His Magnificence, The Most Excellent President Ever, turned 71 Wednesday, just days after bathing in a long, public soak of adoration from his Cabinet. Donald Trump isn’t just the oldest president elected in U.S. history, but also perhaps the first to project a complete set of values that have not aged well.
For youthful vigor and fresh ideas, look across the Atlantic, where France is dazzled by a 39-year-old president married to his 64-year-old former drama teacher. They’ve got John F. Kennedy glam and New Frontier energy, while we’re stuck with a grump who watches too much television and says, “I love the old days.”
Youth is infectious. As the youngest president in French history, Emmanuel Macron could declare that his country is on the “verge of a great renaissance,” and it sounds more believable than a gasbag in a red cap pledging to turn back the clock.
Even in the Trump country of northern France, where shuttered factories and despairing villages have given rise to the politics of desperation, Macron has caught fire. The far-right party of Marine Le Pen saw a big drop in the latest round of parliamentary elections last Sunday.
We can also look to our north. Who wouldn’t love to have the 21st-century politics of Justin Trudeau, who was the second-youngest prime minister of Canada when he was sworn in at the age of 43. About 40 percent of Americans – as it turns out – would prefer Trudeau as president to Trump, according to a poll last month.
To be clear, there isn’t anything wrong with electing a leader past his or her “biblical allotment” of three score years plus 10, as the writer Norman Maclean, a septuagenarian sensation, put it. Nelson Mandela governed South Africa in his 70s. Winston Churchill was 70 when he saw, with the collapse of the Nazi death machine, the payoff of his leadership through England’s finest hour.
An old leader is a problem only when enthralled by geriatric ideas. While Trump has been complicit, by his silence and perhaps by his actions, in the menacing reach of the former KGB operative Vladimir Putin, Macron has already stood up to Putin for Russia’s treatment of gays and for meddling in Western democracies.
While Trump went rogue on guiding the future of global health, pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord, Macron is now trying to lure U.S. scientists to France, offering them a fresh chance to “make our planet great again.”
Macron said, “I wish to tell the United States: France believes in you. The world believes in you.”
While France offers universal health care that is a model of humane and sensible treatment, Trump has backed a Republican bill that could take health care away from more than 20 million people, perhaps literally killing his fellow Americans by neglect.
And while Trump has been caught on tape espousing the kind of barbaric sexual treatment of women that would get him fired at any job but the one he now holds, Macron has set a new standard for the affairs of men and women by his 10-year marriage to someone who is a generation older than him.
“Glam Brigitte” and the “amorous pair,” as the European tabloids refer to the new first lady of France and her husband, have brought to the world stage something nouveau and vitalizing. There they are riding bikes in the countryside – a type of exercise, like nearly all diversions that are not golf, singled out for criticism by Trump in the campaign last year. And there was Macron, walking the streets of Paris in a downpour, without an overcoat, on the day he was sworn in.
The symbolism is significant. So, at the Group of 7 meeting in the lovely Sicilian hilltop town of Taormina, all the other world leaders walked to a closing photo-op while Trump insisted on transport in a golf cart. The message was: One nation is tired, out of gas and out of ideas.
For most of our history, a U.S. export was youthful optimism. Teddy Roosevelt, our youngest president, sworn in after an assassination at age 42, was said to be so full of energy that his clothes could not contain him. Kennedy, elected at 43, looked to the moon and said, why not? Bill Clinton, 46, and Barack Obama, 47, were carried into office by a youthful electorate willing to take chances.
A president bereft of fresh ideas, Trump can only fall back on a gauzy past. He wants dirty coal emissions to foul the skies again. He wants a grim do-over of the failed, costly and unjust lock-’em-up days of the drug war. He seems to want a return to Cold War treatment of Cuba. Is there any “good old days” failure he has yet to embrace?
Well, monarchy. But then, if you saw that Cabinet meeting Monday, the man who would be king may still believe that the best days reach all the way back to before the American Revolution.