Tuesday, November 27, 2007

the strength of a septuagenarian

In "In Search of Old Magic" The Economist writes of John McCain:

Most people know that he is one of America's great war heroes. His heroism still shines though in his commitment to political reform. He has done more than any other politician to savage vested interests in the name of the national good. And he has done more to form alliances with Democratic senators: on campaign-finance reform (with Russ Feingold), on immigration reform (with Teddy Kennedy), on global warming (with Joe Lieberman). Government watchdogs credit him with saving taxpayers billions of dollars, improving public safety, protecting Indian tribes and stopping illegal influence-peddling. He has never pulled his punches when criticising Mr Bush's performance in Iraq—particularly on the president's see-no-evil approach to incompetence and his see-no-incompetence attitude to his former defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
Looked at in the right light, Mr McCain's weaknesses can also seem like strengths. The flip side of age is experience: Mr McCain probably knows as much about how Washington works as anybody, and certainly as much about what war is like.
That praise is partially in response to this challenge posed near the beginning of the article:

Mr McCain's most notable disadvantage is his age. He will be 72 in January 2009—three years older than Ronald Reagan was when he first moved into the White House—and he would be 80 if he served two terms. It may be true that 70 is the new 60. But Mr McCain has had a hard life. He spent five-and-a-half years in the Hanoi Hilton, a notorious Vietnam prisoner-of-war camp. He broke both arms and a leg when he ejected from his plane, and his hosts left his limbs to set themselves. (He still cannot lift his arms above his shoulders and aides have to comb his hair.) On top of that came a serious bout with skin cancer in 2000. Some 30% of voters and 22% of Republicans express reservations about his age. His opponents say he should be anded a gold watch rather than the keys to the nuclear football.

Is it true that old age is McCain's greatest liability in the campaign? For many on the right, I'm sure his bipartisanship and his work on immigration and campaign finance reform are his biggest obstacles. But to the extent that many people see age as a disqualifying factor - What does it say for a culture that a relatively advanced age is assumed to be so much a laibility that it should
overwhelm credentials of experience and authority? And what does it say when those who live through their afflictions and accomplish great things, that this is for many a source of implicit prejudice rather than inspiration?
A pop culture preoccupied with marketing the fountain of youth saw the wise and distinguished Bob Dole in 1996 as merely geriatric. In 2000, John McCain was an energetic reformer. Eight years later, we are often reminded, McCain, if elected, would be the oldest candidate to ever take office. We are less often reminded that this of course was the case with a few other presidents also.

A 72 year-old McCain in 2009 would break the record for an initial inaguration held by a 69 year-old Reagan in 1981 (though still younger than Reagan was in 1984). The previous record makers were William Henry Harrison, Andrew Jackson and John Adams. It is remarkable that a full century and a half passed between the inaguration of W. H. Harrison and Ronald Reagan.
Harrison was the first president to die in office, and perhaps this led in part to an atmosphere where older candidates were less politically viable.
What is even more remarkable is the age and longevity of the early presidents when compared to their time and their successors. Of the ten presidents born before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, tha median age at inaguration was 58 - well into the range of adult life expectancy for that time. The median longevity for these presidents was a full 78 years. Benjamin Franklin, while not a U.S. President, demonstrated the energetic contribution of a septuagenarian statesman as ambassador to France - a position of importance equal or greater to that of any civilian in America's struggle for independance.
For the presidents born between the Constitution and the Civil War, the median age at naguration was a mere 51, while the median longevity - excluding those assassinated - was 67. For the presidents born after the Civil War who have died, the median age of ascendancy rose to 56, and the median longevity to 81. Modern advances in medicine and well-being have meant that for those Presidents born after 1910, only JFK has died before the age of eighty, and 83 year olds George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter continue to be active. It is very possible they will survive another decade and surpass the 93 years of Reagan and Ford.

McCain has suffered the scars of war and sickness, but is that any kind of a disqualification - that he has experienced the savage aspects of the human condition and faced them heroically? Many presidents have suffered maladies, including during their term of office. Bill Richardson received an endorsement from the NRA in his last run for governor, but he is among many who want to keep guns out of the hands of anyone with a mental illness. This may seem sensible, but it reflects the spirit of an age that might have not looked kindly on Lincoln's melancholy. For all the talk about diversity we hear, some discrimination when it comes to a person's perceived health and happiness continues to be largely acceptable in our society.

Senator McCain has said he's the "the luckiest guy that I've ever known" even as he has certainly endured the stresses and strains of life associated with a life of sacrifice and service to, as he often puts it, "a cause greater than one's own self-interest." The physical results of such service can be a powerful testimony. In "George Washington: Presbyopia Saves the United States," Dr. Zebra quotes Flexner's account of Washington before his officers at Newburgh:
[Washington] remembered he had brought with him a reassuring letter from a congressman. He would read it. He pulled the paper from his pocket, and then something seemed to go wrong. The General seemed confused; he stared at the
paper helplessly. The officers leaned forward, their hearts contracting with anxiety. Washington pulled from his pocket something only his intimates had ever seen him wear: a pair of eyeglasses. "Gentlemen," he said, "you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."
This homely act and simple statement did what all Washington's [prepared] arguments had failed to do. The hardened soldiers wept. Washington had saved the United States from tyranny and civil discord.

No comments: