The Age of McCain?

By Garry South

August 27, 2008


The celebrated 18th-century English sage “Dr.” Samuel Johnson once said, “Every old man complains of the … petulance and insolence of the rising generation.” See any evidence of this aphorism in the apparent — and increasing — disdain of John McCain toward Barack Obama? (Hints: Obama as Britney Spears or Paris Hilton? The Obama “Audacity Watch”? The youthful pretender to the throne is arrogant and presumptuous?)

You see, I bring this up because today is John McCain’s 72nd birthday. And by the way, happy birthday, senator! Now, before I am accused of being politically incorrect in labeling McCain an old man, let me assure you I am no ageist. My own father will be 98 in October. My oldest brother turned 70 two days ago. My paternal grandparents were both 89 when they passed away. My maternal grandmother lived until 92. Two of my surviving aunts are 90.

But, c’mon, McCain’s age is a legitimate issue, and it is a disservice to try to sweep it under the table and pretend like he is just another middle-aged white Republican male running for president. The age difference between McCain and Obama (25 years) is the largest in American history between the two major-party nominees. If elected, he would be the oldest man ever inaugurated as a first-term president — three years older than Ronald Reagan, and fours years older than William Henry Harrison, the current record holders.

Here are some incontrovertible facts that should be on the table. For most of the campaign, McCain has been schlepping around his 96-year-old mother, Roberta, as a testament to the longevity in his family. And God bless her, she seems like a spunky and tart-tongued lady. McCain himself may live to be 100 — and I hope he does. But what he probably would prefer voters not focus on is the paternal lifespans in his family. His father, a Navy admiral, passed away at 70 — two years younger than McCain is today. His paternal grandfather, also an admiral, died at 61, 11 years younger than McCain is today.

Inconvenient fact No. 2: The average life expectancy for an American male at present is 75.4 years. As of today, McCain is just three and half years short of that statistic — and a presidential term is four years long, as we all know. Despite McCain’s history as an ace fighter pilot and a fighter squadron trainer, he is today too old by 12 years to legally fly a commercial airliner. Even in the ancient confines of the Vatican, cardinals who run major departments must retire at age 75.

No matter what people are now telling pollsters, and despite McCain’s attempt to laugh it off, his age will be an issue with some voters this fall. This is not just conjecture — or wishful thinking — on my part. It is based on fairly recent experience with a candidate who was the exact same age McCain is today.

In 2002, I directed the reelection campaign of California Gov. Gray Davis. Running in the GOP primary was former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who turned 72 on May 1 that year. Since we viewed the relatively moderate Riordan, who had twice been elected mayor of strongly Democratic L.A., as possibly the most potent threat in the fall, we tested the issue of his age extensively in both polling and focus groups.

To our surprise, we found out two things that indicated to us that his age, indeed, would be a deal-breaker for a meaningful minority of voters. First, just like polls indicate with McCain, many focus group participants were unaware of Riordan’s actual age. A buddy of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, Riordan was an avid bicyclist. Riordan operatives put out photos of a tanned, helmeted Riordan riding alongside Armstrong. Their camp also distributed photos of Riordan lifting weights in the basement workout room of his Brentwood mansion (looking, charitably, a bit less fit than Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Pumping Iron.”).

As a result, the overwhelming majority of participants thought Riordan was younger than he was, most guessing in his 60s. When informed of his actual age, it was an instant disqualifier for 25-30 percent of the participants in nearly every focus group (and this, of course, was for governor, not president). As of today, it will be quite evident to every voter that McCain is, in fact, 72 years old.

The second phenomenon was totally unexpected, and added another serious dimension to the age factor: As focus group attendees talked among themselves, they began comparing Riordan with Ronald Reagan, and surmising that the onset of the latter’s Alzheimer’s had actually occurred while he was still in office. As they reminisced about the Gipper (many of whom claimed they had voted, and expressed affection, for him), many instances of his forgetfulness came to mind. One was his 1984 debate with Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, in which Reagan was telling a shaggy-dog story about traveling down the Pacific Coast Highway, suddenly lost his train of thought, and appeared clueless over where he was going with the tale.

Also of concern to voters in both surveys and focus groups was Riordan’s disclosure the year before that he had secretly received 42 days of radiation treatment for prostate cancer in his last year as mayor. In the end, the once heavily favored Riordan lost by 18 points to a 51-year-old political newcomer, swamped among all age groups.

McCain, of course, has experienced four bouts of potentially deadly malignant melanoma, the latest in 2002, and has had untold other, less-serious skin cancers excised. Compared with the general population, melanoma patients have a far higher risk of developing melanoma in the future. Medical experts also say men have a lower melanoma survival rate than women. And no one’s immune system at 72 is as strong as at 42 or 52.

Every candidate for president, no matter how old or young, makes human mistakes and slips of the tongue. But because of McCain’s age, some of his have raised eyebrows. On several occasions, the self-proclaimed foreign policy expert has confused Sunnis and Shiites. He also mixed up Somalia and Sudan. On national television he referred to the nonexistent “Iraq-Pakistan border.” He has made multiple references to Czechoslovakia, a country that hasn’t existed since 1992. At an appearance at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, he enthused about how glad he was to be in West Virginia.

In addition to these gaffes, McCain’s historical frame of reference also often betrays his age. At one point, he took to accusing Obama of running for Jimmy Carter’s second term. Laying aside for the moment that Carter for a couple decades has been one of the most admired men on earth, if you do the math you realize that no one who is under 50 years old today could have voted for Carter in 1976. He also has nattered on about William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic candidate for president — the last time in 1908. Obviously, no one under 121 could have voted for Bryan. He’s already run one ad with visuals of the ‘60s, and even his use of Spears and Hilton in another further distances himself from popular culture.

In addition, McCain’s recent admission that he doesn’t know how to get on the Internet — which simply requires turning on a computer and clicking on a search-engine icon — makes him look technologically maladroit and behind the times, even amongst his own senior age cohort.

I’m not saying that McCain’s age will be — or even should be — the determinant in this race. But the calendar and actuarial tables don’t lie, and I submit we shortchange the process of choosing a president of the United States to act is if it is age bias to even discuss the implications.