Opinion

The primary, primary question for Democrats: Is Joe Biden too old to be president?

Joe Biden was a nine-year Senate veteran before Pete Buttigieg was born.
Joe Biden was a nine-year Senate veteran before Pete Buttigieg was born. The Associated Press

Joe Biden has many of the collective qualifications Americans have liked in a president. A childhood with family financial struggles that a determined father overcame. A law degree. Experience in local government. Enduring family tragedies. Experience in the U.S. Senate. Experience in the executive branch.

Biden would be only the fourth of 13 postwar presidents with no military experience. But he does have a lot of money now, a pair of homes and a photogenic rescue dog.

However, the former vice president does have one unusual trait for someone who wants to become commander in chief. He’s old, very old. Biden would be 78 on Inauguration Day 2021, making him by far the oldest incoming president ever.

In fact, Biden is so old that taking the oath to become the 46th president, he would be older than every other U.S. president leaving office, even after two terms.

Yet inexplicably, hardly anyone, even opponents, talks openly about Biden’s advanced age. His front-runner status is no surprise; he’s been there solidly since last winter. But everyone dances around the A-word, talking instead about his gaffes, a familiar characteristic that has regularly surfaced throughout a long political career. They talk about his rhetorical conflations of fictitious historical events.

They talk about his past plagiarism, frequently jumbled and dated syntax, as well as probable hair plugs and Botox. And they talk about the eye that suddenly filled with blood on live TV during a marathon climate town hall this month.

But everyone pussyfoots around the most important reality: Biden was born less than a year after Pearl Harbor when an average American house cost $3,800, a new car $920 and Harvard tuition was $420 per year.

Given the unrelenting pressures, responsibilities and expectations of the Oval Office, shouldn’t the leading presidential challenger’s age and thus health be a matter of serious public concern and inquiry by, say, a vigilant media, even one that’s kinda fond of the old guy?

Not to mention the physical and mental pressures of extended primary campaigns and then a potential general election campaign? I’ve been in them, 18-hour days with two, sometimes three campaign stops in multiple states, flying into the night to start early elsewhere the next day.

They are exhausting, even for 50-year-olds, let alone someone a quarter-century older. Which helps explain Biden’s light campaign schedules.

At 70 in 2017, Donald Trump was the oldest incoming president. His public schedules now are not exactly crammed — typically a late-morning intelligence briefing, lunch with a Cabinet member and maybe an afternoon signing or evening fundraiser. Sometimes an out-of-town rally.

Hillary Clinton’s age and health (she turns 72 next month) were topics of concern back in 2016. But she invited that with frequent coughing fits onstage and then collapsing in public.

We know nothing of Biden’s health since he released his medical report during the 2008 general election campaign. He says he will again sometime before February.

We do know that in 1988, Biden experienced a life-threatening brain aneurysm that resulted in a 13-hour operation and, later, preemptive repair of another potentially fatal weak spot.

No one mentioned this until Biden himself broached the topic the other day to the likely dismay of his handlers. “I ended up with what they call a cranial aneurysm,” Biden recalled, praising first responders. “I had to be rushed to a hospital in the middle of a snowstorm.”

When Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, still in the presidential field, challenged Nancy Pelosi for House caucus leader three years ago, he stressed the need for younger, geographically diverse leadership, not just from coastal districts.

But for all the talk of youth among 2020 Democrats, their Senate leader (from New York) turns 69 this fall, while the party’s triumvirate House leadership (California, Maryland, South Carolina) are each 80 or 79.

In the large but dwindling field of Democratic wannabe presidents, the average age of the three top contenders is 75. One online meme making the rounds shows elderly Democrats with the headline “Ban Fossil Fools.” Biden, in fact, was a nine-year Senate veteran before Pete Buttigieg was born.

The ongoing series of candidate debates often comes across as a made-for-TV reality show, “America’s Got Ambitions.” The contests’ larger purpose, of course, is not entertainment, and they succeed there admirably.

The real purpose is to find and forge the strongest candidate to go against a most unorthodox and unpredictable Republican president by weeding out the weak and challenging the strong to become even stronger.

In last week’s three-hour party debate, Biden had no great zingers and made no great gaffes. There was one puzzling reference to inner-city mothers having a television, no, record player on at night.

Then, talking about prison reform, Biden made the ridiculous blanket statement, “Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime.” Moderators didn’t bother to follow up.

Julian Castro, another competitor for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, tried to confront Biden over a statement on health care: “Are you forgetting what you said just two minutes ago?”

The former vice president’s staff and some commentators took umbrage at this none-too-subtle suggestion that the elderly Biden’s memory was slipping. The 46-year-old Castro denied later that was his goal.

Of course, that was his goal. If the point of these contests really is to determine who can best take the heat of primary and general elections and then national leadership, why shouldn’t it be?

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