08/28/2006 09:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sen. John McCain: 70 and counting

Happy birthday, Sen. McCain, and welcome to the geriatric ranks of America's approximately 40 million septuagenians.

When you celebrate -- if that's the word -- your 70th birthday today (Tuesday), you must be thinking what it would be like to be the oldest person ever to enter the White House should that happen in 2009.

As the oldest person among the likely presidential candidates of both major parties in 2008, you could occupy a special niche in American history. Indeed, you would be three years older than Ronald Reagan was when he beat Jimmy Carter in 1980 at the age of 69, and only a year younger than the Great Communicator when he won reelection to a second term.

As my friend Steve Thomma, a Washington correspondent for of the McClatchey Newspapers, wrote the other day, your age, and your health, will inevitably be factors as voters ponder their choices in the year and a half before the 2008 presidential campaign actually gets underway.

The good news is that you have good genes. "His mother, at 95, just returned from Europe, where she keeps a car and drove hereself across the continent," wrote Thomma, who came to Washington, just as I did, as a correspondent for the St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch and Knight-Ridder Newspapers, recently swallowed up by the McClatchy empire.

The bad news is that political reporters, and undoubtedly your rivals, will never let voters forget that you were disagnosed with a deadly form of skin cancer six years ago and had malignant tumors removed from your face and arm after an earlier encounter with skin cancer in 1993.

But not to worry, your aides assure us. "His health is fine," your top political adviser, John Weaver, told Thomma. "Just this month, he backpacked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim with his son, went on a weeklong tour campaigning for people, and he's about to lead a delegation on a multination tour of Eastern Europe."

However, as I discovered seven years ago, well before I turned 70 in June, the longer you live, the more likely you will encounter serious health problems. In my case, it was heart disease. I had a coronary valve implant and quadruple bypass, which undoubtedly saved my life. But I now workout regularly, can run mini-marathons and cause my cardiologist to tell me, after regular checkups, not to bother him again for another four months.

Nevertheless, the health issue will always be in looming the background as you continue the de facto presidential campaign that has made you the Republican Party's clear frontrunner.

"No matter how healthy the elderly candidate for the presidency appears to be, there is a significant likelihood that he will not survive or that his intellectual powers and leadership ability may be compromised, far more so than among those in their 50's," two Stanford University scholars who studied Bob Dole's 1976 presidnetial campaign when he was 73, told Thomma.

But there's no doubt in my mind that you're running hard for the presidency; as I wrote in The Hill a year ago, "Like God, Sen. John McCain is everywhere these days."

"Key deal-maker in the nuclear-option face-off and de facto leader of the Senate; subject of a New Yorker profile that all but announced his presidential candidacy for 2008; heroic protagonist in a Memorial Day TV movie based on a book about his Vietnam POW ordeal; guest on all the Sunday network talk shows; crusader for campaign-finance reform and a strong military; fierce antagonist of pork-barrel spending and baseball steroid abuse; investigator of Indian gaming operations.

"And this was before he turned up in Uzbekistan to protest human-rights abuses by that country's authoritarian regime, while leading a Senate Armed Services Committee codel to five countries in the region," I wrote at the time., adding, " I wouldn't have been surprised to see him driving the pace car in the Indianapolis 500 or riding a Harley hog down Constitution Avenue in the Rolling Thunder rally."

In fact, I can't recall any member of Congress, or president for that matter, gaining so much public exposure in a comparable period of time. Even without your unique biography as a Vietnam war hero and famous POW, you remain the most conspicuous figure in American politics at the moment, except perhaps for Sen. Hillary Clinton, who currently appears to be the Democratic frontrunner in 2008.

As you have often made clear, you are convinced that you are ready to lead the nation in the post-9-11 era and the fight against terrorism -- "I do believe that I have the qualifications to address what is now the transcendent issue of our time," you told The New Yorker. But you may find it difficult to overcome the fact that your health is still a question mark after surgery for a melanoma that left a long disfiguring scar on your face.

Any indication of a possible return of your cancer or evident dimunition in your energy or any other health problem that might keep you from the campaign trail could have a devastating impact on your presidential hopes. That's what political reporters and your rivals will be looking for in the months ahead.

So happy birthday again. Just don't hurt yourself trying to blow out all your candles.