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In November, a Question of the Ages?

It was a Clinton who got the better of an earlier generational clash in American presidential history. (Reuters.)

By Peter Baker
One was a septuagenarian war hero and longtime Washington fixture. The other was young enough to be his son and always talking about hope. In the end, the showdown between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton a dozen years ago turned out to be a generational clash that may offer some lessons for political strategists this year if Barack Obama manages to win the right to take on John McCain in the fall.

A McCain-Obama contest would offer voters the choice of two candidates more removed in age from one another than any two major party nominees in modern times, and perhaps in American history. McCain, who turns 72 in August, would be the oldest person ever to assume the presidency, while Obama, who turns 47 the same month, would be among the youngest. The 25 years that separate them represent not just a lifetime of experiences, but also starkly different outlooks.

The questions, then, become fairly evident: Will voters decide that a president who would be 80 at the end of his second term is too old, or will they appreciate the seasoned leadership he brings to the task at a moment when the nation's place in the world seems so precarious? Will voters dismiss a candidate with just four years in federal office and no major national accomplishment to his name, or will they be inspired by the promise of fresh leadership unencumbered by the burdens of the past? These are questions that are on the table not just for the general election but also for Democratic voters in Texas and Ohio on Tuesday as they decide whether they are ready to take that chance on Obama or turn instead to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Republicans have already decided to roll the dice with McCain, and strategists are busily figuring out how to defuse any age issue. McCain, like Dole and Ronald Reagan before him, regularly makes a joke out of it. "I'm older than dirt and have more scars than Frankenstein," he often says, and then trots out his 96-year-old mother on the campaign trail to prove that he has "good genes" (never mind that his father died at 70). He suggested last year that he may run for only one term, trying to remove the worry about what condition he might be in come 2016. And while he has more wrinkles than when he ran in 2000 and a scar on his left cheek from the removal of melanoma, McCain has a rugged look to him and a robust energy that leaves his much-younger staff huffing to keep up. He does not necessarily look 72. In fact, a USA Today-Gallup poll out this week found that 35 percent of Americans think he's actually 65 or younger.

But McCain is running against history. Americans rarely go back a generation when picking a president. Only once in the past 150 years has the country elected a new president who was 10 years older than the outgoing commander in chief, that of course being Reagan, who was two weeks shy of his 70th birthday when he took office in January 1981. Actuarial tables are better than they were in the 19th century, naturally, but still offer striking scenarios. A typical man McCain's age can expect to live 10 more years, according to an online life span calculator created by Northwestern Mutual Financial Network. If you assume that man has an active, healthy lifestyle, as McCain generally does, that can extend it another nine years. A typical 47-year-old man, by contrast, has a life expectancy of another 29 years, and more if healthy.

The issue has come up in recent weeks as McCain has been wrapping up the Republican nomination. "When we are talking about a president of the United States, we are not talking about the fate of one individual, but the fate of a nation and of generations yet unborn," conservative commentator Thomas Sowell wrote last month on National Review Online. "This is no time to get squeamish or politically correct, when talking about whoever is to carry the load of the free world on his shoulders in the White House."

But Ryan Cole, a Washington writer, dismissed that concern in the Wall Street Journal this week. "True enough, age can bring its share of infirmities," he wrote. "But with age can also come knowledge, understanding and expertise. Prior to becoming heads of state, many great leaders were soldiers, generals, ambassadors, activists, political prisoners, governors and ordinary citizens involved for decades with the political system of their respective countries. Some of that same patina can be seen on John McCain's résumé."

The polls so far have given mixed indicators. A survey by the Pew Research Center last year found that 50 percent of Americans are less likely to vote for a candidate in his 70s, while 4 percent were more likely and 44 percent said it makes no difference. By comparison, just 8 percent said they were less likely to vote for a candidate in his 40s, while 18 percent said they would be more likely and 73 percent said it did not matter. The new USA Today-Gallup poll poll found that 20 percent consider McCain too old, while 76 percent said he is not. Thirteen percent said Obama is too young, compared with 84 percent who said he is not. But 70 percent said McCain has the experience necessary to be president, while just 46 percent think Obama does.

The McCain camp, of course, prefers to look for its model in Reagan, who deftly took the issue off the table in his 1984 reelection race against Walter Mondale by joking that he would not exploit "my opponent's youth and inexperience." But Mondale was 56 at the time and less of a generational contrast to Reagan than Obama would be to McCain. That's why the Clinton-Dole race in 1996 is important to study: Those two were 23 years apart.

