October 6, 2015
According to the latest rumors, 72-year-old Joe Biden is preparing to take the final leap into the presidential race. If nominated and elected, he would become the oldest person to win that distinction, a few months older than Ronald Reagan when he won re-election in 1984.
He’s not even the oldest top-tier Democrat. Bernie Sanders would greet Election Day 2016 as a 75-year-old. Meanwhile, spring chicken Hillary Clinton is the youngest of the trio, a mere 68 next fall. She would only qualify as the second oldest to win a first term, fitting in between Reagan and William Henry Harrison.
The gerontocracy is not limited to Democrats. Current GOP polling front-runner Donald Trump is turning 70 next year, and would set a record for oldest person to win a first term.
Compared to the competition, Dr. Ben Carson seems very youthful, but if he served a full term, he would trail only Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower as the oldest presidents in American history.
Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina would both hit age 70 by the end of a second term, as would John Kasich. You get the idea. This is a much older than normal bunch of candidates.
While Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal add a dose of youth, most of the front runners are Medicare-eligible now or will be soon after Inaguration Day.
While running for president is arguably the most grueling political activity in the known history of humankind, the only thing worse is being president. Just take a look at the 2009 version of President Obama and compare that young-looking guy to today.
A before-and-after glance at any of the most recent presidents is equally jarring. Given how the demands of the modern presidency have aged Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, all of whom left office younger than Biden, Sanders, Clinton, Trump, Carson, Fiorina, Bush and Kasich would enter it, where is the line?
Bob Dole (1996) and John McCain (2008) each won nominations at the age of 73, but we don’t know how they would have held up. Seven years later, McCain is hale and hearty and looks about the same as when he ran, but being a senator is different.
Bill O’Reilly’s latest book, Killing Reagan, concludes our 40th President was mentally diminished from his assassination attempt forward. He thinks anesthesia and open-heart surgery, not a 1989 (post-presidential) horseback fall was the trigger point for Alzheimer’s.
Others, such as Reagan’s own son Ron and final White House Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein believe there were symptoms by the middle of his second term. We’ll never conclusively determine how much memory degeneration existed while Reagan was in office, but there’s a good chance there was some.
On the other hand, Reagan successfully negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev while possibly impaired. If O’Reilly is correct, the man whose memory all GOP candidates genuflect before was actually limited for most of his very successful presidency.
Reagan wasn’t the first. For much of FDR’s last 12 to 24 months in office, during the largest war in human history, he suffered from advanced heart disease. In addition to creating stamina issues, a lack of consistent oxygen flow to the brain caused cognitive issues too.
FDR was only in his early sixties, but more than a decade at the helm through depression and war took its toll. Though he gamely continued, he was unable to work a normal presidential schedule for at least his last year in office.
Eisenhower had several serious medical issues too. A serious 1955 heart attack immobilized Ike for months during his first term. Later, during the 1956 campaign, he required immediate surgery for a severe intestinal problem. In his second term, he suffered a stroke.
Each of these leaders suffered from medical issues that would limit a CEO, never mind a president. Each were forced to delegate even more than they already inclined to. Roosevelt dealt with a huge shooting war, Eisenhower and Reagan particularly scary parts of the Cold War.
Yet somehow, each managed to carry out the duties of their office. All were very popular at the end of their tenure. You can make a case (Teddy Roosevelt wouldn’t appreciate it, but it’s still a reasonable one) that FDR, Ike and the Gipper were the three most successful presidents of the 20th century.
How did they manage this? Was it mostly luck?
Fortune never hurts, but there’s more to it. Each had an overarching idea of what they wanted to accomplish and took meaningful steps in those directions before the limitations kicked in.
Whether it was FDR wanting to prepare for a complete victory, pushing forward with the goal of total enemy surrender, Eisenhower relying on a less-expensive nuclear deterrent to take the place of a potentially bankrupting giant conventional army, or Reagan deciding the Soviets could and would be defeated, the road map was already prepared.
All three presidents learned to delegate well long
before assuming office. Though their respective infirmities increased their reliance on others, they weren’t learning new habits or techniques. Each was comfortable they could still exercise their will when and where it was needed.
They also conserved their energy, taking far more vacation time than most modern presidents. Whether relaxing in Warm Springs like FDR, hitting the links at Augusta like Ike, or riding horses on his Santa Barbara-area ranch like Reagan, the presidents have themselves plenty of time in a more relaxed setting.
When maximum attention or extended physical stamina was needed, they stepped up. Otherwise, they often coasted. While FDR’s slowing pace wasn’t publicized, columnists often criticized Eisenhower and Reagan for spending too much time away from the office.
They ignored the jabs, and the regular breaks likely helped them avoid being overpowered by the office and it’s responsibilities like several of their peers were.
While it probably isn’t wise to purposely select a leader who is susceptible to major medical issues, winding up with one isn’t the end of the world if they have the proper coping mechanisms. As it happens, those skills and techniques are very useful for any Commander-in-Chief.
As we consider which of the current leading candidates can survive a difficult four-year term while remaining in reasonable mental and physical shape, it’s probably wise to examine how well situated they are to manage the burdens of office and keep from being overwhelmed.
That’s likely well more important than how long ago their birth certificate was completed.