Sunday, February 28, 2016

The challenges of electing an old American president

A recent article in Politico Magazine points out something I hadn't really thought about, namely that the front runners in the US Democratic and Republican nominations are all pretty old.
At the beginning of the next presidency term, Donald Trump would be 70, Hillary Clinton 69, and Bernie Sanders 75! The other Republican hopefuls are admittedly younger - Marco Rubio is currently 44, and Ted Cruz is 45 - but they are languishing badly in the primaries at the moment. The oldest US president to date was Ronald Reagan, who began the job when he was almost 70, and lingered until almost 78! Just for reference, Bill Clinton assumed office at 47, Barack Obama at 48.
One issue with an old president is general health, and I hadn't realized it but the candidates actually make public their health profile. Or sort of. Thus, we know that 75-year old Bernie Sanders has had a bad back (God, who hasn't?), laryngitis from acid reflux and gout, but his heart is healthy. All we get to find out about Hillary Clinton, though, is that she eats a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables. And all I have seen about Donald Trump is a suitably Trumpian statement from his gastroenterologist that Trump would be "the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency". So, it seems that not all health profiles are created equal. And who on earth has a personal gastroenterologist, anyway? That alone sets alarm bells ringing for me.
Be that as it may, perhaps even more important is the mental state and mental health of the candidates. As the Politico article points out, our cognitive abilities (memory, learning, attention, reasoning, etc) tend to stay reasonably intact through the age of 50 or 60, after which they typically begin to gradually decline, until, usually at around 70, the decline accelerates, often precipitately.
Now, these are just ball-park, averaged figures, and the presidential candidates are clearly not just ordinary, average individuals. To get to where they are today, these people must be assumed to have out-of-the-ordinary cognitive skills, skills that been honed and kept sharp by constant high-level thinking and political manoeuvering. And yes, I mean even Donald Trump, however unlikely that may seem.
But they are not super-human, and eventually age will catch up with them. Ronald Reagan had his share of health issues during his term of office, and there were aspersions cast towards the end of his tenure that he was forgetting things, losing his train of thought, etc. It was not until the age of 83, though, that he was officially admitted to be suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
The counter-argument is, of course, that what the wrinklies lack in nimbleness and acuity, they more than make up for in experience and wisdom, which is perhaps even more important.
Anyway, for now at least, even if some of them appear to be irretrievably misguided, all of the candidates do seem mentally sharp (yes, even Trump, despite his anger issues and borderline narcissistic personality disorder). I do sometimes worry that a 70-year old president must necessarily be much more mired in the past and hide-bound by outdated attitudes than a 45-year old. But, as though set there to refute this very idea, the most progressive candidate, the one with the new ideas and the fresh approaches, actually turns out to be the oldest, even if, as I have argued elsewhere, this may not be his time to shine.

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