Clinton, of course, was in a stronger position than Obama would be because he was the incumbent. Dole, then 73 and the last World War II veteran to run for president, had a more palpable problem with age than McCain has had so far. Late-night comics had a field day with his advanced years. When one pollster in 1996 asked Americans to volunteer words to describe Dole, the three top responses were "old," "conservative" and "too old." About a third of voters said he was less able to handle the presidency because of his age. And Dole was not helped when he stumbled off a stage during a campaign event in the fall.

The irony was that Dole was in excellent shape, according to doctors. He released extensive medical records and forced Clinton to do so, too. If questions arose about his health while in office, he said he would submit to an independent medical panel. When he accepted the nomination at the Republican convention, he declared that "age has its advantages" and vowed to return the United States to the better times he recalled as a young man. "To those who say it was never so, that America has not been better, I say you're wrong, and I know, because I was there," he said. "And I have seen it. And I remember." He took aim at Clinton as representative of callow youth, part of "an elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered and never learned."

Clinton was careful not to directly challenge Dole's age while still using it against him. During their October debate in San Diego, a college student asked Dole if he was too old to be president.

"You know, wisdom comes from age, experience and intelligence," Dole answered. "And if you have some of each, and have some age, some experience and some intelligence, that adds up to wisdom."

Clinton then zinged him. "I can only tell you that I don't think Senator Dole is too old to be president," he said. "It's the age of his ideas that I question."

So get ready for another debate about which generation has the right ideas for America.

By Washington Post editors  |  February 28, 2008; 11:17 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , John McCain , Morning Cheat Sheet  
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Next: James Baker Backs McCain



If you think Barack Obama with little or no experience would be better than Hillary Clinton with 35 years experience.

You Might Be An Idiot!

If you think that Obama with no experience can fix an economy on the verge of collapse better than Hillary Clinton. Whose ;-) husband (Bill Clinton) led the greatest economic expansion, and prosperity in American history.

You Might Be An Idiot!

If you think that Obama with no experience fighting for universal health care can get it for you better than Hillary Clinton. Who anticipated this current health care crisis back in 1993, and fought a pitched battle against overwhelming odds to get universal health care for all the American people.

You Might Be An Idiot!

If you think that Obama with no experience can manage, and get us out of two wars better than Hillary Clinton. Whose ;-) husband (Bill Clinton) went to war only when he was convinced that he absolutely had to. Then completed the mission in record time against a nuclear power. AND DID NOT LOSE THE LIFE OF A SINGLE AMERICAN SOLDIER. NOT ONE!

You Might Be An Idiot!

If you think that Obama with no experience saving the environment is better than Hillary Clinton. Whose ;-) husband (Bill Clinton) left office with the greatest amount of environmental cleanup, and protections in American history.

You Might Be An Idiot!

If you think that Obama with little or no education experience is better than Hillary Clinton. Whose ;-) husband (Bill Clinton) made higher education affordable for every American. And created higher job demand and starting salary's than they had ever been before or since.

You Might Be An Idiot!

If you think that Obama with no experience will be better than Hillary Clinton who spent 8 years at the right hand of President Bill Clinton. Who is already on record as one of the greatest Presidents in American history.

You Might Be An Idiot!

If you think that you can change the way Washington works with pretty speeches from Obama, rather than with the experience, and political expertise of two master politicians ON YOUR SIDE like Hillary and Bill Clinton..

You Might Be An Idiot!

If you think all those Republicans voting for Obama in the Democratic primaries, and caucuses are doing so because they think he is a stronger Democratic candidate than Hillary Clinton. :-)

Best regards


Posted by: JackSmith1 | February 29, 2008 9:50 AM | Report abuse

And here come more b.s. articles from the mainstream media...

The last great president that this country had was Ronald Reagan. He was an old guy.

Then, came G.H.W. Bush, who, although he is considered by most historians to have been an average president, was well-respected and never dishonored the office.

The last two presidents have been baby-boomers. Both dodged the draft. Both showed poor judgement in relation to foreign affairs: Bush followed the Rumsfeld plan in an attempt to fudge up Iraq beyond recognition. Clinton was a feckless idiot (see Somalia, his treaty with North Korea, his reliance on Yasser Arafat, his refusal to deal with the Taliban, etc) who left America much, much, much, less safe than when he took office.

