Looking Back

One for the Ages

September 02, 2016

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One for the Ages

Whatever the result of this decidedly odd presidential election may be, one thing is clear: The next occupant of the White House will be old enough to qualify for a place in a retirement home. Of course, people in general age more slowly now, and comparatively few settle serenely into old age when they are 70, as my grandparents did. If an aging population presents the Western world—and China—with one of its biggest social problems, being 70-plus is for millions no big deal. Nevertheless, for the past half century the trend in Western democracies has been for politicians to get to the top in early middle age and be out of office before they are eligible for a state retirement pension. There have been exceptions, of course; Ronald Reagan was a notable one. But in general the pattern is clear. You become president or prime minister in your 40s or early 50s and are out by the time you are 60. Fathers and mothers okay, grandparents not.

The fashion was set by Jack Kennedy, who was only 43 when elected—and Dick Nixon, whom he beat in the 1960 election, was only four years older. Kennedy represented buoyant, hopeful youth, and immediately made the leaders of other Western democracies—Harold Macmillan, Charles de Gaulle, and Konrad Adenauer—look like geriatrics. Adenauer was indeed geriatric, though still retaining most of his marbles as he pushed 90, but Macmillan and de Gaulle were both a year or two younger than Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump are today. Since JFK, the oldest man—with the aforementioned exception of Reagan—to be elected a first-term president was George H.W. Bush, who was 64. All the others—Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama—were in the fine flower of middle age. The same was true of their defeated opponents, and also of Reagan’s.

“For people who admire the United States, this election is simultaneously entertaining and profoundly depressing.”

Britain followed America’s example. Macmillan resigned in 1963 and was briefly succeeded by Alec Douglas-Home, then 59. The next two prime ministers, Harold Wilson and Ted Heath, were both younger. James Callaghan is the oldest person since Macmillan to have become prime minister for the first time; he was 64 when he took over in 1976. All his successors—Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron—were in their early 50s or 40s. The present prime minister, Theresa May, is 59.

In most walks of life one wouldn’t describe people in their 40s or 50s as young. Nevertheless, it’s quite clear that in the middle of the 20th century it came to be thought in both the United States and Britain that politicians in their late 60s or their 70s were either a bit out of touch with the modern world or no longer capable of bearing the burdens of office. They were also deemed, not unreasonably, to be unattractive to the electorate. Not even the example of Ronald Reagan changed this opinion.

Yet now we have Mr. Trump, 70 last June, and Mrs. Clinton, who will be 69 in October, battling it out, and remarkably, one might observe, Senator Sanders, who ran Mrs. Clinton close in the struggle for the Democratic nomination, is even older. Still more remarkably, he appealed, despite his 74 years, to disaffected or idealistic young people. They cheered him on instead of shouting, “Shut up, Granddad.” It’s very rum, this reversal of fashion. Old people were once valued for their experience, revered as repositories of wisdom. Then for a long time they were back numbers and nobody wanted their opinions. They were what the French call “pantouflards,” shuffling about at home in carpet slippers, baffled by the world they had survived into. Now, instead of a retirement complex in Florida or a Saga cruise, it’s the White House and the finger on the nuclear button for either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton. Napoleon once expressed the opinion that a man was too old for war after the age of 35. (He wouldn’t have embarked on his disastrous 1812 campaign if he’d followed his own advice.) Now at twice that age it seems a man or woman is ready and fit to be Commander-in-Chief.

Why? How has it come to this? Have we regained our respect for the old, which seemed to have evaporated in the ’60s? Perhaps we have. Aged rock stars, the scandalous rebels of that decade, still prance on the stage even if their joints creak, and we say, “Isn’t it wonderful how they keep going?” But I doubt this is the reason. The rock stars retain something of their former glamour. Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton were never glamorous; nor, I would suppose, was Senator Sanders. His youthful admirers may praise him now, even though I suspect that few of them had heard of him till a couple of years ago.

Or is it that we have flipped back in time and have once again concluded that with age comes wisdom? This too seems improbable. The impartial observer may have found—may still find—this year’s presidential circus entertaining, but it has been entertaining in its grotesquerie, entertaining in the way that the great American iconoclast H.L. Mencken found the politicians of the 1920s as grotesquely riveting as, in his words, “a two-headed boy.” Mencken would have had fun with both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, but he would have searched in vain for any evidence of wisdom in their pronouncements and performance.

He would have been fascinated by Mr. Trump as he was fascinated by “the Great Commoner,” William Jennings Bryan, who made his name with a rousing speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention in which he declared that “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Mr. Trump has not been as eloquent as Bryan was. In the fashion of our time he relies on one-liners—often deftly delivered. But his central message, “Make America Great Again,” is every bit as vacuous. What exactly does he mean by it? Happy? Powerful? Rich? Well educated? At ease with itself? His slogan might mean any of these things, or all of them, or indeed none of them. It’s the cry of the snake-oil salesman.


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