The two candidates for president are old. Trump is 74. Biden is 77. Unless you’re prepared to beclown yourself beyond repair, that’s old. And as anyone over 50 years of age realizes, even if they won’t admit it publicly, our bodies and minds begin the slide down the other side of the mountain.
It doesn’t make us useless or incapable of doing a strenuous job. Indeed, we’re often much more tenacious than youngsters, and push ourselves to our limits and beyond.
And we possess something younger people lack, experience. Kids offer a litany of excuses as to why experience either doesn’t matter or actually makes things worse, but they know, and we know, it’s bullshit. Sure, an old fool is worse than a young fool, but we’re not all fools. It’s curious why they believe their brilliance at 30 will somehow turn them into blithering idiots with 30 years experience on top of that brilliance.
Biden has experience, but his age makes it a trade-off. In his younger days, Biden was never a good orator. He was prone to gaffes, and he was never particularly inspirational. President Obama was able to move a crowd. Biden is lucky to keep them awake. He may well be a decent person, but as the last debate showed, putting together a cogent sentence is not his strength. This isn’t to say Trump can either, with his vocabulary limited to three adjectives and an innate inability to answer a simple question, but that has nothing to do with Biden’s abilities at 77.
New York Times columnist David Brooks offers a leap of logic at The Atlantic, comparing the aging Bruce Springsteen to Joe.
“Joe Biden is like one of the fathers in the neighborhood I grew up with as a kid,” Springsteen told me. “They were firemen and policemen, and there was an innate decency to most of them that he carries naturally with him. It’s very American.”
Approaching 80, Biden is pretty old. Seventy-seven is probably not the ideal age to start such a grueling job as president of the United States. But making the most of the not-ideal is what maturity teaches. The urge to give something to future generations rises up in people over 65, and a style of leadership informed by that urge may be exactly what American needs right now. Today, being 77 doesn’t have to be a time of wrapping things up; it’s just the moment you’re in, still moving to something better. Maybe this can be America—not in decline, but moving with maturity to a new strength.
My father, in his 90s, told me that in his mind he was still 30 years old. It pushed him to do things he was neither physically nor mentally capable of doing, which would quickly prove obvious. The problem wasn’t lack of will, or the desire to make the most of his “not-ideal” circumstances, which is certainly something maturity teaches. But maturity teaches other lessons as well, one of which is that your eyes can’t see what they used to see, your knees don’t bend the way they used to bend and your mind forgets things it never used to forget.
Something has happened to aging. Whether because of better diet or health care or something else, a 73-year-old in 2020 looks like a 53-year-old in 1935. The speaker of the House is 80 and going strong. The presidential candidates are 77 and 74. Even our rock stars are getting up there. Bob Dylan produced a remarkable album this year at 79. Bruce Springsteen released an album today at 71. “Active aging” is now a decades-long phase of life. As the nation becomes a gerontocracy, it’s worth pondering: What do people gain when they age, and what do they lose? What does successful aging look like?
If you don’t like the new Bruce Springsteen album, you don’t have to buy it or listen to it. It might make him sad, but it won’t have much of an impact otherwise. But that’s not how it works for old politicians, who make decisions that will have an impact whether you like them or not.
Brooks is right that we’re aging better than we used to. I blame medicine and healthy living, which I also blame for keeping us alive past our expiration date. But I also know that as well as we’re aging, we’re still aging. It’s not that we don’t have much to offer by way of experience and maturity. We do. But to deny that we’ve lost a step, and worse, to ignore that tomorrow morning I could lose a few more to the point where it’s time to hang it up, is also part of maturity and reality.
Biden is an old man. Trump ain’t no spring chicken. It’s great that Springsteen sees Biden as one of the fathers, a policeman or fireman (ironically, words that are no longer acceptable in polite company), but if his house was burning down today, would he want Biden to show up on the firetruck or some far younger person? I would ask the same about Trump, but I suspect he wouldn’t want Trump to show up at any age.