10.29.08

How McCain Made Grandpa Look Bad

The untold damage the campaign has done to geezers.

Other than robocallers, personal shoppers and washed-up sixties radicals, the biggest losers during this epic spectacle of a campaign have been those with some mileage on their odometers. Whether you call them Senior Citizens, the Greatest Generation or the economic engine of the early-bird special, they’ve had it rough. In our youth-besotted culture, they’re the last mockable group left. And Sen. McCain has helped put them on the Ridicule Express.

Yes, McCain’s in his seventies. But did he have to display every age-appropriate cliché? McCain has consistently come across as crabbed and grumpy, and thanks to the media, these faults have attached themselves to his brand like gluons. His notorious temper has become an old man’s seething, bottled rage. The incessant intoning of “My friends” reveals a mind idling in neutral. And when he says "Country First," you expect Jay Leno to counter, "Yeah, the trouble is he forgot what comes second."

Ronald Reagan was confident, with youthful optimism we read about all the time. When John McCain says our best years are ahead of us, it’s forced, like he secretly doubts it. .

And it gets worse. He conveys impatience at new ideas; he’s exasperated by disagreement. He spends too much time talking about the past. (A sticky wicket when your biography is your strategy.)

He seems to view technology as an insidious plot to highlight his own inadequacies. (Yikes, he actually said his staff is teaching him the email and the Internet, and he’s trying to learn.)

And then there’s McCain’s own reaction to, and strategy for, dealing with the age issue. Somewhere along the line his campaign staff told him to deal with it directly, with humor. Americans love self-deprecating humor, the memo must have said.

So McCain went on Saturday Night Live, and the late night shows, and poked fun at his advanced years, trotting out the old-as-dirt routine.

Huge mistake. In today’s language, he injected cliché liquidity into his own campaign. Can you imagine Reagan doing that? When Reagan made (or repeated, does it matter?) the legendary joke about not taking advantage of Mondale’s youth and inexperience, it was a brilliantly nuanced way of disposing with the issue, and dismissing his opponent (who wasn’t all that young—part of the humor). Even Mondale laughed.

Reagan was graceful, confident, virile. He had that buoyant, youthful optimism we read about all the time. When McCain says our best years are ahead of us, it’s forced, like he secretly doubts it.

Sure, it’s not all on John. His opponent is a stark (even brutal) contrast in a way that Reagan never had to face: Jimmy Carter was a beaten and shrunken man by the time he ran again, and Walter Mondale’s pasty middle-age didn’t make Reagan seem old.

When reporters proclaimed the history-making nature of the 2008 campaign—a black, a woman, and the oldest man seeking the presidency for the first time—it was quietly devastating for McCain. Two are indisputably positive, and the third, well, we’re not so sure about.

Ironically (and fittingly), by advancing the stereotypes of advancing age, McCain has made things worse for the generation behind him, one he doesn’t think much of anyway, the baby boomers. (Actually, that’s something he and his opponent agree on; in his books Obama speaks unflatteringly of boomer narcissism.)

Here’s the mess boomers find themselves in. They didn’t save much anyway—those self-involved hedonists—and now they’re going to have to work longer than they ever expected.

Which means they’ll be working cheek-by-earring with a generation that’s absorbed all these oldster stereotypes. A generation that relentlessly fights getting old will be working with (or for) people young enough to be their kids. It's the millennial generation, and they're that is fundamentally different than boomers in every way: their values, they way they communicate, their cultural signifiers, their aspirations.

There’s absolutely no model for this. Should a boomer go ahead and friend his millennial colleague on Facebook? Should a boomer even use “friend” as a verb or is it cool over-stretch? Do you dress your age, their age, or someone else’s? Just as you’re trying to muddle through it—and as you’re paranoid about being seen as done and buried anyway—John McCain becomes a national symbol of crotchety out-of-touchness.

McCain had an opportunity, which he squandered, to create a new public face of 70-plus. He could have brought us a graceful balance of wisdom and openness, warmly appreciative of the passion of youth, while ready to temper it with the generosity of experience.

Bottom line: the Obama campaign has advanced the freighted subject of race in America. The McCain campaign has left the freighted subject of age stuck in the world of Del Boca Vista.