How can I face my parents if I say McCain is too old to be president?
In March 1933, Franklin Roosevelt paid a courtesy call to the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. When the president asked Holmes what he was doing, Holmes responded that he had been reading Plato. "Why do you read Plato?" Roosevelt asked. "To improve my mind," Holmes responded.
Holmes's mature reflection and experience kept him a great jurist at an age at which his clerks were probably younger than his grandchildren. Other old men (and now old women) have been great jurists. Yet even in this capacity, our system of lifetime judicial tenure shows its strain. Historian David Garrow relates that several Supreme Court justices have experienced age-related infirmities that eroded their ability to perform their duties. Some labored on, too long, in the hope that a president of their own party will be elected to appoint the right replacement.
Lifetime terms also increase incentives to appoint youthful ideologues who will shape the court for years to come. If Barack Obama becomes president, he is unlikely to appoint distinguished personages such as Lawrence Tribe or Ronald Dworkin. They are too old. That calculus might change if, instead of lifetime appointments, Supreme Court justices served, say, a 15-year fixed term. Age matters, much as we wish it doesn't.
Now we have the specter of John McCain trying to become the oldest elected president in American history. As someone active in public policy, I wonder: Is he too old? I also wonder what I can say to my mother and father if I draw harsh conclusions on this point.
There are obvious reasons to worry when we think about the practicalities of a 71-year-old assuming the crushing burdens of our nation's highest office. Experience, temperament, and judgment matter when one takes that 3am phone call. Sheer physical vigor matters, too, especially when that call is immediately followed by a long and contentious meeting with experts debating what to do. Senator Obama has been described as unflappable on the campaign trail. I bet physical energy has a lot to do with it. He looked visibly less fatigued than many rivals, and so perhaps was less likely to snap at some rude reporter or make another gaffe. These are useful presidential qualities.
We don't see many cardiac surgeons operating into their 70s. Is the presidency so different? Imagine the president managing a hostage crisis in an unfamiliar country brokering extended negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David. Accomplishing such tasks requires mental agility, memory, and endurance--mental and physical virtues that seem to make the presidency a young man's game.
On his worst day, Senator McCain is a better man than our current president and vice president will ever be. Yet he bears the scars of war and cruel imprisonment in a POW camp. He has suffered cancer. He shows garden-variety infirmities that come with age. It's fair to ask: is he up to this? Will he be up to it four years from now, and possibly longer?
The Reagan presidency sets a discomfiting precedent. Reagan's his letters and memoranda from the 1960s and 1970s reveal a capable and focused mind. (His policy positions were dreadful, but that is another story.) By the time he settled into his presidency, he had lost a large step, mentally and physically, long before his sad departure into the twilight of Alzheimer's disease.
I won't be voting for McCain in any event. Yet I will be writing about him, arguing with family and friends. Democrats will surely, if gingerly, press this theme. In 1992 and 1996, President Clinton practically handed his opponents a gold watch. Is it necessary, is it even decent, to say that the Senator is too old?
For all of us, this is a difficult, ultimately quite personal question. Age is in a different category from race, gender, religion, and other such things. Each of us ages. If we are lucky, each of us will someday feel the infirmities that come with age, will be too old to do some things we want to do.
Fifteen years ago, I became friendly with the great economist James Tobin, whom I met when he was nearing 80 and not particularly well. One day over lunch I was patiently explaining what I was doing--afraid he wouldn't be able to follow--until he asked a gentle but probing question that reminded me why he is a Nobel Prize winner and I am not. Apparently I was not the only young scholar who fell into that pattern. I heard that Jim once sat politely, if impassively, as an enthusiastic graduate student carefully explained a statistical method that Jim himself invented.
The prolific and wacky mathematician Paul Erdos described himself as a "dotagy," because he was solving problems well into his senior years. Anyone in the quantitative sciences knows what Erdos means. I was trained as an engineer. Although I have not worked in this field in many years, I keep a hand in things by occasionally auditing physics courses that interest me. As I cross the threshold of 45, my acuity in mathematical calculation, like my memory for names, is not as sharp as it once was. But I still know what I'm doing. So I feel the sting when a 22-year-old looks surprised that I know the answer to some problem I probably attacked before he was born.
I will leave for another time the incredible marginalization of middle-aged women within our economy and culture. Raise your hand if you've never heard some potbellied guy with an expanding bald spot make disparaging remarks about Hillary Clinton's looks. Fortunately for Senator McCain, he's not expected to be forever young and pretty. He faces different expectations.
My dad belongs to that generation of engineers who built mainframe computers and supersonic jets, who guided rockets to the moon (and even more important, all the way back). Many of these men, and a very few women, were later discarded when they were viewed as no longer useful.
My dad's last engineering job was at a firm with a temptingly over-valued pension fund. The firm was taken over by a corporate raider who ransacked that fund, laid off countless senior engineers, and was otherwise a pioneer in breaking every implicit contract that makes any company a civilized place to work. Some years later, we took solace when that raider got in financial and legal trouble. Last I heard, he was living under financial siege in a bankruptcy-protected mansion in Florida.
Age discrimination is less obvious and brutal today than it was 20 years ago. It's still a real thing. Social psychologists report that older engineers bear distinct stigma in Silicon Valley. They sometimes cluster awkwardly at lunch. It's hard enough to keep current. I got good training, but I was educated in the era before web browsers, when cell phones and the internet were only promising ideas that might eventually bear fruit.
That' calls to mind another issue which does not really mark the disadvantages of age, but which highlights the virtues of Obama's freshness that sometimes, but not always, accompanies youth. The key figures behind the current Iraq war cut their teeth during the long twilight Cold War struggle and the endgame with the Soviet Union that was so initially exhilarating. Not all of these men and women were of the Vietnam generation. Secretary of State Rice is younger, but spent her graduate training and early career extremely focused on the conflict with the Soviet Union.
The past seven years should teach us that the world is a more complicated and difficult place than we once thought. We are not the world's sole superpower. It's not clear what that term means anymore. The threats to our country and the world are more varied and require more global solutions than before. Our powers of persuasion have never been more essential, our military power more constrained and frequently irrelevant. President Obama would present a different face to the world, in a time when our global standing is remarkably low.
More than that, Obama's biography equips him to see things Senator McCain would likely miss. Yes, McCain has seen the horrors of war, but Obama has seen things too. He has seen the faces of hungry farmers looking aloft as American planes fly overhead. He has seen threats facing billions of people Americans typically ignore. These threats include the scourge of AIDS, but also less familiar problems such as the proliferation of cheap weaponry around the world.
Obama has pounded dis-spirited streets of south Chicago. He has seen taxicabs pass him by to pick up a nearby white person. He would be America's first post-Cold-War president. He would be our first president personally distant from the apparently endless battle over the 1960s. These would be good things.
Senator Obama is also young and vigorous. He has been described as notably unflappable on the campaign trail. I bet physical energy has a lot to do with it. He looked visibly less fatigued than many rivals, and so perhaps was less likely to lash out at a rude reporter or make a gaffe. These are useful presidential qualities.
That's enough about the positive aspects of Obama's candidacy. What does all this tell us about McCain's age? It is a legitimate issue we should address without rancor or euphemism. 2008 is the right year to pursue the resulting questions. There is something a little reckless and self-indulgent for someone past 70 to pursue the presidency.
Yet it is a bit on the wild side for anyone to seek this grueling office. Democrats want to prevail by winning a straight up contest of two capable people. I hope McCain masters a grueling campaign and lays to rest any age-related concern. On this one issue, I hope he does well. I'll bet Mom and Dad--Obama supporters both--are rooting for him on this, too.