The median age for presidents at the time of their inauguration is 55; Trump was the oldest when sworn in at age 70; Reagan was 69 and George Washington just 57.
That makes the advanced age of the top 2020 presidential candidates historic: If elected, Warren would be 71 at her inauguration. Biden would be 78, Sanders 79, and Trump would begin a second term at age 74.
How much of this is about chronological age and how much is the perception of age? Psychologists say it’s really about first impressions, a quick and often subconscious evaluation of a candidate’s health, strength and competence.
Politicians can’t lie about when they were born, but they can appear younger: Bounding onstage, covering gray hair, plumping wrinkles and sagging jowls with Botox. It’s not about vanity; it’s about looking fit and energetic. Yes, it’s superficial and, yes, it makes a difference.
But there’s more to this numbers game.
“If I were just 80 years old, if I was 15 years younger, I don’t believe I could undertake the duties I experienced when I was president,” former president Jimmy Carter, 95, said in September.
Trump says Carter was “referring to Biden.” “I just feel like a young man,” the current president said in April. “I’m so young. I can’t believe it. I’m the youngest person. I’m a young, vibrant man.”
Naturally, the topic came up at the Democratic debate last month: Biden cited his age and experience as a good thing, then promised to release his medical records. Sanders, asked about his recent heart attack, said he would mount a “vigorous campaign all over this country. That is how I think I can reassure the American people.” Warren said she would “outwork, out-organize, and outlast anyone, and that includes Donald Trump, Mike Pence or whoever the Republicans get stuck with.”
None of them really went to the heart of the question: Are these people too old for the job?
Hiding the gray
Until the 1950s, hair color was the quickest way to determine someone’s age; most people had a head of silver hair by the time they were 60. Then in 1956, Clairol introduced an at-home coloring process that allowed Grandma to be a blonde, a redhead or simply claim “good genes.” And Grecian Formula for men promised to imperceptibly fade away the gray. Not that they ever admitted it, but politicians had a new tool in their bag of tricks.
Ronald Reagan insisted his glossy locks were naturally brown and claimed that reporters had purloined clippings from his barber’s floor to prove him wrong. Do or dye? Nancy Reagan’s unofficial biographer, Kitty Kelley, finally uncovered the big secret: The first lady’s hairstylist had been secretly coloring the president’s gray roots for more than 20 years.
A reporter for Time magazine was dispatched in 1995 to ask presidential candidate Bob Dole one question: Did the 72-year-old dye his hair? Dole admitted he put “a little stuff” to fend off the gray, but insisted he did not color his eyebrows. Oh, and he worked hard on his tan for a healthy bronze glow.
The question has become a leitmotif of presidential politics, and the answer is almost always no. The White House will not say whether Trump dyes his hair, despite the fact it is not a color found in nature. (Mike Pence, on the other hand, was rocking gray in his 30s.)
If gray hair is a problem for men, it is rarely found on female candidates. Warren aged from a brunette to a honey blonde. (Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment.) Nancy Pelosi, 79, is a light brunette with nary a stray gray. None of this is surprising: More than two-thirds of American women use some form of hair coloring.
“There’s a reason why 40, 50 and 60 don’t look the way they used to, and it’s not because of feminism, or better living through exercise,” Nora Ephron once wrote. “It’s because of hair dye.” Covering the gray, she argued, allows middle-aged and older women to be seen as powerful professionals, not grandmas.
It takes a politician like Sanders, who has branded himself as an bombastic iconoclast, to sport an unruly head of white hair. Or China’s President Xi Jinping, who made headlines in spring for allowing streaks of gray to appear, breaking with the customary jet black hair worn by the nation’s leaders dating back to Mao Zedong, according to CNN. Xi, who is protected by a new constitutional amendment that allows him to rule for life, now has the freedom — at age 66 — to age publicly.
Tucks, teeth and treatments
Shortly before the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln grew a beard after receiving a letter from 11-year-old Grace Bedell: “If you let your whiskers grow I will try and get [my brothers] to vote for you, you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin.”
Lincoln replied that he had never worn whiskers: “Do you not think people would call it a silly affectation if I were to begin it now?” But soon, he had the now iconic beard.
Today’s politicians have hundreds of cosmetic enhancements at their fingertips: teeth whiteners, tanning beds, nips, tucks, laser treatments and fillers. The goal is not necessarily to look young; the object is to appear refreshed. The best work (Pelosi’s, if any of the expert speculation is correct) is the medical equivalent of a really good vacation.
For many voters, looking old and tired translates to being old: old-fashioned, old boys club, old ideas. Aging faces have less fat, creating unflattering shadows that make people look exhausted or angry — especially on a high-definition television, where the lights are harsh and unforgiving.
