As was painfully obvious from last Sunday’s 60 Minutes segment on John McCain, the Arizona senator doesn’t like to be asked about his age.
“I don’t like this line of questioning at all,” McCain said when asked by Scott Pelley what percentage of Americans thought in a recent poll the ideal age for a president was in their 70s. “I find it offensive.”
The answer, by the way, was zero.
With the 2008 Presidential race well underway, candidates are facing questions of race (Barack Obama), gender (Hillary Clinton), and religious affiliation (Mitt Romney). But for candidate McCain, whether he thinks it is offensive or not, the golden question is one of age.
As has been noted endlessly, if elected, John McCain would be 72 at the time of his presidential inauguration and the oldest first-term president in American history. Unlike questions of race, gender, and religion, the age question is one that directly relates to McCain’s ability to perform as leader of the free world.
While McCain would be entering uncharted territory in the United States, people his age and older have led other countries — sometimes with distinction, during times of great consequence.
One example is Ariel Sharon. In 2001, Sharon was elected Israeli prime minister the month of his 73rd birthday. At the time he assumed his country’s top post, Israel was in the midst of an escalating Palestinian uprising. Israeli citizens were routinely victims of violent terrorist attacks, which were wreaking great havoc on the tiny Jewish state.
Sharon was remarkably effective. Through intelligence gathering, targeted attacks against terrorist leaders, and the partial construction of an anti-terrorism security barrier, he effectively ended the Palestinian intifada. In due time, terror attacks within Israel proper dropped drastically from their high, allowing Israel to get back on its feet, both emotionally and economically.
Indeed, sometimes Sharon’s age was an advantage. His proposal to withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank was controversial among his own supporters. It likely would have fallen upon deaf ears had it not been advocated by a lifelong warrior and father of the settler movement. But instead of being rejected, Sharon’s disengagement policy sparked a national political realignment — something that could only have been accomplished through credibility gained over a lifetime.
OTHER COUNTRIES HAVE TRUSTED older leaders at the helm. Fifty years before Sharon’s election, Great Britain returned Winston Churchill to 10 Downing Street at the age of 76. More recently, the last two Prime Ministers of India, the world’s most populous democracy, were also over 70 when they assumed power.
Most remarkably, Ronald Reagan served almost his whole presidency over the age of 70. He endured carping about his age. But then again, all Reagan accomplished was victory in the Cold War and the replacement of stagflation with tremendous economic growth.
As average life expectancies increase, more Americans are continuing to play vital leadership roles and make important decisions in their golden years. This is true in the private sector as well.
Since turning 70 in 2003, Sheldon Adelson has accumulated an unfathomable amount of wealth by expanding his casino enterprise into Asia. In 2003, Forbes listed his net worth at just under $2 billion. More recently, the magazine pegged his net worth at $26.5 billion, making him the third richest man in the United States and the sixth richest in the world. Late in life, Adelson is still making aggressive business decisions which have increased his wealth by 1,000 percent in just three years.
There are similar tales of mega business leaders still punching the clock and aggressively building upon their fortunes past 72, from Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett (76) to News Corps’ Rupert Murdoch (76). Sumner Redstone chairs both Viacom and CBS Corp. at 83. Kirk Kerkorian is a major financial player just months away from his 90th birthday.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t things McCain could do to help alleviate concerns about his age. He would be wise to select a young, energetic, and able running mate. He could pledge to serve only one term. After all, there’s no requirement that he run for two.
Yet McCain could turn his age to his advantage, arguing that his foreign policy experience is exactly what America needs during these dangerous times. With Iran pursuing nuclear weapons, Iraq in danger of falling into total chaos, and the looming terrorist threat, such an appeal could find many takers — like the four former Republican secretaries of state who endorsed McCain just this week.
Health matters more than age. Skeptics may counter that Ariel Sharon saw his career end prematurely after a debilitating stroke, which left him in a coma. Yet it was Sharon’s health and weight more than his age that was at issue. As a physical fitness specimen, no one ever confused the former prime minister with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
McCain, on the other hand, seems to be fit, despite a recent bout with skin cancer. And if you don’t believe it, just look at the schedule he put himself through stumping for congressional candidates during the midterm elections. He claims to work “seven days a week, 12, 14, 16 hours a day,” as he told 60 Minutes. If true, it would be hard to find people a third his age that are as active.
At the end of the day, McCain’s age should only be an issue if his health falters. If he is vigorous on the campaign trail and looks healthy and strong in television appearances, voters will probably tend to ignore the age question. And if he is politically astute enough, McCain could do Ronald Reagan one better — he could exploit his opponents’ youth and inexperience.