The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How old is too old to be president?

Former vice president Joe Biden in Salt Lake City on Dec. 13.
Former vice president Joe Biden in Salt Lake City on Dec. 13. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Evan Thomas is the author of “First,” a biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, which will be published in March.

How old is too old? Joe Biden is 76 years old, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is 77. Two years from now, would either man be too old to be president? Not just physically, but also culturally and temperamentally?

Donald Trump, though he was the oldest person (70) to be elected president, doesn’t seem to have a problem with age, not so much because of his full head of dyed hair, but because he is strangely ageless. He is at once a vigorous old guy, a 28-year-old Internet troll and an 11-year-old boy off his Ritalin. Biden, though he can seem reassuringly mature at times, can also seem a little dated, like a character out of the 1950s. A year and a half after the “Access Hollywood” recording was released, during which Trump was caught using what he later described as “locker room talk,” Biden, the former vice president, said he didn’t want to debate Trump, but that he wanted to “take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.” Biden was assailed in some quarters for “toxic masculinity,” but really, he seemed at times a character out of an Archie and Jughead comic book.

Many older people such as me (I’m 67) feel out of step with the younger generation — probably because we are. We are insufficiently “woke,” we can be uncomfortable with or just confused by the variations of gender fluidity, and we can find ourselves stifling a laugh at a politically incorrect joke. Secretly, though, we think we are not just older but wiser than the young people who are reported by polls to have socialistic leanings. How, we ask ourselves, can the country pay for free college tuition and universal Medicare ?

When I was younger (35 years old), I helped popularize the notion that age and experience count for a great deal in government by co-writing, with Walter Isaacson, a book called “ The Wise Men.” During the 1960s and 1970s, at times of crisis, presidents would bring in elder advisers, dubbed the “W.O.M.” (Wise Old Men), to give them counsel. It was a meeting of WOMs in March 1968 that helped convince President Lyndon B. Johnson that the time had come to begin to draw down U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War; five days later, Johnson announced peace talks and that he would not run for reelection. It was a moment of true statesmanship — to see old Cold Warriors such as former secretary of state Dean Acheson (age 74) and ambassador at large W. Averell Harriman (age 76) warning the president of the perils of American hubris.

So, when it comes to making tough calls in the Oval Office, is older wiser? Well, actually, maybe not. Older people can get stuck in their ways. They can be too confident in their judgments and heedless of new facts. The Wise Old Men who advised Johnson in 1968 to get out of Vietnam had earlier counseled the president to get into Vietnam. During the mid-1960s, they had warned Johnson not to listen to the antiwar protesters or go wobbly on the communists. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, President John F. Kennedy brought Acheson into his group of close advisers. Acheson, whose hawkishness had hardened in old age, counseled the young president to take out the Soviet missiles with airstrikes. It’s a good thing Kennedy didn’t listen to Acheson, or we might all be radioactive dust now.

Old men (and old women) get worn out, mentally and physically, no matter how hard they try to stay vigorous and alert. In his mid-70s, President Ronald Reagan may have suffered from early dementia by the end of his second term. By the end of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term — he was 70, at the time the oldest president ever — he was spending more time on his putting than dealing with the out-of-control mushrooming of the nuclear arsenal or the secret excesses of the CIA.

I recently thought about the burdens of age — the closed-mindedness and sheer fatigue — and the importance of younger and fresher perspectives in connection with the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan in August 1945. President Harry S. Truman’s top civilian adviser was Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. In later years, Stimson would be revered as a role model for a later generation of Wise Old Men.

But at a meeting of Truman’s top war council in June 1945, Stimson, who was 77 years old, was exhausted. Suffering from a migraine, he had not slept well the night before. He barely spoke up. Instead, Stimson’s aide, Jack McCloy, tried to argue that “we ought to have our heads examined” if the United States didn’t try to induce the Japanese to surrender before dropping the bomb. McCloy suggested that instead of demanding unconditional surrender, the Allies should let Japan keep its emperor, a gambit that might have worked to avert Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The instance cried out for creative thinking, but no one in the room was ready to listen to the 40-year-old McCloy, who was deemed too young and brash.

So listen to your elders. But don’t necessarily vote for them.

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