08/30/2008 02:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain, Sarah Palin, and confronting the finite reality of human life

When my daughters were younger, they would often ask basic questions about the world and their place in it as I tucked them into bed:

"Daddy, can I live at home when I go to college?"

"Was it an accident when the Osama people smashed a plane into the World Trade Center?"

Overhearing a conversation about fertility treatment, my oldest asked with the deadpan innocence of a child, "Will Mr. ----- have to take Viagra now?"

"Why is Uncle Vincent so different?"

"Is Aunt Gwen going to die?"

"Why did Grandma die?"

Fingering at my gray hair after my mom had commented on it, my youngest blurted: "Daddy, I don't want you to die."

Like every parent, I answered these queries as honestly as I could. "Honey, everyone dies, but not for a very long time. We try to take care of our bodies as best we can. Mommy, Daddy, you, and your sister are all blessed to be very healthy."

Kids have a hard time accepting the realities of aging and our finite lifespans. Why shouldn't they? I do, too. Yet these are the cards we are dealt, and we must play them as best we can.

Which brings me to John McCain and Governor Palin. After the announcement, the liberal blogosphere exploded with critiques of her Christian conservative views, what we could uncover about her record as a small-town mayor and her brief, improbable tenure as Alaska's governor. Based on the little I know, I find her personally appealing.

Of course, she is nowhere near ready to stand a heartbeat away from the presidency. John McCain is wisely pursuing moderate women this election year. A score of talented Republican women--Senators Snowe and Bailey Hutchison, Secretary of State Rice--are available who could have helped him. He went another way, picking a young woman he barely knows who brings a fresh face, an appealing story, but virtually nothing else.

Republicans obviously counter that if Democrats play the experience card, they'll play it against Obama. Yet the comparison is laughable. Senator Obama was major legislator in Illinois, president of the Harvard Law Review, a brilliant professor offered tenure at one of America's leading law schools, author of a critically acclaimed memoir, loads of articles and speeches on nuclear proliferation, Iraq, and other matters, has met with major world leaders and addressed huge crowds across the globe. Oh yeah. He just presided over a bruising 2-year political campaign in which he funded and managed an eight-figure 50-state political operation that overtook his party's presumptive nominee who began with every advantage.

It's Senator McCain, not Governor Palin, who deserves harsh criticism for the selection here. Governor Palin is the person she is, at the career stage she has thus far achieved.

Let's be real here. Senator McCain is 72 years old. Here is the 2004 actuarial table used by the Social Security system to estimate mortality among American males.

Age Annual mortality Rate Cumulative Mortality Rate for a 72-year-old
72 3.30% 3.30%
73 3.61% 6.79%
74 3.95% 10.47%
75 4.34% 14.36%
76 4.78% 18.45%
77 5.25% 22.73%
78 5.74% 27.16%
79 6.28% 31.74%

My friend Dan Bernoulli helped with the calculations here. The typical man of Senator McCain's age faces a one in seven chance of dying before finishing his term, and a 30 percent chance of not finishing out a second one. Senator McCain has put in a hard 72 years. He punched his ticket with 5 years in a POW camp, surviving bouts with cancer, plane crashes.

And this analysis just covers the probability of survival. That's a pretty low threshold of mental and physical vigor. Particularly past the mid-70s, the data become pretty discouraging. Ronald Reagan sets a discomfiting precedent. His letters and memoranda from the 1960s and 1970s reflect a capable and focused mind. (His political views were dreadful, but that is another story.) Pretty early in his presidency, people noticed that Reagan's mental and physical vigor were not what they once were, long before his sad departure into the twilight of Alzheimer's disease.

Given these precedents, some say that 72 is just too old to run for president. As I've written before, I am ambivalent about this one. There have been great Senators, Representatives, judges, for that matter professors who have accomplished terrific things at older ages than Senator McCain would be president.

I would have supported Ted Kennedy in a heads-up context with George W. Bush in 2004. Yet as Ted Kennedy's example shows us, a lifetime of service doesn't protect you against what can happen, what always eventually happens, to our bodies when we grow old. Of course if Ted Kennedy were president, we would be in the middle of a serious governing challenge given the serious brain cancer he now confronts.

I suspect the nation would have weathered the crisis because of one simple but crucial virtue Ted Kennedy brings to the table. For decades, he has hired, relied upon, and effectively managed a wonderful staff of talented aides and policy analysts who made him one of the best legislators in American history. Many senators are smarter and more eloquent than Senator Kennedy. Very few accomplished as much, in large part because few have delegated as well, or have modified their game as wisely over time. If Kennedy were an ailing President today, I suspect that Vice President Clinton or a Democrat of similar national stature Kennedy has worked with for years would be there to help or, God forbid, to succeed him. John McCain falls far short of this standard.

As our children or grandchildren get older, they look to us. They want to know how we navigate life's most basic reality. Senator McCain, in his selection of Governor Palin, is not showing them the way.