Boomer Opinion: Does age loom in the 2020 election?

No matter who wins the presidential race this November, he will be the oldest person ever elected to the highest office in the U.S. So is it really age that matters? In this Boomer Opinion piece from Tucson, Mort Rosenblum, who spent four decades covering global stories for The Associated Press and editing the International Herald Tribune, takes a look.

I used to say that the only difference between 23 and dead is all in the mind. Now, a lot closer to the latter than the former, not so much. But today, age looms large in an America facing its most crucial elections ever.

A recent Atlantic headline (before the primaries were all wrapped up) asked, “Why Do Such Elderly People Run America?” Good question. Lots of young people with fresh ideas and new skills see their options in November — two men, 150 years old between them — as total wastes of space.

Mort in his beloved Arizona.

But the Atlantic writer, 38, lost me fast. He called Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders “three candidates divided by ideology but united in dotage.” Dotage? Webster defines that as “senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness.” Screw off, punk.

Ageism is a small-bore bias. Mostly, it reflects callow, shallow thinkers who generalize in data-clump shortcuts like their computers (which, BTW, their elders invented). Some people are couch-bound rutabagas by 50. Others remain brilliant into their 90s.

For the CEO of an imperiled “free world,” being old has value, even if he, or she, says “malarkey” when younger ones say “bullshit.” Founding Fathers fixed the minimum age for president at 35 back when male life expectancy was near 38. They wanted the oldest bulls in the herd.

A long life reveals over time how confronting the present requires an understanding of the past. Diplomacy demands an acquired feel for reading faces and anticipating how action might trigger reaction. Situations vary; human nature remains constant.

Every president needs two crucial qualities: an ability to inspire the nation, and a firm grip on real-world realities.

JFK swept into office at 43 with that brief, stirring Inaugural speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you— ask what you can do for your country.” But he bumbled into war that devastated Vietnam, then Cambodia, rejecting Charles de Gaulle’s warnings about what France had learned to its grief.

Obama, at 47, aced inspiration. He steered George W. Bush’s trashed economy into a boom for which Trump claims credit. He was a leader on climate change and the deal to lower the heat in Iran. But Syrians ignored his line in the sand, Saudis pounded Yemen, and Afghans kept on killing each other.

America now needs a seasoned statesman to not only restore decency at home but also steer it off the rocks abroad. Trump thwarted cooperation to contain a pandemic that is reshaping life on Earth. As he turns the United States inward, China threatens to set a frightening new global standard for human values, freedoms, and political philosophy.

My own septuagenarian view is suspect. Consider instead wisdom that has held up for 2,000 years, Plutarch’s essay titled, “Should an Old Man Engage in Politics?” A short summary: Of course, he should. Why burn down a living library?

Books about piloting a ship don’t produce captains, he wrote, “unless those captains have often stood upon the stern to observe the struggles against wave and wind and stormy night.” Leaders don’t need physical strength; that is only necessary for the officers and troops at their command.

Judgment, frankness, and wisdom develop slowly over time, Plutarch concluded, “so it makes no sense… that they no longer be of service.”

For some, history begins when they decide to take notice. A student once told me the Vietnam War didn’t matter; it was over before he was born. Alexander the Great was a bit before my time, I replied, but I knew he conquered much of the known world before he was old enough to buy cigarettes today in Arizona.

Alexander learned in war what Machiavelli wrote about political science 1,500 years later. Authoritarians gain power by playing dirty and keep it by making good on their threats, cowing their own people and their adversaries into submission.

America made itself great with a reverse tack, based on human nature’s better angels. Leaders should be respected, if not loved, more than feared. Three branches would check and balance one another. The first item of the Bill of Rights enshrined a free press.

The country’s changing landscape. Americans are speaking out, often protesting about complex issues.
(Photo by Lucia Tyson.)

During the Reagan ‘80s, conservatives began to entrench oligarchy. They pushed public schools to discourage critical thinking and social sciences, creating a workaday class that enabled an elite to get increasingly rich. Bread and circuses worked for the Romans.

In 2016, with the internet and Fox News, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. But the unhinged narcissist who Republicans expected to manipulate let a plague run amok, killing more than 110,000 (so far) and plunging America into depression. His cultists and hangers-on, unfazed, blame China, Obama, and yet another Democratic hoax.

Young people must endure whatever comes next. At the rate we’re going, scientists say, by 2070 much of our planet will be too hot and dry to support humans. Marine life is dying fast. Meantime, we face worsening plagues and endemic global conflict.

And yet those from 18 to 24 are the least likely to vote.

This November’s election is hardly Dancing With the Stars. It is not about single issues, emotional appeal or decisions made in an earlier time. The stakes are our very survival.

The Atlantic piece began with that Super Tuesday incident Biden detractors cite to show he is too old. In his victory speech, he “mistook his wife for his sister.” No, he didn’t. The women had switched places behind him. He was momentarily surprised when he turned to introduce them.

It ends, as it should, with climate change, saying America needs “ideas and input from the generation… most affected by it.” Of course. But altering the global ecosystem, like containing pandemics, is far beyond any one nation’s possibilities.

Fresh young leaders must reverse climatic chaos. But first, an American president already trusted across the world can unite large nations that pollute and small ones that suffer from it. His age is irrelevant.

4 Comments

  1. The Founding Fathers chose 35 as the minimum age for a President when average life expectancy was 38. But remarkably all lived to a ripe old age. It’s not the oldest bulls that were required it is the most well-fed. Great article. (Almost 70)

  2. Excellent blog, Mort. Our generation, for the most part, was taught to respect our elders. I treasured being my aunts and uncles and other older folks while growing up, listening to their stories and their advice (some good, some not-so-good) but always learning from their words and actions. I don’t see a lot of that nowadays. Perhaps we are partly to blame for not instilling those values in our children. I’m a septuagenarian as well and I prefer those who inspire us to be better citizens and to aspire us to higher goals, regardless of their age.

  3. Terrific insights. I do think that while wisdom and experience trump (you should forgive the expression) shallower attributes, age can bring physical factors into play. I’m pushing 73 myself and nearly bought the farm twice, with no notice. So I wish long life to the new President, but also to his running mate.

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