It started well before last week’s stunning election. Politico’s Michael Tortorello asked in a Feb. 28 posting, “Is Donald Trump Too Old to Be President?” As his birthday loomed in June, USA Today’s Bill Sternberg posted, “Trump at 70, Just the Way He Is.”
And as recently as Sept. 13, FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone and Christie Aschwanden posted, “Can A Candidate Be Too Old To Run For President?”
The potential for stereotyping presidential candidates for their age, race, gender, religion or geographic moorings is always a media concern, and the president-elect has certainly run the table on the list of possible biases. But what about commentary on Donald Trump himself? Almost immediately following Tuesday’s results, Trump’s ability to comport himself presidentially was questioned on multiple media outlets because he turned 70 this year.
Questioning any candidate’s health and stamina is not only fair game, of course, it’s a necessary inquiry. The Politico piece noted, “The oldsters in the presidential race might be exceptions to the rule, but science says brain function often declines noticeably at that age.” The story went on partly to source at least some of the current attention to the issue of partisan commentators, such as Breitbart.com (prior to Steve Bannon’s officially joining the Trump campaign) and Karl Rove. Both, writes Tororello, “insinuated that [Hillary] Clinton suffers cognitive impairments due to a fall she took in December 2012.”
Tortorello immediately dismissed those claims due to “the notable absence of an MD” on the end of Breitbart and Rove’s claimed sources. Although he cited important research on age-related decline of “executive function,” among those he interviewed was the distinguished University of California, San Diego, neuroscientist Dilip Jeste, PhD. He stressed, “If you are looking at the MRI of a person, you may not be able to tell her age. There are 40-year-old people whose brain is like an 80-year-old,” and visa versa.
The Politico writer commented drily, “Science has yet to study the brains of politicians as a species.” Perhaps a yet-unknown psychologist was studying this year’s primary sample, including Trump, 70, Clinton, 69, and Bernie Sanders, 75.
In any case, it’s likely that the issue of age remained subcutaneous throughout much of the excruciatingly long presidential campaign because any of them would have become the oldest president taking office in history.
Garry Trudeau Has It Right
Garry Trudeau's new book YUGE! chronicles the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist’s inclusion of Trump in his “Doonesbury” strip for almost 30 years.
He recently explained to NPR’s Terry Gross that since 1987 he’s been following the steady pattern of Trump's bombastic behavior. That three-decade stretch is significant in light of a pattern now emanating from some of the national media -- ranging from post-election remarks by Chris Matthews to anti-Trump conservative talk-radio host Charlie Sykes on NPR “Morning Edition” (Nov. 11).
With little variation, they and several others have commented, "He's 70-years-old—and he's not going to change."
The editor, at 71, may be a bit sensitive to these suggestions that old pols (or journalists) can't learn new tricks. Without question, broaching a candidate’s health and stamina is legitimate, but keep in mind John F. Kennedy's Addison's disease, which remained hidden while he ran to become the youngest president on record in 1960, and Sen. Paul Tsongas' cancer, the recurrence of which he failed to reveal during his second presidential bid. Tsongas died in 1997, at age 55, not long after dropping out of the race.
So, what’s age got to do with it?
Invoking concern over an older candidate’s age is hardly new, of course. Ronald Reagan, who took office in 1981, shortly before his 70th birthday, is remembered for wittily deflating speculation about his advanced years. During his 1984 debate poke at Walter Mondale, Reagan elicited cheers and laughter with his well-timed quip that he wouldn’t hold the Democrat’s “youth and inexperience against him.”
At the moment, though, I can't recall a president-elect’s age coming up repeatedly as a kind of fixative brushed over his questionable behavior. As Garry Trudeau comically documents, Trump hasn't changed his belligerent opportunism throughout most of his adult life. Evidently, his bluster and bullying go back to his youth.
No Country for Old Stereotypes
But now that the 45th president-elect’s volatile behavior—and mindset—have gained the awesome power of the American presidency, how is it that the burgeoning public response is to question whether his age might prevent him from altering his troubling demeanor? The refrain quickly seems to be that he's beyond his capacity to change because he's too old.
No. If he’s beyond that, it’s because -- he's DONALD TRUMP.
This emerging narrative is wrong, and it's patently ageist. However, I also want to see how far it continues. Will that lazy line of politi-speak reinforce a phony stereotype that will essentially let the man off the hook?
Reporters will have much else to worry about from the new president starting Jan. 20, 2017. But those concerned with stereotyping and stigmatization also should be keeping their eyes and ears open for simplistic mischaracterizations of this man. Like anyone in power, he needs to be held accountable for his actions, not dismissed for his age.
Let journalists evaluate him for who he is and what he does, not discount his excesses due to his certain age.
Leonard Cohen’s Darker Last Word
And let’s not forget those who grow and learn throughout their years. Only last month, Leonard Cohen released his final testament in his new album, You Want it Darker. Cohen, who died last week at age 82, left us in the shadows of his wisdom, his poetry often deeply mysterious, his insights sometimes keenly political. I have to wonder whether he didn’t anticipate the vigilance to be required in the period ahead with his song, “It Seemed the Better Way.” Deep in Cohen’s throat he warns:
Seemed the better way
When first I heard him speak
But now it's much too late
To turn the other cheek
Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way
Sounded like the truth
But it's not the truth today
I better hold my tongue
I better take my place
Lift this glass of blood
Try to say the grace.
Paul Kleyman directs New America Media’s Ethnic Elders Newsbeat. A version of this article also appeared in Generations Beat Online News, which he also edits.