Rooks: Age not always a political disability

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Amid the fickle, ever-shifting currents of presidential politics, here’s the moment to consider the candidates’ ages.

Speculation followed a condescending report from a special prosecutor that cleared President Joe Biden for retaining classified documents as vice president but depicted him as a doddering figure with a poor memory.

Douglas Rooks
Douglas Rooks

Biden’s subsequent outburst in which he conflated the presidents of Egypt and Mexico only added to Republicans’ glee, but Biden has been regularly misspeaking since his 1988 presidential bid. His lifelong battle with stuttering puts Egypt-Mexico in the “old news” category.

The apparent Republican nominee, Donald Trump, however, provides at least equal fodder for “challenged senior” buzz. At his rally before the New Hampshire primary, he repeatedly mixed up the names of his principal opponent, Nikki Haley, and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi concerning the events of Jan. 6.

With Trump, it’s hard to determine whether it’s deliberate or accidental, so scarce is his acquaintance with the facts in his utterances. A lacerating English satirist, Samuel Johnson, produced a famous essay on “The Art of Political Lying.” Among American politicians only Trump has pursued it so relentlessly.

Of course, the prosecutor’s report on Biden is nothing compared with Trump, who refused to turn over classified material, lied about it, and is now facing 40 felony counts among the 91 outstanding against him.

It cannot be denied that many prominent politicians are running for reelection at unusually advanced ages, so this is as good a time as any to ponder.

Though Biden, 81, and Trump, who’ll be 78 by Election Day, are by far the oldest presidential pairing, they’re hardly unique.

Maine U.S. Sen. Angus King will be 80 when he’s surely elected to a third term Nov. 5. King, an independent, announced his intention to run again more than a year ago, and still doesn’t have an accredited Democratic or Republican opponent with filing deadlines a month away.

Vermont has a definite specialty for octogenarian senators. Patrick Leahy was 82 when he stepped down in 2022 after eight terms – 48 years, well over half a lifetime for most Americans.

The delegation’s average age wasn’t reduced much. Peter Welch, who’d already served eight terms as Vermont’s lone House member, was 75 when sworn in – the oldest Senate freshman ever.

Soon to be 83, Bernie Sanders is apparently going for a fourth term this year though, unlike King, he hasn’t said anything yet. Like Welch, Sanders served 16 years in the House awaiting a chance to move up.

In Maine, King is balanced by the comparatively youthful Susan Collins, who though now serving a Maine-record fifth Senate term, is just 71. She was 43 when elected in 1996.

After surviving her trial by fire in 2020, when those outraged by her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court were joined by $100 million in national campaign spending, the betting is that Collins could seek a sixth term in 2026, by which time Democrats may give up trying to defeat her.

Polls show agreement that we’d like younger candidates, but that’s an abstract desire based on nothing much more than an aversion to reruns.

As soon as Trump claimed he won the 2020 election even though he lost it, then set in motion the events of Jan. 6, the die was cast for the 2024 election.

So when considering candidates’ ages, the answer must be “It depends.”

California is an object lesson. When Nancy Pelosi, Trump’s great antagonist, stepped down as House speaker after the 2022 election, most expected her to retire for good. Instead, she’s decided at 83 to run for at least one more term.

No one questions her fitness; she still runs rings around her youthful staff and reads five newspapers a day. It also permits her to defend Biden, who she points out is younger than she is.

That wasn’t the case for Sen. Diane Feinstein, who insisted on seeking reelection at 84 despite obvious infirmities. She had to step down as Judiciary chair after an embarrassing performance during the first Trump impeachment, and before her death last year, still in office, she had to be coached on how to vote.

Ultimately, despite our reluctance and even distaste, we have to choose between two elderly men for president, basing our votes on their fitness for office in the largest sense, considering legal status as well as their positions on issues.

Inevitably, the tide will turn. Maine’s one statewide office sure to be available in 2026 is that of governor, after Janet Mills, by then 80, is set to complete her second term.

That may the moment when Maine voters not only turn theirs clocks ahead, but have plenty of choices in doing so.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, columnist and reporter since 1984. His new book, “Calm Command: U.S. Chief Justice Melville Fuller in His Times, 1888-1910,” is available in bookstores and at www.melvillefuller.com. He welcomes comment at drooks@tds.net

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Rooks: Age not always a political disability