An email arrived from Ruthe Karlin who blogs at Studio Ruthe discussing Senator John McCain’s capabilities – or lack thereof – due to his age:
“I've been giving a lot of thought to John McCain,” writes Ruthe. “While I deplore the ageist jokes and obvious ageism, I think the issue of loss of some capabilities as we age needs to be addressed.
“What concerns me is not McCain's ability to make judgments given time and lack of pressure, but rather what happens under pressure in the middle of the night…
“I am two years older than McCain. I'm in good shape mentally and physically…But, I know I don't want to make any important decisions after about 4 pm. That's been true for years, and I know it's the same for most of my peers.”
A lot is being said about Senator McCain’s age, almost entirely in the negative. Here’s a short, derisive video undoubtedly created by relative youngsters recently posted to YouTube (1:05 minutes):
After watching the video, my first question was: And your point is? It is shallow and irresponsible to not vote for a candidate because he is older than Coke in a can.
On the other hand, to Ruthe’s point about decision-making and time of day, I too have been saying for years that I’m stupid after 3PM because by mid-afternoon it is harder for me to concentrate. But when it is necessary to be sharp, when something important comes up, I am able to rise to the occasion.
It didn’t please me, when I agreed to appear on The Brian Lehrer Show a few weeks ago, that it is broadcast live at 7:30PM and I would have been traveling all day. But I knew I needed my full mental energy for the program and it was there for me. And so it will be for a president at 3AM. I am confident in my mind that when something is urgent enough to wake the president in the middle of the night, his or her response is comparable to a smoke alarm suddenly screeching in anyone's home.
There has been a tendency among nations in recent decades toward younger heads of state than in the past. The average age of current western national leaders is about 55. But it wasn’t always so.
In post-World War II Germany, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was 73 when he took office in 1949. Britain’s Winston Churchill was 77 when he became prime minister for the second time in 1951. Charles de Gaulle of France was 69 in the first year of his presidency in 1959. And Israel’s Golda Meir was 71 when she became prime minister in 1969. All served their full terms and all their countries survived, even thrived, during their tenures.
Currently, three of the most powerful and successful business leaders in the world, who keep schedules that would stretch a young baby boomer, are older than Senator McCain: Warren Buffett, George Soros and Rupert Murdoch are all 77 to McCain’s 72 when he would take office if he is elected U.S. president.
These are just the most well-known examples; there are others.
I think it is a mistake to compare our own capabilities at a similar age, in retirement or in far less demanding jobs, to heads of state and titans of industry where lives and trillions of dollars are in the balance. Unlike ours, their mistakes can be catastrophic not just for themselves, but for the world.
In addition, men and women who aspire and rise to these heights are ambitious and driven in ways I think the rest of us do not understand. It takes ruthlessness and an unswerving eye on the prize over a lifetime to win, continue to win and to fend off rivals and upstarts who are equally ambitious to replace them.
Of necessity, these people are smart, sharp and unyielding because they are loath to give up their position and power until their dying gasp.
It is good to keep in mind too that presidents who, like all of us, cannot know everything, are not making decisions in a vacuum, alone at their desk in the Oval Office. They are surrounded by advisors who, whatever we the public may think of their ethics and politics, are experts in their fields. And when a president calls on other experts outside the administration, all pick up the telephone, eager to provide their best counsel.
Although Ruthe did not mention it, others have suggested that McCain’s age means he may die in office. That is true. And so may Senators Clinton and Obama, if one of them is elected. No one wants to anticipate it, but assassinations happen; John F. Kennedy was 46, Abraham Lincoln 47, when they were killed.
The four U.S. presidents who died in office of natural causes ranged in age from 58 to 67.
Earlier this month in a TGB Interview, I asked 80-year-old geriatrician Robert N. Butler, who has been a staunch opponent of ageism since before he coined the term in the 1960s, what he would advise voters to consider in regard to Senator McCain’s age:
“I am concerned that there is a storm of ageism being projected against Senator John McCain. Yet there have been great leaders of great age such as Charles de Gaulle in post-war France, Konrad Adenauer in post-war Germany. The issue is not age, the issue is function, that is, intellectual and physical capabilities to carry out the job. [emphasis added]
That is the kind of determination – in addition to his policy positions - each voter must try to make by watching and listening to Senator McCain in speeches, interviews and debates. In doing so, it is important to remember that people age at dramatically different rates. Some 50-year-olds have already lost capabilities; some 90-year-olds are as sharp as they were in youth.
To be clear, this post is not a political endorsement of Senator McCain for president. It is a plea that no one dismiss him based on only the number of his years.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, liloldme explains what it took to try to prove what she had been told, that Great Grandma Was a Snob.]