early and often

An Old Guy’s Defense of Our Old-Guy President

Ol’ Joe remembers some important stuff, too. Photo: Nicole Neri/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Like Joe Biden, I got my dream job at a stage of life when most folks are planning or entering retirement. After writing hundreds of thousands of words for politicians and organizations without getting much credit for it, I became a rather geriatric blogger and then a political writer for New York Magazine and blew right by the age at which I could have packed it all in. Best I can tell, I still produce more words — though perhaps not higher-quality words — than my whippersnapper colleagues. So I am naturally sympathetic to the president’s desire to stay in the saddle as long as he can, and naturally hostile to partisan efforts to depict Biden as senile or incompetent, particularly when the beneficiary of undermining confidence in his abilities is Donald Trump.

And let’s just get this right out on the table: Barring some unprecedented development, the 2024 presidential election choice will be between an 81-year-old Democrat and a 78-year-old Republican. In terms of grammar, syntax, logic, and recall of important events, the former is more cogent on his worst days than the latter appears to be on his best days. So anyone planning to support Trump is welcome to do so on policy or partisan-power grounds but should be ashamed to claim that they just cannot vote for Joe Biden because he’s too old. Is Trump more “vigorous” than Biden, in terms of self-confidence and aggressiveness? Yes, but in the way that Attila the Hun was more “vigorous” than St. Francis of Assisi. It’s also germane that while Biden is a pretty faithful representative of the mainstream views of his political party, Trump eccentrically defines the views of his political party, much as Attila defined the Hun Weltanschauung.

To put it another way, if a second-term President Biden becomes significantly afflicted by age or illness, his lapses are likely to be as mild-mannered as the man himself. I don’t think you can say the same about a second-term President Trump, who already seems to suffer from the malady once maliciously called “Irish Alzheimer’s” (or in some lore, “Appalachian Alzheimer’s”), wherein the victim remembers nothing but his grudges.

There is, of course, a more general and entirely legitimate debate over how old our presidents and presidential candidates should be. I personally thought both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were “too old” to run in 2020, though this judgment was mostly about their electability rather than their capacity to do the job. The advent of septuagenarian and even octogenarian presidents is in part a reflection of longer life spans (at least for people who aren’t too poor to receive decent nutrition and health care), as Alex Webb pointed out last year after Biden joked about being a contemporary of founder James Madison:

When Madison became the nation’s fourth president in 1809, he was just 57. Bizarrely, however, Madison was by one measure considerably older than Biden when he took the hot seat: compared with the life expectancy of his contemporaries.

Someone born in Colonial America in the 18th century had a life expectancy of just 28 — skewed heavily, of course, by the fact that so many people died in infancy. When Madison took office, he was already more than twice as old as most of those born the same year. He was, in relative terms, much older than Biden, who is just 15 years older than the average life expectancy of his year group.

Biden (and for that matter, Trump) may also seem especially old because he happened to assume the presidency after a run (again, excepting Trump) of relatively young chief executives: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

But the thing so often forgotten when we obsess about the age of our leaders is that there are qualities associated with what the AARP used to euphemistically call “modern maturity” that offset whatever is actually lost when an old goat “loses a step”: most obviously work experience, but also lived historical perspective, a wide range of useful role models and “best practices,” knowledge of personal limitations, and even fires of ego-driven ambition tamped down by accomplishment. I know I’m a better political writer for having observed multiple eras of American politics, dating back to the day in 1960 when I watched John F. Kennedy barnstorm through my small Georgia hometown. It should be obvious that Joe Biden learned something in his famously lengthy career in public office, as environmental activist (and himself a founder of an advocacy group for seniors concerned with climate change) Bill McKibben pointed out in the wake of the latest age scare over the president:

Obviously you lose a step physically as you age, but the presidency doesn’t require carrying sofas up the White House stairs. And science increasingly finds that aging brains make more connections, perhaps because they have more history to work with. …

Biden was socialized in an era when government took on big causes, and you can see it reflected in his first-term commitment to rebuilding infrastructure on a grand scale, boosting a new sustainable energy economy with billions of dollars for solar panels and battery factories, dramatically increasing the number of people with healthcare, and standing up for gun control, voting rights and reproductive rights.

There are reasons, in other words, that most societies embrace gerontocracy to one extent or another.

Sure, there are, of course, limits to the value of experience. When Casey Stengel was managing the New York Mets at the end of his career, as the story goes, one of his players was asked what it was like to play for such a living legend. “Casey has forgotten more about baseball than I’ll ever know,” the player said. “But that’s the problem — he’s forgotten it.” His team’s showing proved the point.

At the moment, Biden’s Team America isn’t doing all that badly unless you choose to look at it through a partisan lens, or can’t cope with the traumas and disappointments of the recent past or the uncertainties we face in the immediate future. The president deals with many, many people in the course of an insanely busy day, and if he’s as around the bend as the nonexpert assessment by special counsel Robert Hur suggests, we’d almost certainly know it, unless you believe in a conspiracy of silence as vast as any in U.S. history. I know a lot of very smart, very young people who struggle with remembering dates and names; I’ve never been able to recognize faces other than those I encounter regularly. Sure, Joe Biden’s age and competence pose legitimate questions. But they should be answered with comprehensive, not anecdotal, evidence and by observers who are not followers of the wild man who will become president if Biden is put out on an ice floe by voters in November for being too old. Take it from this old guy: Sometimes the last gallon in the tank can get you to your destination.

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An Old Guy’s Defense of Our Old-Guy President