The Real Reason McCain’s Age Might Matter

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Since Joe Lieberman has taken to calling Barack Obama a “young man,” isn’t it time to ask: Is John McCain too old to be president?

The meme is out there. In springtime focus groups conducted by the Democratic National Committee, swing voters brought up McCain’s age without even being asked about it. A recent Associated Press–Yahoo News poll asked people to say the first word that came to mind about each of the presidential candidates; the top response for McCain was “old.” (Jimmy Kimmel joked last week that in another survey, the proportion of American women willing to carpool with McCain dropped to 2 percent once they were told he would be the one driving.) And just the other day, McCain himself told the Washington Post: “If I put in three or four eighteen-hour, twenty-hour days in a row, then I'm not sharp. It's just a fact. I can be sharp if I get a little more rest.”

Physically, the 71-year-old McCain is in better shape than you might expect. He suffers from degenerative arthritis and limited arm movement, results of his horrific war injuries. He has had a series of cancerous skin spots removed, including an invasive melanoma from his left temple in 2000. He has had kidney stones and benign colon polyps and was treated for an enlarged prostate in 2001. He takes simvastatin to control his cholesterol. But McCain’s cardiovascular system is in good shape, giving him the vigor of a younger man. His physician, John Eckstein of the Mayo Clinic, said in May: “Senator McCain enjoys excellent health and displays extraordinary energy.”

But when it comes to mental performance, McCain’s age carries risks. Twenty-two percent of Americans 71 and older are affected by mild cognitive impairment, a decline in brain function that causes memory loss and can lead to dementia. Further, 35 to 40 percent of older adults have neural deficits that lead to poor decision making.

Are McCain’s malaprops signs of something worrisome? After all, everybody commits gaffes. Barack Obama has said there are 57 states in the U.S., called Israel a great friend of Israel, and mixed up which concentration camp his great-uncle helped liberate. So it would be not only gratuitously cruel but dumb to blame McCain blunders like his call to “deliver bottled hot water to dehydrated babies” on his age. But many of McCain’s verbal mistakes over the past few months fall into a different category: Though unintentional, they are errors of political expedience.

In just the past six weeks, McCain has referred repeatedly to Czechoslovakia as though it still existed and to Vladimir Putin as though he were still president of Russia. More significantly, he has claimed that Iraq borders Pakistan, that the Anbar Awakening occurred after the surge, that the Iraq war was America’s first major armed conflict since 9/11, and that, unlike Obama, he would prefer to speak outside the country only after being elected president.

In May, McCain incorrectly said the U.S. had drawn down its forces in Iraq to pre-surge levels. In March, he wrongly claimed that Iran was training Al Qaeda operatives. Last April, he mistakenly said General David Petraeus regularly drove around Baghdad in an unarmored Humvee. In each of these “McCain moments,” political life would have been easier for the candidate if his statements were true. But none were.

What might be happening in McCain’s head? Gerontologists and retirement planners have learned that aging brains compensate for cognitive decline by relying on templates of familiar knowledge more than problem solving. That’s usually a good thing, but neuroscientists have also found that memory loss can lead people to substitute incorrect information. This phenomenon, called confabulation, rather than being random, often takes the form of untrue “facts” that make them feel better — giving them what scientists have called “the pleasantness of false beliefs.” So are McCain’s stumbles simply misstatements, or evidence of a mind filling in blanks with wish fulfillment? Well, we really have no idea. But neither does McCain: His aides told reporters in May that he has had no mental evaluations in the past eight years.

Now, cataloguing gaffes doesn’t constitute a diagnosis — medically or politically. McCain has gambled that he can make his age a virtue by slamming Obama’s inexperience, and that it’s okay to come across as something of a cranky old guy as long as he keeps audiences laughing. And so far, this has worked fairly well. When a 7-year-old asked McCain about his age in New Hampshire last year, for example, it really was pretty funny when he replied, “Thanks for the question, you little jerk.” But now McCain faces a press corps that is noticeably cooling on him, and may be more willing to report slipups. And he will have three nationally televised debates to get through in the fall. Sooner or later, as the campaign wears on, the issue of McCain’s age will start to show. —Peter Keating

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.