Small World: An ode to age


By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Can anyone remember when the presidential campaign got under way? Or has it always been running? Eternally grabbing headlines? No answers?

Another question: What have you learned from the trillions of words expended? Anything about the real future of our country? Anything real about the candidates? Is your thinking confused or clarified or unchanged about the economy, defense, immigration and the other issues great and small? Silence.

Unable myself to provide substantive answers to those questions, I have shifted my attention to a less slippery question: What difference does age mean in selecting a president? With candidates in their seventies and others in their forties, how should we judge who — on the basis of years lived — is better suited for the job of running our country. It’s a factor that can’t be fudged or spun — at least as long as birth certificates are available.

Let’s start by examining the senior candidates first:

Health. Now, there’s an item of worry. Old folks spend more time in doctors’ offices, take more pills, take more tumbles and complain more about ailments, real and imagined. Does it matter in terms of job performance? Well, sometimes it might. Think how weathered FDR looked in the months before he died in office. And Reagan — wasn’t he suffering from incipient dementia while on the job? Plainly, a prudent – and younger — selection for vice president is a must for the aged would-be president.

Energy level. It’s an observed fact that as we get older we get slower. Not everybody decelerates at the same pace, however. At my advanced age, I relish an afternoon nap — but I did also 50 years ago. Bernie Sanders (75) waves his arms with much greater vigor than Hillary Clinton (69) or Donald Trump (70). And Eisenhower wasn’t such a bad president despite (or owing to) the hours he put in on the golf course.

Vetting. If his/her life is a normal one, an older candidate will have been tested more often and with greater rigor than his younger competitor. Sometimes, the old guy will have been fed with a silver spoon; sometimes he will have manipulated life’s testing. But his record will be there for inspection and, if honest, the voter can read how well he has done in the winnowing process.

Appeal to all voters. It is said that older candidates have less attraction for younger voters, the future of our country. The young prefer the young, they say. Think John Kennedy. But Sanders’ record so far has discredited that bit of wisdom. He snows Clinton. Maybe it’s his energy level.

Now, let us turn to the advantages and foibles of younger candidates:

Experience. All things considered, an older candidate can have at least a generation (25 years) of life’s experiences over a mere youth. That means a generation of losing, winning, disappointments, surprises — all of which educate (at least if the recipient’s mind is open) and shape the older mind. The younger candidate can’t replicate that advantage. Experience leads to caution and reflection — sometimes called inaction. It can also produce minds closed shut against new thoughts and ventures.

Impatience and intolerance. Youth wants to get things done — sometimes without waiting for the calculations to be completed. Unintended consequences flow naturally from haste. Overloading an agenda with multiple brilliant schemes may nullify possible progress.

Now to draw a balance: Looking around the globe we observe that most countries these days strike for leaders of young to middle age (whatever that is). Only a tradition-bound few seem still to prefer the old — Japan and China maybe — or to step outside politics, religions. The Catholic Church and Islam may relish youth, but don’t normally promote them to senior ranks.

When the “system” itself is old and adheres to locked-in concepts and behaviors from the past, citizens of our country and others become frustrated and bitter. Then, the age of the candidate is not as important as his/her attachment to the discredited and despised “system.” Then, it is the outsider, the system-changer who generates the appeal — regardless of age.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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