Thursday, January 5, 2017

No joke: Trump will be oldest first-term president -- Jan. 5, 2017 column


Vice President Joe Biden quickened the pulse of some Democrats last month when he said he may run for president. In four years, he’ll be 78. Was he serious?

Die-hard Bernie Sanders fans want to believe he still has a shot at the White House. In 2020, Sanders will be 79.

In comparison, Elizabeth Warren, another Democratic presidential possibility, is a youngster. She’ll be a mere 71 in four years.

Donald J. Trump enters the Oval Office at threescore years and 10, the age Mark Twain at his own 70th birthday party called the “Scriptural statute of limitations.”

Months older than Ronald Reagan at his first inauguration, Trump will be the oldest first-term president in history.

Most Americans don’t remember that even younger presidents have had serious health problems. Woodrow Wilson was 63 when he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919 and was gravely ill for the last year and a half of his term.

Dwight Eisenhower was 65 when he had a massive heart attack in Denver in 1955 and spent seven weeks in the hospital there. The White House kept the public in the dark about the severity of both cases. Eisenhower recovered and won a second term.

Age was hardly mentioned during the last campaign, which offered voters a choice between grandparents. Grandpa Trump is a year older than Grandma Hillary Clinton, but he gibed that she lacked the stamina to be president.

Clinton and Trump released letters from their doctors attesting to their health, with Clinton providing more details. Neither went as far as GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008. To reassure voters about his physical fitness, McCain, then 71, released more than a thousand pages of medical records.

While Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, is 57, most of Trump’s Cabinet picks are white males over 60, reflecting the growing trend of working later in life. Nearly 20 percent of Americans over 65 hold full or part-time jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year.

The Oval Office, though, has traditionally been a place for the middle-aged. The average age of presidents at their first inauguration is 55. John F. Kennedy was inaugurated at 43, Bill Clinton at 46 and Barack Obama, 47. Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest president at 42, after the assassination of William McKinley.

When World War II hero Bob Dole ran for president in 1996, he had to put up with late-night jokes about his age – 72.

“Bob Dole is calling himself an optimist,” David Letterman said in a monologue. “I understand this because a lot of people would look at a glass as half empty. Bob Dole looks at the glass and says, `What a great place to put my teeth.’” Dole lost to the decades-younger Clinton.

Perhaps the all-time master at obliterating the age issue was Ronald Reagan. In 1984, Reagan, 73, was running for a second term against Democrat Walter Mondale, a lad of 56. Asked during a presidential debate if he was up for another four years, the Gipper was ready.

“I’m not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Reagan quipped, putting away the age issue, at least through the election.

Reagan, who survived being shot and colon cancer as president, even dared to tell self-deprecating age jokes.

“One of my favorite quotations about age comes from Thomas Jefferson. He said that we should never judge a president by his age, only by his work. And ever since he told me that, I’ve stopped worrying,” Reagan told the National Alliance for Senior Citizens in 1984.

“When I go in for a physical now, they no longer ask me how old I am. They just carbon-date me,” he said at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 1987.

It was easy for Reagan to joke about getting older when he was often seen riding horses and clearing brush at his California ranch. He wasn’t diagnosed with Alzheimer’s until several years after he left office.

So far, Trump – who boasts about his vigor and has a glamorous, 46-year-old wife -- has managed to avoid age jokes. We’ll see whether his age becomes a punch line in four years when he’s 74.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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