10/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Flight 2008, Your Plane Is Now Boarding"

During the 2004 presidential election and for several years thereafter, I was the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Rock the Vote, the well-known non-profit young voter registration and education organization. At my suggestion, we decided that our 2005 Rock the Nation Award would be given for the first time to a progressive politician in each major party order (instead of the traditional single award) to underscore that we were, in fact, a non-partisan outreach organization. The recipients would be a Democrat and a Republican whom we felt, at the time, demonstrated and exemplified progressive bi-partisan politics. So on June 8, 2005 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C, we awarded our 2005 Rock the Nation Award to Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain.

What a difference three years makes.

What is most striking to me about this in retrospect is not our eerie prescience regarding the 2008 presidential candidates. Rather, it is that the John McCain who received the award to in 2005 just does not seem to be the same John McCain who is running for president today. Now, I must disclaim that since stepping down from Rock the Vote two years ago, I have dedicated myself to helping Barack Obama become our next president. Nevertheless, as the 2008 race approaches its apex, I've been trying to discern what it is about John McCain 2008 that is so different from John McCain 2005 -- the one I actually kind of liked -- before his numerous policy-reversals that have drawn so much attention in the media.

To make sure I wasn't merely having a partisan moment of buyer's remorse, I went back and watched a video of the speeches that both Obama and McCain gave that night in 2005. What shocked me wasn't that John McCain's message had changed so much from then (frankly, the speech he gave that night was fairly apolitical and so bland that you couldn't tell what his positions were) -- it was that in the three years since, John McCain had clearly, and noticeably, aged. As Indiana Jones famously observed, "It's not the years, it's the mileage." In McCain's case, it seems like it may be both.

In 2005, McCain appeared to be vibrant, engaged, and generally "present". In comparison, McCain these days seems rather worn and shaky. It got me thinking: If this is how much McCain has aged in the last three years, how well is he going to age in the next three years, after the accumulated stresses of the grueling primaries and election, and with the unimaginable stresses of the Presidency lying ahead?

Many presidents have gone noticeably gray from stress by the end of their term. Campaigning itself contributes to rapid aging. In case you haven't noticed, Senator Obama himself has started getting a bit "more distinguished" over just the last couple of months. So, it's difficult to fathom how a 72-year-old man, especially one who has endured the unimaginable physical horror of five years of torture and confinement compounded by the bodily stress of five bouts of skin cancer, would hold up over the course of his stressful term.

To inject a sense of "real world" into this, let's consider that at present, many corporations have mandatory retirement at ages ranging from 65 to 72. Commercial airline pilots must hang up their wings at 65. Yet Senator McCain wants to assume the most stressful job on the planet beginning at the high-end range of most mandatory retirement policies? The man who wants to be in charge of the safety and well-being of 300 million Americans wouldn't be allowed to be in charge of the safety of 130 passengers flying aboard the New York-Florida shuttle this weekend.

I don't know about you, but if I were a commercial airline pilot seven years past the age of mandatory retirement, I'd feel a heightened sense of responsibility to choose a co-pilot who actually knew how to fly a plane, just in case something happened to me. And if I didn't choose such an experienced co-pilot, I guess my decision would speak volumes about my judgment, and perhaps underscore the reasons why the mandatory retirement age for high-stress occupations like airline pilots is 65.

Why are pilots grounded at that age? Because maybe your judgment starts to get a little fuzzy at 72 when you're dealing with life-or-death decisions that affect a lot of other people. Maybe your reflexes -- mental, physical, and emotional -- have eroded somewhat, leaving you less responsive in moments of crisis. When these unavoidable, natural facts of aging combine with the occupational risks involved it's no wild stretch of the imagination to foresee that you might be more prone to rash, selfish decisions that don't take into account the welfare of the passengers on your plane.

In a scenario like this, it's easy to target the co-pilot for his or her inexperience; however, it's really the pilot who needs to be blamed for selecting that person as co-pilot in the first place.

But ultimately, the choice of how we fly is really up to us. We all get a look inside the cockpit as we board the plane for our flight, and as passengers we can determine whether we should continue on or get off and wait for a different flight, with a crew better able to deliver us safely and securely to our destination.

On November 4, Flight 2008 starts boarding. So think long and hard about who you want as the pilot.

Because once we take off, there's no turning back.