“Optimal treatments for those who are frequently on television focus on skin quality,” says Washington dermatologist Noelle Sherber. “Using state-of-the-art technologies — lasers with no downtime — one can firm the skin and even out its texture and tone in a way that presents as youthful good health rather than a procedural fix.”
She has a number of patients — elected officials, CEOs and others in the public eye — who start “prejuvenation” treatments in their 30s and 40s.
“So that by the time they reach their 70s,” she says, “they look like they’re still in their 50s.”
So, let’s talk: People have been gossiping about Biden’s hair for three decades, with much discussion of hair plugs and enhancements for the follicly challenged. More recently, the attention has shifted to his dazzling, larger-than-life smile and his eyes, which look . . . different. (The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
“We all know these people are old,” wrote Bonnie Kristian in the Week. “Surely, they know we know they’re old. So why not own it?” Instead, she says, Biden has “created a bizarre simulacrum of endless — well, not youth, but certainly a long gone upper middle age. The combined effect of the tan, the teeth, the hair, and maybe Botox and fillers, if not a facelift, is on the verge of unsettling.”
Hypothetically, Biden is in rarefied company with former secretary of state John Kerry (whose face went through a rather startling transformation a few years back), Vladimir Putin and a growing number of CEOs. Smoothing a jawline, softening crow’s feet, shaving even five years off can make a significant difference.
For the most part, Trump has escaped similar scrutiny about his age, although his hair is a subject of ongoing fascination: His longtime personal doctor said Trump takes Propecia to address male pattern baldness, and author Michael Wolff wrote that Ivanka Trump teases her father about his hair dye and how he styles his signature comb-over.
Putting hair aside, many see the president’s two-hour rallies as proof of his health, regardless of his seemingly spray-on tan (an orange hue that his critics use to launch a thousand memes) or his penchant for junk food. His age rarely makes headlines because so many people have so many other reasons to question his fitness for the job.
“Trump doesn’t break one or two rules — Trump breaks every rule,” says Republican strategist Doug Heye. “That’s one of the things that allows him to get away with things that no one else could. If Biden, Bernie or Warren came out with a statement from their doctor that said, ‘This is the most fit person in the history of civilization’ they’d get filleted for it. And sure, people made fun of Trump, but then we moved on to the next thing about Trump.”
Energy on display
Last month, Warren bounced onstage at a South Carolina rally, jumping around like a person decades younger. She gives the impression that she is better equipped for the rigors of the Oval Office than many of her rivals.
“Nobody really thinks of Elizabeth Warren as old and it helps that she looks great,” says Heye. “And she takes 5,000 pictures a day, which also is a very smart kind of tool for her at the grass-roots level. You can’t call that ‘low energy.’ ”
It’s different for male candidates, he says. “Trump has tried to play on this on ‘Sleepy Joe’ or ‘Low-Energy Jeb’ — even though Jeb wasn’t 70 — to demonstrate strength. It can be a precarious situation.”
Until recently, Sanders was the embodiment of the feisty, “Get off my lawn” guy ready to take on the world. But the heart attack put his advanced years into stark relief, and it’s become an issue for his campaign.
Sanders insists his age is an asset. “I’ve been criticized for being old. I plead guilty. I am old. But there are advantages to being old,” he said last month. “Having a long record gives people the understanding that these ideas that I am talking about — they are in my guts. They are in my heart,” He did not directly address his health.
Biden was America’s gaffe-prone but lovable uncle/vice president in Ray-Bans, which played in his favor until he decided to run for president a third time. Now his meandering turns of phrase, which are often weird or outdated, are open to interpretation.
Charming or alarming? Depends who you ask.
“I think it’s important to remember that the electorate is dominated by people over the age of 50: The people with the highest voting propensity and therefore the people who punch above their weight are retirees,” says Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They’re in a unique position to ask a very honest question: ‘If I were trying to do the job of a president, a very demanding job, would I be able to do it? Would I be able to keep it up day in, day out, for four years?’”
In 1984, Reagan lost the first presidential debate against Walter Mondale: His closing was muddled, confused. Was the 73-year-old president too old for a second term?
“Everybody understood that the second debate was make-or-break for that issue,” says Galston, who was Mondale’s policy director for the campaign. That’s when Reagan delivered the now classic line: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
The audience burst out laughing, including Mondale. But during Reagan’s second term, “something was amiss” in terms of his memory and mental acuity, according to his son Ron. Reagan was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, almost six years after he left office.
Deep breath. The 2020 election is a year away, a lifetime in politics. Maybe none of these people will be their party’s nominee for president.
Maybe we’ll be asking instead: Are these young politicians too naive and inexperienced to be president?