TUCSON, Arizona — I used to say the only difference between 23 and dead is all in the mind. Now, a lot closer to the latter than the former, not so much. But today age looms large in an America facing its most crucial elections ever.
The following column by contributing editor, journalist and author Mort Rosenblum is from his regular comment The MortReport. If you like his writing, you can support it here.
A recent Atlantic headline asked, “Why Do Such Elderly People Run America?” Good question. Lots of young people with fresh ideas and new skills see their options in November — two men, 150 years old between them — as total wastes of space.
But the writer, 38, lost me fast. He called Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders “three candidates divided by ideology but united in dotage.” Dotage? Webster defines that as “senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness.” Fuck off, punk.
Ageism is a small-bore bias. Mostly, it reflects callow, shallow thinkers who generalize in data-clump shortcuts like their computers (which, BTW, their elders invented). Some people are couchbound rutabagas by 50; others remain brilliant into their 90s.
For the CEO of an imperiled “free world,” being old has value, even if he, or she, says “malarkey” for “bullshit.” Founding Fathers fixed the minimum age for president at 35 back when male life expectancy was near 38. They wanted the oldest bulls in the herd.
Confronting the present means understanding the past
A long life reveals over time how confronting the present requires an understanding of the past. Diplomacy demands an acquired feel for reading faces and anticipating how action might trigger reaction. Situations vary; human nature remains constant.
Age isn’t Trump’s problem. He has been a self-obsessed lying cheat since childhood. Biden may not fire up audiences that expect entertaining bombast, but he excels at what matters now: calmly finding common ground at home and abroad.
At 73, Trump dismisses his 77-year-old rival as “Sleepy Joe,” too addled to speak without gaffes. I can’t wait for pointed debate questions on climate and foreign policy. Perhaps Trump will take up Biden’s challenge to a pushup contest.
Every president needs two crucial qualities: an ability to inspire the nation and a firm grip on real-world realities.
JFK swept into office at 43 with that brief, stirring Inaugural speech. “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” But he bumbled into war that devastated Vietnam, then Cambodia, rejecting Charles de Gaulle’s warnings about what France had learned to its grief.
Obama, at 47, aced inspiration. He steered George W. Bush’s trashed economy into a boom for which Trump claims credit. He was a leader on climate change and the deal to lower the heat in Iran. But Syrians ignored his line in the sand, Saudis pounded Yemen and Afghans kept on killing each other.
A need for restoring democracy in America
America now needs a seasoned statesman to not only restore decency at home but also steer it off the rocks abroad. Trump thwarts cooperation to contain a pandemic that is reshaping life on Earth. As he turns the United States inward, China threatens to set a frightening new global standard for human values, freedoms and political philosophy.
My own septuagenarian view is suspect. Consider instead wisdom that has held up for 2,000 years, Plutarch’s essay titled, “Should an Old Man Engage in Politics?” A short summary: Of course, he should. Why burn down a living library?
Books about piloting a ship don’t produce captains, he wrote, “unless those captains have often stood upon the stern to observe the struggles against wave and wind and stormy night.” Leaders don’t need physical strength; that is only necessary for the officers and troops at their command.
He added: “To take on menial and common work after practicing politics is like stripping away the dress of a free…woman, replacing it with an apron, and then forcing her to work in a tavern.” We need fresh young comers like Alexandria Octavio-Cortez for the future. Should she go back to mixing drinks in a Bronx bar when she gets old?
Judgment, frankness and wisdom develop slowly over time, Plutarch concluded, “so it makes no sense…that they no longer be of service.”
For some, history begins when they decide to take notice. A student once told me the Vietnam War didn’t matter; it was over before he was born. Alexander the Great was a bit before my time, I replied, but I knew he conquered much of the known world before he was old enough to buy cigarettes today in Arizona.
A free press is the first item of the Bill of Rights
Alexander learned in war what Machiavelli wrote about political science 1,500 years later. Authoritarians gain power by playing dirty and keep it by making good on their threats, cowing their own people and their adversaries into submission.
America made itself great with a reverse tack, based on human nature’s better angels. Leaders should be respected, if not loved, more than feared. Three branches would check and balance one another. The first item of the Bill of Rights enshrined a free press.
During the Reagan ‘80s, conservatives began to entrench oligarchy. They pushed public schools to discourage critical thinking and social sciences, creating a workaday class that enabled an elite to get increasingly rich. Bread and circuses worked for the Romans.
In 2016, with the internet and Fox News, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. But the unhinged narcissist who Republicans expected to manipulate has let a plague run amok, killing more than 100,000 and plunging America into depression. His cultists and hangers-on, unfazed, blame China, Obama and yet another Democratic hoax.
Young people hold the future
Young people must endure whatever comes next. At the rate we’re going, scientists say, by 2070 much of our planet will be too hot and dry to support humans. Marine life is dying fast. Meantime, we face worsening plagues and endemic global conflict.
And yet those from 18 to 24 are the least likely to vote. Many dismiss Biden as a doddering old man, and they squander a ballot on a third-party candidate.
Last time, 12 percent of Bernie diehards voted for Trump, an outsider who would “drain the swamp.” He brought in nastier alligators, along with water moccasins and leeches. Hillary Clinton won by three million ballots, but the Electoral College outcome turned on three states decided by fewer voters than can fill a decent-sized stadium.
Democrats can tax the über-rich and adopt health care if they win the White House and Congress. They can bring the federal deficit and the national debt back down from the stratosphere. But November is now or never.
Even if Trump squeaks by on a technicality decided in the packed Supreme Court, the oligarchy will entrench itself. Wilderness and national splendor will be lost forever at a galloping pace. Scientists expect polluted air and water, over time, to kill far more Americans than pandemics.
Biden, in my own opinion, can restore sanity at home and respect abroad. A quick-study vice president with a solid worldview can then take over in 2024 to rally a different kind of Congress toward serious reform.
This is hardly Dancing With the Stars. It is not about single issues, emotional appeal or decisions made in an earlier time. The stakes are our very survival.
The Atlantic piece began with that Super Tuesday incident Biden detractors cite to show he is too old. In his victory speech, he “mistook his wife for his sister.” No, he didn’t. The women had switched places behind him. He was momentarily surprised when he turned to introduce them.
It ends, as it should, with climate change, saying America needs “ideas and input from the generation…most affected by it.” Of course. But altering the global ecosystem, like containing pandemics, is far beyond any one nation’s possibilities.
Fresh young leaders must reverse climatic chaos. But first, an American president already trusted across the world can unite large nations that pollute and small ones that suffer from it. His age is irrelevant.
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tuscon, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. You can read his regular column, The MortReport.