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It is one of the most replayed moments in the history of presidential debates.
Standing on a stage in Kansas City in October 1984, President Ronald Reagan was asked the question that’s been on almost everyone’s mind. He was the oldest president ever and had been described as “very tired” after an earlier debate. Did he have any questions in mind about his ability to function if he was sleep deprived during a national security crisis?
Reagan, 73 at the time, said, “Not at all.” And, after frowning for a moment, he submitted to a spark of a smile, adding: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I will not exploit – for political purposes – the youth and inexperience of my opponent.”
The question of how old is too old has also obsessed President Biden, the longest-serving president. Polls have found that even Democratic voters are expressing doubts about whether he is too old for the job. He told CBS 60 minutes that his answer to the age question is “Look at me”, citing his schedule and energy level.
On Sunday, Biden turns 80. He said he would discuss with his family over the next two months whether to pursue his intention to seek a second term, at the end of which he would be 86 years old.
“I’m a big acceptor of fate. And it’s, ultimately, a family decision,” Biden told reporters earlier this month. “I think everyone wants me to show up, but…we’ll discuss it.”
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Reagan was the first president to face the question “how old is too old”
In 1984, when Reagan deflected the age issue on the debate stage with humor, everyone in the room laughed. That included Reagan’s opponent, veteran senator and former vice president Walter Mondale, 56 – even though he knew his slim chance of beating Reagan had just vanished. The holder went on to win 49 states, a landslide victory.
But there is much more to the story than is usually remembered. The question of Reagan’s physical condition was very present before this meeting in Kansas City. In an earlier debate, Reagan had seemed vague about the facts. Speaking of military uniforms, he struggled and came up with the word “wardrobe,” a term more appropriate to his years as a movie star.
Speculation about Reagan’s acumen hovered over the political conversation. Time The magazine drew contestants to cartoon horses racing down a track with the headline: “A Real Race?”
Scan by NPR/TIME
Reagan’s avuncular style lent itself to hiding uncertainty under a cloak of affability. But even on that Kansas City stage, minutes after his wonderful joke seemed to bury the age question, Reagan’s closing speech raised questions.
Asked to summarize, he began to describe a trip he and his wife Nancy had taken on the California coast road 1 years earlier. History meandered, a bit like this highway. Those in the auditorium, including this writer, felt growing unease as Reagan continued, aimlessly.
The moderator, NBC’s Edwin Newman, eventually interrupted and cut it. And the room returned to its old atmosphere of assurance. Reagan was fine. Wasn’t it?
Lack of attention or efficiency during his second term were sometimes attributed to his age. Voters, however, did not seem concerned. By the end of Reagan’s term, 40 states had voted to have his vice president, George HW Bush, succeed him. Bush was 13 years younger than Reagan but part of the World War II generation.
Years after Reagan’s departure, the nation would learn that he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative disease that ultimately claimed his life. The revelation of the diagnosis reignited questions about whether there had been signs of early symptoms during his second term.
There is no upper age limit for federal elected officials, including presidents
Biden is the first octogenarian in the Oval Office. Only three others before him were over 70 in the White House. The first was Dwight Eisenhower, who turned 70 just before his term ended in January 1961, and the second was Reagan, who was 77 when he left.
Until Biden, Donald Trump was the oldest president on his inauguration day. Trump was 74 when he left office and filed paperwork to run again. If he returned to power, he would be 82 at the end of his term.
While airline pilots face mandatory retirement at 65, federal law enforcement at 65 and judges in some states at 70, there is no age limit for elected officials. federal. The rule is that the voters decide.
As a point of reference, check the US Senate, where Iowa Republican Charles Grassley was just elected to another six-year term. He is already 89 years old. In 2003, South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond retired at age 100.
But senators, important as they are, are not presidents. They can take a day off, or even a week or a month. They are not the day-to-day guardians of nuclear codes, with all that that entails.
The Constitution requires members of Congress to be 25 years old and presidents and vice presidents to be 35 years old. That’s all. No upper age limit. And apparently the convention participants who drafted this document in 1787 weren’t concerned with an upper limit at all. This may be because they were relatively young themselves, with an average age of 42. The youngest was only 26, the oldest, Benjamin Franklin, was 81. (He was transported to and from sessions in a sedan chair.)
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There was a big age gap between Clinton and his rivals
Age was an implied contrast in the 1992 election, when Bill Clinton challenged incumbent President George HW Bush. Clinton was a 46-year-old when he was first named and was still widely seen as the “boy governor” first elected to Arkansas when he was just 32.
Bush was 22 years her senior. At the time, it was the largest age gap between candidates from the two main parties since before the Civil War.
In 1996, when President Bill Clinton was seeking re-election at age 50, the issue of age came up in another presidential debate in 1996. His Republican challenger was Bob Dole, a longtime senator who had then 73 years old.
“I don’t think Senator Dole is too old to be president. That’s the age of his ideas that I question,” Clinton said.
Dole didn’t seem too swayed by references to his age, although he generated some anxiety mid-campaign when he leaned on a flimsy railing and fell a short distance from the stage during of a campaign rally.
Candidates should be aware of every public move they make. This image of the fall of Dole has since reminded us that this imperative applies especially to those of a certain age.