical records public so voters can make decisions based on full disclosure of any medical conditions.
Having said that, age itself or even pre-existing medical conditions should not necessarily be a disqualifying factor. The 25th Amendment to the Constitution provides for an orderly succession should a president become incapacitated in office.
Also, some people’s brains age at a slower rate than implied by their chronological age, according to Dr. Emily Rogalski, associate professor in the psychiatry department at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
While scientists believe the average person’s memory peaks in the thirties and declines thereafter, a group she defines as “SuperAgers” follow a different trajectory.
“Their brains seem to age much slower, and when they reach the age of 80 or above, their brains look and behave like the brains of people decades younger,” Dr. Rogalski writes.
Illusions of Youth
Peter Ling, a University of Nottingham professor of American studies and author of a 2013 biography on JFK, noted that Kennedy’s youthful image was an illusion. Kennedy was chronically ill and heavily medicated due to damaged adrenal glands and crumbling spinal vertebrae. Ling contends this could account for Kennedy’s impaired performance in his first summit with the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, although the same drugs may have kept him calmer during the subsequent Cuban missile crisis.
Youth and good health don’t necessarily correlate with presidential capabilities.
Five years ago, the consumer medical website MedicareSupplement.com surveyed 27 historians and physicians, who ranked Rutherford B. Hayes as America’s healthiest president, with Barack Obama a close second. Hayes gained fame — or notoriety — for banning alcoholic beverages from the White House. He was 55 when he took office, but only lived to age 70. Obama, elected at age 47, was known as a healthy eater who shunned coffee and sugar. Health in office was never an issue for either man, but that didn’t make them great presidents either. In 2021, C-SPAN surveyed a diverse group of 142 historians who ranked Obama 10th and Hayes 33rd when it came to effectiveness in office.
Their rankings focused on ten key measures of aptitude: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision/setting an agenda, the pursuit of equal justice for all, and performance within the context of their times.
The only problem with these measures is that historians can grade using hindsight, whereas citizens must cast ballots without the benefit of foresight.
One thing we can be sure of. Age will be front and center in the 2024 presidential campaign, even if it shouldn’t be. Younger candidates will weaponize it to their advantage, while older candidates will have to fend off the insults and the onslaught.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 952)
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