The death of former Sen. Bob Dole at age 98 — a full quarter-century after he was the unsuccessful Republican presidential nominee — inevitably raises questions about age and politics. Some of those are profoundly relevant today.
Dole was 73 when he ran against President Bill Clinton, who had just turned 50, an occasion that prompted Dole to tell the nation that he had “more yesterdays than tomorrows.” The sitting president just turned 79. His bete noire, the former president and perhaps his future presidential-election foe, is 75.
Dole had many disadvantages in that 1996 presidential race: He was running against an incumbent with preternatural political abilities, and the economy was in its fifth year of sustained expansion. But there is no denying that an important element was his age; he was trying to become the oldest person elected to a first term in the White House. He seemed ancient compared with Clinton, who jogged a minimum of three days a week for a little more than a half-hour, often in shorts that were not flattering but nonetheless brought attention to his fitness.
Politics favors the young, even though William Ewart Gladstone (four terms as Great Britain’s prime minister between 1868 and 1894) was revered as the G.O.M., which stood for Grand Old Man, and Reagan often was affectionately referred to as “the old man” by those in his inner circle.
But age is not only chronological. Here the tone poem famously revered by Gen. Douglas MacArthur provides an indispensable Baedeker to contemporary American politics:
“Youth is not entirely a time of life — it is a state of mind. It is not wholly a matter of ripe cheeks, red lips or supple knees. It is a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a freshness of the deep springs of life. It means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of an appetite for adventure over love of ease.”
That is the opening of what is known as the MacArthur Credo, even though it actually was written by the American poet and religious leader Samuel Ullman and “borrowed” repeatedly by the general and scores of commencement speakers. It helps explain Joe Biden’s low approval ratings. It also helps us understand the persistence of Donald J. Trump.
For it is the great tragedy of Biden, and the great advantage of Trump, that the former seems older while the latter seems younger than his age. The two are only four years apart — about the same age difference between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon — but Sen. Kennedy seemed young in the 1960 presidential campaign and Vice President Nixon seemed old, even though the younger-appearing man was riddled with Addison’s Disease and the older-appearing man suffered mostly from a 5 o’clock shadow that doomed him in the first presidential debate.
Biden’s disadvantage is that he has been around for what seems like forever. He was elected to the Senate the year Shaquille O’Neal, who retired from the NBA a decade ago, and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who may run to oppose him in 2024, were born. He once was the bright young man of American politics; that was the leitmotif that Patrick H. Caddell, the onetime wunderkind pollster who himself died two years ago, thought would propel Biden to the presidency nearly a quarter century ago. He was in the Senate for more years than Sidney Crosby, the veteran NHL player, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive House member from New York, have been alive.
Then again, Trump has not exactly been drinking from the Fountain of Youth in Florida, which the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon sought in 1513, when he was a little less than half Biden’s age. The former president was born the year Juan Peron first became the leader of Argentina. All that is ancient history. And yet by the reckoning of Italian Gen. Gabriele d’Annunzio, the populist born four months before the Battle of Gettysburg, Trump seems young:
“On the verge of old age,” said d’Annunzio, “I have been reborn as the Prince of Youth.”
That is because the old poet and war hero — whose wild rallies somewhat evocative of Trump’s led to the brief post-World War I independence of Fiume in present-day Croatia and whose views and political techniques sometimes are considered precursors to Italian fascism — was a man of action whose actions belied his years.
While Biden remains identified with the politics of the Democratic Party past — in manner, political style, speaking patterns, viewpoint — Trump is the personification in manner, style, speech and outlook of an entirely new GOP. Trump seems energized; Biden seems beleaguered. Trump seems to be a formidable force eager to rush into a presidential campaign in 2024; Biden seems to be a spent force limping into a reelection campaign.
Benjamin Disraeli and Gladstone, born five years apart in 1804 and 1809 respectively, present an intriguing comparison. By the mid-1870s, Disraeli was broken in strength, and Gladstone would be prime minister three more times, dying 17 years after Disraeli.
Beginning in the 1840s and then accelerated by the 1848 revolutions in Europe, there developed several movements that appropriated the term and outlook of youth: Young England (rebels against Tory orthodoxy) and Young Ireland (seeking independence and reform), the Young Turks (the struggle against the Ottoman Empire) and the Young Hegelians (from which Marx emerged). In each country, these movements were generational rebellions against the old guard.
Young America was a slogan that became popular in the middle of the 19th century and came to describe an ambitious political speaker or impatient young person with eyes westward and encouraged by democratic movements in Europe. But it also had an element, in the South, that promoted slavery. “This was a movement where people were impatient with the old ways,” said Edward Widmer, the author of a 1999 book on Young America, who teaches at the Macaulay Honors College of City University of New York. “This was a time when people’s demand for change instead led Americans to get mad at each other. And today, Trump is tapping into a hatred of entrenched power much like these movements.”
(David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)