In the midst of all the uproar over CNN host Don Lemon’s dopey remarks about Nikki Haley not being in her “prime,” the serious import of GOP presidential candidate Haley’s central campaign premise is being overlooked.
The 51-year-old former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador opened her campaign with a demand for “mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old.”
The unsubtle implication is that her GOP opponent — former President Donald Trump — is not competent to lead the nation because of his age. Trump is 76.
Which is to say that Nikki Haley is an ageist. The dictionary defines an ageist as someone “characterized by or showing prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age.”
Not since Alabama Gov. George Wallace opened his career as governor and future Democratic presidential candidate with a demand for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” has a presidential candidate premised a campaign and potential administration on open discrimination against a segment of the American population. In this case, that would be America’s seniors.
Not to mention that applying Haley’s ageist logic to history is apparently something that never occurred to her.
Using Haley’s logic, my old boss, President Ronald Reagan, would never have been elected in the first place. His famous bout with Alzheimer’s disease did not begin until he was several years departed from the presidency. Taking office a few weeks before his 70th birthday, Reagan was hale, hearty, and mentally sharp throughout his presidency. I was present for his second term and saw him up close at various events of the day. He was indeed in great physical and mental shape. In fact, his survival of an assassination attempt two months after taking office revealed a 70-year-old man whose robust physical condition was in fact as advertised. His much-publicized retreats to his California ranch where he chopped wood and rode horses for exercise left him in superb shape.
Reagan, who ended the Cold War and gave America a roaring economy, is rated today as one of America’s greatest presidents. Imagine him not being there because of ageist prejudice.
Then there’s Britain’s legendary prime minister, Winston Churchill. Churchill did not become prime minister until he was 65. Today, he is seen not simply as Britain’s greatest leader, but as one of the greatest in world history, period. He was the man who led the world through the massive global conflict that was World War II. He was prime minister for five years and then came back for a second term in 1951, retiring in 1955 at the age of 77.
In fact, the age of both Reagan and Churchill gave them the experience and wisdom that enabled them to lead their respective nations and the world through the respective conflicts of the Cold War and World War II — and win them.
Reagan and Churchill are not alone in the category of older leaders who successfully led their nations through challenging times.
Germany’s post–World War II chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who led post-war Germany in rebuilding as the strong democracy that it has become, was elected at age 73. He served until 1963 and left office at age 87.
France’s Charles de Gaulle became president of his country at 68, served 10 years, and is recognized today as one of the greatest leaders in French — and world — history.
For that matter, Reagan is hardly alone on the list of American presidents who took office when in their 60s.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected at 62, served two terms, and retired at 70. Had a Republican Congress not succeeded in passing a post-FDR constitutional amendment that limited presidents to two terms (FDR had been elected to four), the political betting of the day was that Eisenhower would easily have been elected to a third term, serving until he was 74.
Andrew Jackson, who took office in 1829 at age 61, served two terms. He was hale, hearty, and mentally sharp, leaving office in 1837, popular still, at the age of 69.
This list of presidents elected in their 60s includes John Adams (61), James Buchanan (65), Harry Truman (60), Gerald Ford (61), and George H. W. Bush (64). Whatever their respective rankings in lists of presidents, age has nothing to do with them.
Notably, William Henry Harrison was 68 when sworn in. Famously, he died after a mere 31 days as president — but age was not the reason. He died because he declined to wear a hat and overcoat for his (traditionally outdoor) inaugural, an event that took place in very cold and wet weather. He gave an inaugural address that lasted two hours, the longest in history. Harrison quickly caught a cold that turned into pneumonia, which killed him. Something that could happen to anyone of any age.
In other words, had someone with Nikki Haley’s views on age and leadership been around in those days, great leaders with names like Churchill, Reagan, Eisenhower, Truman, Adenauer, and de Gaulle would never have held office in the first place.
And the idea of placing a potential candidate’s fitness in the hands of a doctor is something that has already been tried — to ill effect. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke and his condition was hidden from the public. As history records, it was his wife and doctor who colluded in secrecy to make presidential decisions.
Whatever happens in 2024, former President Trump is already on the presidential greatness scale, and a second term would bring even more success, one suspects. He is quite clearly and self-evidently blessed with good health.
In fact, the condition of the obviously impaired President Joe Biden emphasizes the hard reality that age is unique to every person on the planet. One can be 50 and on the road to losing his or her mental and physical capabilities. One can be 90 and sharp as a tack.
What Haley is proposing is in fact a danger to democracy and limits the right of the American people to judge a candidate’s condition for themselves.
It is ageist, ill-considered, and just plain wrong.