Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Does age matter?

"I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."  Thus spoke a 73-year-old Ronald Reagan during a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale while running for a second term.  He had come into presidency four years earlier at 69, already the oldest to be elected. Nonetheless, he did serve out his two terms, though some believe signs of his looming Alzheimer’s were evident at the end.

At an average of 55, most of our presidents entered office at a relatively young age.  Five of the first six (including Washington) were 57.  Both TR and JFK were in their early 40's.  Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were among the seven others not yet 50.  Only 10 had reached their 60s, two of whom (Truman and Ford) moved up midterm from the Vice Presidency (upon Franklin Roosevelt's death and Nixon's resignation).  FDR was just 50 when first elected and, while he looked so very much older, only 63 when he died in 1945.

Given that presidential history, Reagan our oldest incoming and outgoing chief executive, was an age outlier.  That is something to think about as we look ahead to 2016, and especially in considering which Democrat might succeed President Obama.  Hillary Clinton, the assumed front-runner, will be 69 (the same age as Reagan) and Joe Biden at 73 would be charting new ground.  Given where we have been, and considering the unquestioned physical toll the presidency can exact on its incumbents, it's fair to ask, does age, and specifically their age matter?

Until the relatively recent past, retirement at a certain age was considered a given.  I remember vividly when Rutgers University forced a world-class professor we knew into retirement because he had reached the then mandatory age of 65.  Other institutions public and private did the same.  The assumption, since debunked, was that they might be too old to carry out their duties.  Rutgers robbed itself of a talented and seasoned scholar and its students from sitting at his feet.  Some large corporations still impose compulsory retirement for top managers, especially CEOs, and at an even earlier age.  For them it isn't a matter of whether someone over 60 (which is often the cutoff) can still perform — obviously they can — but that not moving senior management out would prevent those below from moving up the corporate ladder, at least having a shot at it.

It is the corporate model that might be most germane here.  Specifically, I would ask if having a presumptive candidate Clinton backed up by Biden doesn’t prevent their party from motivating and grooming a new generation of presidential-worthy leaders.  In his recent New York Magazine "Circus" commentary, Frank Rich suggested that this might already be the case when he characterized the Democrats as having "only a shallow and aging bench of presidential hopefuls".  One has to wonder whether that "shallow and aging bench" is a self-inflicted potential weakness, a self-fulfilling and risky prophecy.

To be sure, this is a touchy subject on many levels not the least possible age discrimination.  Being myself of a more mature age I feel a little more comfortable about raising the question, but nonetheless aware of treading on treacherous ground.  Then, too, there is that a potential Clinton run may lead to finally having a woman in the White House, breaking that glass ceiling.  As regular readers of this post know, given my personal commitment to both civil rights and feminism, I was truly torn in 2008 in having to choose between her and Obama.   Nothing is uncomplicated, and this particular age question may be especially so.

Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have paid their dues, something that counts in politics, regardless of parties.  Both have run hard, but thus far unsuccessively, for their Party's nomination.  Those losses may not have harmed them because once rejected but nonetheless qualified candidates are often "rewarded" with the nomination a second or third time around, most notably on the Republicans side.  And with mixed results: Reagan, McCain and Romney being examples.  The then Senator Clinton never fulfilled her "inevitable" role in 2008, but for sure many in the party feel that this time she is due.  Whether that would lead to the Reagan or McCain outcome is of course unknown.

Given Clinton's presumed front-runner status, let's pause to consider her potential candidacy.  During the 2008 campaign, Clinton leaned heavily on her experience (especially in contrast to Obama), she being ready from day one.  While a somewhat controversial First Lady, she had booked in almost eight years as a very well prepared and effective U.S. Senator.  She had a firm grasp of both domestic and foreign policy issues and had become a very effective campaigner, albeit with a sometimes dysfunctional organization behind her.  She was, and remains, highly qualified and again a woman in a sea of male contenders.  At the end, she boasted having at least cracked the glass ceiling giving hope especially to her female supporters that she, and by extension they, would ultimately break through.  In my view, having a woman in the Oval Office is way overdue.

Clinton has now added to her resume four years as Secretary of State.  She logged in millions of miles over those years and was highly respected both abroad and, save the usual political sniping, at home.  Even so, there are some who assess her tenure as more reactive than active.  She avoided risk-taking initiatives, most notably interjecting herself in the Israel-Palestine conflict, something that her successor has done early on.  Did she want to avoid having a "failure" on her record?  During the '08 campaign Clinton had to defend her support of the Iraq War in 2008 and it is fair to say that she was then and remains more hawkish than either the President or many in her party.  She was among those who were pushing early for interventions in Libya and especially in Syria.   Finally, at issue the last time around was the question of dynasty.  We had had two Bush presidencies and her election would have meant two of Clintons as well.  Dynasty has not come up recently, but it is sure to reemerge and, I believe, appropriately so.

Does age matter?  At a time when we live and remain in vigorous good health longer than ever, mandatory retirements seem so "yesterday".  People like Warren Buffett and Rupert Murdoch, both in their eighties, still seem at the top of their game.  The Senate and House are both filled with "seniors" who maintain rigorous schedules and remain effective.  Bob Schieffer (76) has just led Face the Nation to the top of the Sunday morning network talk show heap.  The list goes on.  But there is a cost, which brings me back to the corporate mandatory retirement model.  All of the examples I've given are of people holding on to a very small class of jobs.  In each case, bench sitting behind them is equivalent to a career dead end.  Not only are the prospects of succession bleak, but also few people — often the most talented — are willing to sit their way into oblivion.  The result is what Rich called a "shallow bench".

As speculation about Clinton and to a lesser degree Biden continues, few names of younger or even other candidates emerge.  If this continues Clinton, who may already have a virtual lock on the nomination, could win it by default, perhaps more than by choice.  I don't think that's good for her, the party or the country.  Don't misunderstand, this has little to do with any lack of qualification or even that she would not have my enthusiastic support.  And it isn't a matter of age per se.  Rather we need to be grooming new leadership and equally important to benefit from fresh thinking, especially in the current atmosphere of divisive interagency.  If political figures like say Martin O'Malley (50), Amy Klobushar (53), Andrew Cuomo (55), Sherrod Brown (61), or Elizabeth Warren (64) seem well positioned to enter a presidential race, we all want to know more about them, how they view national and international issues and what they might do if elected.  My sense is that the potential bench isn't that shallow, that is if we let it be a bench.  Age may not matter, but impeding a next generation does.

My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.

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