Now, the media wants to convince me that I should vote for a 46 year-old novice who has put forth the following foreign policy proposals:

1. He will begin an immediate withdrawal from Iraq upon taking office regardless of the recommendations made by General Petraeus.
2. However, he promises to return to Iraq should Al-Qaeda re-establish itself in the country. (Don't get me started on the logic of this...)
3. He's going to invade Pakistan.
4. He'll negotiate with any of our enemies at any time with no preconditions.

Excuse me if I don't worry about John McCain's age. I'd rather have an old realist than a young fool any day.

Posted by: ds11 | February 28, 2008 7:33 PM | Report abuse

Does no one here remember that by the time he left office (and who knows how long before that) Ronald Reagan was suffering from dementia?

John McCain, for all his seeming vigor, is an aging cancer survivor with a drinking problem and who know what other ailments resulting from his imprisonment in Vietnam.

It's almost as if the republicans are attempting to install his VP, whomever that may be, into the presidency without being elected.

Posted by: ched | February 28, 2008 6:47 PM | Report abuse

"take a chance on Obama" or go with Hillary. I suggest that going with Hillary involves chance as well. And maybe the greater risk. Because along with Hillary (and her felonious "experience") she unfortunately has "Bill." He destroyed his presidency, tarnished his legacy, and now look how he has behaved so far just in this campaign. Too bad she didn't divorce him. Then Hillary could try running on her own merit.

Posted by: Dahveed1 | February 28, 2008 5:44 PM | Report abuse

McCizzle has an unusual amount of energy for his age... but he hadn't been campaigning very hard until his NH revival. Can he take another eight months?

Posted by: scharb | February 28, 2008 4:10 PM | Report abuse

"Perhaps the core reason McCain speaks so casually of prolonging the war in Iraq for another century is that he is so old as to not truly care about the fate of future generations of American young people mired down in an endless war of no meaning."

This seems disingenuous when you consider that McCain's own son is serving in Iraq.

Posted by: kmiller | February 28, 2008 3:57 PM | Report abuse

If age is meant to bring wisdom, McCain has become an old fool. His judgment on Iraq from beginning to end has been dead wrong, but more importantly, he has aided and abetted in a major, unconstitutional transfer of power to the executive branch. Talk about a domestic insurgent!

I welcome the possibility of President Obama, who has taught constitutional law and has fired the first shot in restoring balance between the branches and liberty to our citizens by raising the assault on habeas corpus by this administration.

As for Peter Baker's contention that Obama hasn't done anything significant, he apparently doesn't read his own newspaper:

Posted by: LevRaphael | February 28, 2008 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Baker, good brownnosing - this was worthy of Chris Matthews:

"And while he has more wrinkles than when he ran in 2000 and a scar on his left cheek from the removal of melanoma, McCain has a rugged look to him and a robust energy that leaves his much-younger staff huffing to keep up."

So cute when reporters create these bogus manly images for all their frat boy friends out there!

Posted by: rgathman | February 28, 2008 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Rampant age-ism.

That is the dems only hope in 08. Issues too but not even democrats care about those anymore.

Problem is the NY times story 'implying' Mac was banging chicks at 30000 feet. That can only help Mac. Thanks a lot times.

Posted by: mul | February 28, 2008 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Remember in the SC debate where Hillary called Obama a "young man," and she caught all kinds of Hell for it - she was trying to belittle him, so they said. gw.

Posted by: Iowatreasures | February 28, 2008 3:08 PM | Report abuse

McCain has a lot to offer, but we need to let the next generation have a kick at the can. I'm frankly embarrassed by how we baby boomers have run the country after the "greatest generation" passed it down to us. We had our chance- let's see what our kids can do.

Posted by: mgilchrist | February 28, 2008 3:04 PM | Report abuse

McCain might be up there, but don't dig his grave just yet!

The Vietnamese figured he was a goner 40 Years ago! ;~)

Bad news Saigon. He is not only still alive, he still has his Memory(Ies)! ;~)

Posted by: rat-the | February 28, 2008 2:56 PM | Report abuse

McCain is way too old.

Posted by: toneye | February 28, 2008 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Senator McCain is too old.

No Board of any major company would hire a 72 yo to be CEO.

Many if not most US Presidents were 45-55, particularly the ones that historians remember as the most effective: Polk, Lincoln, TR, FDR.

45-55 is also the age range in which newly promoted or hired CEO's of major corporations tend to fall.

The first really aged President, W.H. Harrison, died within 30 days of inauguration. The second, Reagan, was Phase I Alzheimer's by his second term. His doctors probably knew then and concealed it. Recall that Howard Baker was brought in to attest to Reagan being mentally competent.

Posted by: mnjam | February 28, 2008 2:12 PM | Report abuse

This article mentions the melanoma, which is a crucial issue. It first appeared in the early 90's and then came back around 2000. How do we know that the melanoma might not recur yet again? And what if it is metastasizing in the brain? We need to have medical journalists explain what the chances are for the melanoma to recur and then have McCain release his medical records.

Posted by: goldie2 | February 28, 2008 1:56 PM | Report abuse

(To no one in particular) Definitions of "ad hominem":

(Latin) literally "to the man"; if two political candidates come together to debate an issue, but one of the two attacks his opponent instead...

attacking your opponent personally rather than her/his argument. Ad hominem is fallacious argumentation.

appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect

appealing to personal considerations (rather than to fact or reason); "ad hominem arguments"

An ad hominem argument, also known as argumentum ad hominem (Latin: "argument to the person", "argument against the man") consists of replying to an argument by attacking or appealing to the person making the argument, rather than by addressing the substance of the argument. ... hominem

Posted by: rajjjj | February 28, 2008 1:49 PM | Report abuse

The hospitalizations this week of Sens. Byrd and Warner provide a troubling preview of what we can expect if Sen. McCain is elected president. The heart attack suffered by President Eisenhower (another ageing war hero) is also a sobering precedent that the nation should examine closely before voting for John (100 years in Iraq) McCain.

Perhaps the core reason McCain speaks so casually of prolonging the war in Iraq for another century is that he is so old as to not truly care about the fate of future generations of American young people mired down in an endless war of no meaning.

Posted by: dee5 | February 28, 2008 1:46 PM | Report abuse

It is ridiculous to state that Democratic voters face a choice between cult leader Obama and Hillary Clinton, equating her with John McCain, as not promising fresh leadership or encumbered by the burden of the past. This is simply the pro-Obama biased media against Hillary Clinton.

The choice for Democratic voters is between the empty rhetoric of cult leader Obama and visionary leadership from Hillary Clinton whose specific solutions will make change real and restore America to prosperous times and our good standing in the world.

Posted by: crat3 | February 28, 2008 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Consider, Hillary Clinton before she was in the White House, and after she was exposed to real life Politics as a Senator.

Which would you now consider the better version?

Wet-behind-the-Ears Barack Hussein Obasama, is an Enigma we have not seen enough from to have a clue about. So, the Enigma plays on his strength, and keeps all the little Libbie Mushrooms well supplied with Food!

And that "Food", is ALL we have heard from Barack! Big, but EMPTY, "Words"! :-(

On McCain's part, it is the opposite. We might have been exposed to too much knowledge, and at his Age, he could succumb to many things that could cut his Term Short!
He needs a VP that is very capable of taking over, and who has support.
Hola, Senor Mitt Romney. Yeah, John, as you said, he can change! He already has! He has become a Supporter of YOUR Presidency, NOW, let him HELP! ;~)

Posted by: rat-the | February 28, 2008 12:40 PM | Report abuse

A candidate's age certainly should be a factor. Although, having said that, there is really no precise way to predict how Sen. McCain will hold up, but the campaign itself may provide some insight. Moreover, for obvious reasons, his selection of key personnel will also be crucial. As for these other examples, is it not curious that polemicists such as Ryan Cole in his WSJ piece cite Churchill and Reagan, both of whom had very serious crises related to aging during their second terms (for Churchill the period 1951-55 and Reagan the years 1984-1988)? There is certainly an aspect of the "cult of personality" attached to memories of both Churchill and Reagan, and we should not look to those troubling examples for guidance re John McCain. Who really knows? That's the rub, isn't it?

Hoop O'Sullivan

Posted by: osullivanc1 | February 28, 2008 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Mr Baker: It is not so much a question of age as history for Mr. McCain. Once the presidency has passed to a succeeding generation, the country has never gone back and elected someone from a preceding generation. Of course, there is a first time for everything, but it would be truly historic if America, a forward looking nation, elects John McCain this fall.

Posted by: welchd | February 28, 2008 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Age should not matter. As a matter of a fact, age is a positive for this job. Yet, the facts remain, the masses (including the young), for better or worse, are moving towards Obama;

Obama vs. McCain- The Internet Indicators:

Posted by: davidmwe | February 28, 2008 11:46 AM | Report abuse

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