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Verner column: McCain old? Consider this precedent

The candidate has endured wartime agonies that depleted him physically as well as mentally. His face is pocked and scarred from the ravages of illness. He is given to bouts of brooding and melancholy, and in his most candid inner moments, he wonders whether he is too old and frayed to lead his nation. Truth be told, he probably is living on borrowed time and might not survive a term in office.
John McCain in 2008?
Actually, it’s George Washington when he first became president. At the time, Washington was 57, an age that, from our 21st century vantagepoint, appears relatively young ó much more youthful, certainly, than the 71-year-old McCain, whose age is the fodder of Comedy Channel spoofs as well as Democratic digs that backhandedly note the former POW’s “half century of service” and suggest that a McCain misstatement might be a senior moment of confusion, rather than a slip of the tongue. (After all, we couldn’t have the commander in chief misplacing the keys to Air Force One, now could we?)
But from the historical perspective, McCain enjoys far better health and faces much friendlier actuarial odds than Washington did in his day. Although colonial era demographic data is spotty, most estimates put the average life expectancy for someone born in 18th century America at 35-45 years. Even adjusting for the brutally high death rates of infants and the women who bore them, those who managed to survive the scourges of smallpox or enteric fever or influenza and reach their 20s would be lucky to live another 40 years.
At 57, Washington would have been considered a man of advanced years, even had he enjoyed superior health, and that was hardly the case. Although the iconic portraiture of the era shows him rock jawed and robust, that was part of the myth-making machinery already at work. In reality, he suffered from numerous maladies over his life. Besides the grinding stresses of wartime command, he had to contend with malaria, severe dysentery, smallpox, quinsy and a pleuritic chest ailment that was probably tubercular in nature. In his first year in office, surgery to remove a carbuncular tumor on his thigh rendered him almost immobile for several weeks, and a year or so later, he developed a case of pneumonia so severe, his life hung in the balance. Of course, the American public knew little of this at the time.
Yet, even given Washington’s tenuous health and the very real possibility that he would die in office (he did, in fact, die only two years after leaving it), would anyone suggest that America would have fared better under a younger, physically stronger man? Or what of Franklin Roosevelt, another president who perennially ranks among our most admired commanders in chief? Roosevelt was only 51 when first elected, and he appeared to exude a jaunty virility. As we know now, however, it was all a calculated deception. He was a cripple who had the body of a much older and frailer man.
Granted, youth and vigor have their place in politics, though much less so than on the field of sport. And wisdom and sound judgment don’t necessarily accrue with advancing years. But at least part of the infatuation with Obama and the reservation about McCain stems from a cultural bias that favors the gloss of youth over the texture of age. We pay lip service to valuing the steady hand and hard-won circumspection of an elder statesman, but when candidates are just another commodity to be packaged and sold to voters through focus groups and mass marketing, lean body mass and smooth skin will inevitably pull higher poll numbers than wrinkles and saggy jowls.
Perhaps it’s too much to ask that our instant-message attention ponder the lessons of leadership to be learned from the era of Washington or Roosevelt. Yet you’d think we would at least consider how a bit more seasoning might have affected more recent administrations. What if Bill Clinton had assumed office at 56 instead of 46? The ebbing of libido alone might have tempered his sexual adventurism, if not his famously explosive ego. How different might George W. Bush’s presidency have been if he’d had another decade or so of experience under his belt ó years that might have helped teach him the fallibility of personal conviction and the value of skepticism toward counsel that whispers only what it wants us to hear?
There’s little doubt that Obama could wipe up the court with McCain in a game of one-on-one or dust him off in the 40-yard dash. The presidency calls for a different measure of determination and resiliency, one that imperfectly correlates with chronological age or resting pulse rate.
I won’t suggest to you that Obama is a feckless whelp lacking in shrewdness or discernment, but don’t suggest to me that McCain is a doddering graybeard with one bedroom slipper in the grave. In terms of mortality tables and fitness for office ó and given the benefits of modern health care ó he’s closer to the prime of his life than George Washington was in 1789.
– – –
Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.

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