After losing the 1980 Iowa caucuses to George Bush, who did push-ups to prove that he was “Up for the Eighties,” Ronald Reagan headed to New Hampshire saddled with an age-old political problem — his age.
When Reagan turned 69 on Feb. 6, the New York Times reported, “At an age when many Americans are gray and retired, the former governor of California remained resolutely neither.”
This was not an isolated example. Ten days later, the Times headlined a major political story: “REAGAN AGE AN ISSUE FOR NEW HAMPSHIRE.” The subhead was even more troubling for The Gipper: “Interviews Find His 69 Years Are a Major Republican Concern — Doubts Could Help Bush.”
This was before Reagan was shot, before he stumbled in his first 1984 debate with Walter Mondale and certainly before anyone imagined that he would live out his final years stricken with Alzheimer’s.
What makes this long-ago imagery of a geriatric Reagan relevant today is that Donald Trump will turn 70 next month and Hillary Clinton will celebrate her 69th birthday in October. And if somehow Hillary stumbles, there is the 74-year-old Bernie Sanders waiting in the wings, along with a 73-year-old vice president named Biden.
Yet in a vitriol-fueled campaign year, the “Age Issue” has only rarely and creakily made its way on stage.
Given Trump’s shaky grasp of any topic beyond his own ego, it is hard to argue that his seven decades are the main reason why the bilious billionaire should not be entrusted with the nuclear codes. And for those wanting to make a personal, ad feminem, attack on Clinton, her gender is the obvious target rather than her 1947 birthdate.
What we are also witnessing is a dramatic shift in how old is considered too old to wield political power. Suddenly, 70 is seen as … well … the new 65.
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This has long been the case on Capitol Hill due, in part, to the deference given to seniority. In the 1960s, John McCormack served as speaker of the House until he was 80. And Tip O’Neill, who was two years younger than Reagan, held onto the gavel until he was 74.
Sure, Paul Ryan at 46 is seen as the future of the GOP in a post-Trump world. But it is worth remembering that his Democratic rival, Nancy Pelosi, is 76. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 74.
But presidential politics (remember the buzz originally surrounding 44-year-old Marco Rubio) was supposed to be the province of young men in a hurry. This has been the expectation since John F. Kennedy, 43, asserted in his inaugural address that “the torch has been passed to a new generation.”
With a handful of exceptions (most notably James Buchanan and Reagan), presidents are generally the same age or younger than their predecessors. But no matter who is elected in November, America will set a record for turning back the calendar pages. Hillary Clinton is almost 14 years older than Barack Obama.
Trump and Hillary Clinton are among the oldest of baby boomers. In fact, assuming there are no surprises at the Cleveland and Philadelphia conventions, six presidential nominees will have been born in just a 21-month period between June 1946 (Trump) and March 1948 (Al Gore). George W. Bush (July 6) and Bill Clinton (Aug. 4) came into this world within a month of each other in 1946. Mitt Romney, like Hillary, is a child of 1947.
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To get a sense of how unprecedented this birthdate clustering is, only one candidate born between 1925 and 1942 (Michael Dukakis) was ever nominated for president. The “Silent Generation” has been almost completely silent on the presidential stage.
Doing some rough math, a child born during the Depression or World War II has had about a 40-million-to-one chance of being nominated for president. But if that child is an “Early Boomer,” the odds dramatically drop to 1-million-to-one.
Maybe this is coincidence. But as an “Early Boomer” myself, my guess is that this political ascendancy reflects the unusual attributes of post-war childhood. If our parents were the “Greatest Generation,” then the offspring of the returning GIs were hailed as the “Greatest Children.”
Everything in our upbringing told us that we were special, that we were privileged, that America had never been so lucky to have future leaders like us populating its elementary schools.
But the jump in the birthrate after the war also meant that we grew up in a hyper-competitive environment. Instead of depending on helicopter parents, we learned to fly on our own.
Maybe this is too glib. But like old-time vaudevillians reveling in the applause from the crowd, it will take a giant hook to ever get us “Early Boomers” off stage.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. He is a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.
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