It’s a measure of how weird this campaign has been that Donald Trump’s 70th birthday today has gone almost completely ignored.
If Trump wins the presidency, he’ll be 70 years and six months on Inauguration Day—older than any of his predecessors. (Ronald Reagan was sworn into office in 1981 two-and-a-half weeks shy of his seventieth).
As for Hillary Clinton, she’d take office at the ripe age of 69 years and two months—older than any previous president other than Reagan.
Trump and Clinton’s combined score make them by far the oldest duo ever to compete for the Presidency—a fact that has received almost zero attention.
By contrast, when Reagan ran in 1980, his age was a very big deal. In the primary, his chief opponent George H.W. Bush jugged daily as an implicit contrast to his elder. Craig Shirley, chronicler of Reagan’s campaigns, told the Washington Examiner that “polling showed pluralities and majorities opposed to Reagan based on his age, especially when asked if they would support a man who would be 70 years of age one month after his inauguration.”
Only when Reagan began extensive on-the-ground campaigning did the issue recede. It reemerged four years later, when Reagan’s disastrous performance in his first debate led to widespread questions about his ability to handle the office. (Reagan famously dispatched the issue in the second debate, when he said of Water Mondale, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”)
So why the night-and-day difference between then and now?
To begin with, we’re an older country. More than 45 million of us (yes, myself included) are over 65. That’s 15 percent of the population—twice the size of the 1980 cohort. We’re also living longer. A 69-year-old woman can expect to live to 86; the average 69-year-old man will make it to 84.
Statistics, though, tell only part of the story. The political landscape offers example after example of significant players well past the three-score-and-ten mark. Two of the Republican Party’s post-Reagan nominees—Bob Dole and John McCain—were older than Reagan was in 1980. The nation’s biggest state is governed by 76-year-old Jerry Brown, who might well have been a Presidential contender himself this year if he were just slightly younger. Most dramatically, Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination was made much more difficult by 74-year old Bernie Sanders, who rolled up massive majorities among younger voters throughout the primary campaign.
Moreover, the fact that both candidates are in their “Golden Years” suggests a “Mutual Assured Destruction” limit to the age issue: point a finger at your opponent and four of them will be pointing back at you. It’s highly unlikely that we will see either Clinton or Trump start their mornings with a brisk three-mile run.
This absence of “ageism” as a campaign weapon may seem like a cause for celebration, but permit a cautionary note: advancing age brings with it inevitable, legitimate concerns. President Eisenhower had a heart attack three years into his first term, and his second term was marked by an emergency intestinal operation and a stroke. And there’s at least some reason to believe that in his second term, Ronald Reagan had “lost a step”, whether or not that include early symptoms of dementia. (See this account of CBS Correspondent Lesley Stahl’s apprehensions).
In this cycle, both campaigns have been at pains to assure the public of their respective candidate’s good health. Clinton’s personal physician says she is in “excellent” health, and takes blood thinners to prevent a recurrence of the blood clot that appeared two years ago. Trump’s doctor—in a statement late last year whose language suggests it might have been dictated by the candidate—concludes: “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” (Apparently the good doctor took the trouble to check the medical records of George Washington, John Adams, and the forty-one other Presidents).
But given the history of serious Presidential illnesses hidden from public view—Woodrow Wilson’s stroke, FDR’s heart disease, JFK’s Addison’s disease—it would be well to keep in mind that the man or woman taking the oath of office next January will be the oldest or second oldest ever to do so.
Remembering that fact is one way to remind ourselves that we need the most accurate possible information about their capacity to handle the burdens of the office they seek.