This weekend brought word that John McCain will be convening a panel of his doctors next month, in an effort to help assuage concerns about his age and health. Of course, McCain's prognosis at that press event is a foregone conclusion: clean bill of health, sound of mind and body. Such an event seems eerily similar to one of the current administration's periodically scheduled reports of the trajectory of the Iraq, where generals and advisers, chosen for their like-mindedness, give stoically rosy assessments of the war. You can hear it now, "Senator McCain is the picture of physical fitness!"; and then, under their collective breath, "...for a man his age."
That may be well and true, but if so, McCain can't blame his recent (and frequent) campaign-trail Iraq war gaffes on a deteriorating mind. Which means that instead he's simply misinformed and does not understand the war we're waging or whom we're waging it against. McCain's campaign has maintained that these blunders were merely examples of the Senator misspeaking. But these aren't the type of innocent stump speech lapses like when Senator Clinton mixed up the vowel-laden state names of Ohio and Iowa. So, given the implausibility of the "mere misstatement" explanation, what's worse: (a) that McCain doesn't understand the facts, parties, factions, and religious groups involved in the Iraq violence, or (b) that his age and mind are impediments to his perception? Sadly--since it implies that the electorate is accepting of our leaders being egregiously wrong--the more politically damaging explanation for McCain is that it is his age and mind that account for his weak grasp on the facts of the Iraq war, not a fundamental inability to grasp the situation (though both may be linked more than we know).
Moreover, it is not as if McCain is starting from a particularly strong position on intellectual fortitude and stamina. He graduated near the very bottom of his class at the Naval Academy (5th from last , or 894th of 899). McCain might attribute that poor performance to being a partier and goof-off, and there are no doubt many intelligent and capable citizens who did not fare well in academia. But for a candidate who's trying to distinguish himself from the current President, a highly lackluster report card is a reminder that no matter the bookish advisers with whom he surrounds himself, he is running to be the next Decider, and the Decider has to make informed, intelligent judgments on whom to listen to in the first place.
Of course, McCain isn't even the oldest candidate in the race for the White House. At 74, Ralph Nader holds that title. You can just see McCain making a point of that on the campaign trail: "Hey, if Ralph can do it, why not me?! I'm a spring chicken compared to him." Though I'm not sure that's a parallel McCain would want to draw.
Despite Robert Scheer's almost weekly protestations on Left, Right, and Center that a septuagenarian is capable of being president, McCain simply doesn't demonstrate the same grasp of the problems facing the nation that Scheer does, or that any presidential candidate should. Ultimately, voters are going to have to decide whether they trust that McCain's doctors and spokespeople are being entirely candid about the Senator's health. But in their medical optimism, McCain's camp shouldn't get too creative with their diagnosis: "He's as healthy as the economy!" That one just doesn't reassure the way it used to.