By Tom Robotham

I am not going to make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience. – Ronald Reagan


Now that 2019 is underway, it won’t be long before the next presidential campaign begins to heat up. Right after the midterms, in fact, I noticed a spike in speculations on social media about possible candidates. 

Not surprisingly, Democrats and Independents seem sharply divided on the matter. Nearly 60 percent of voters surveyed in a USA Today/Suffolk University poll published the day after Christmas said they would be “excited” to see “someone new” run for the presidency. And yet, the same poll found that 53 percent of the voters would be excited by a Biden campaign. The numbers drop precipitously after that, although this is no doubt due in large part to lack of name recognition for some of the other possible candidates. Beto O’Rourke, for example, got an “excitement” score of 30 percent, but another 35 percent of respondents said they’d never heard of him. Scoring lower were Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and—dead last—Hillary Clinton. Seventy percent of voters said she should not run again. 

I thought it was odd that Bernie Sanders wasn’t even mentioned in the article about the poll. Then again, a New York Times piece published on Dec. 27 noted that he doesn’t have nearly the degree of support that he did in 2016. The Times report dovetails with anecdotal evidence I’ve seen on Facebook. Whenever Sanders’ name comes up, in one of my posts or someone else’s, the comments are overwhelmingly negative. “Go home, Bernie” is a common refrain. 

It is not my intention in this column to argue for or against Sanders or any other candidate. I’m just interested in exploring the reason that many people cite for opposing him: he’s too old. Many of my friends say the same thing about Biden. 

On the face of it, this concern is understandable. If Sanders ran and were to win, he would be nearly 80 when he took the oath of office. Biden is just one year younger. 

And yet, I wonder: Does this really matter? Neither of them, after all, shows any strong signs aging. They may in private, for all we know, but we always have and always will base our judgments about candidates on how they appear in public, and on what they say and do. It’s worth remembering, moreover, that John F. Kennedy, while only 43 when he took the oath of office, suffered from chronic health problems. Whatever you may think of him, these problems did not seem to diminish the vigor with which he approached the job. Additionally, it’s worth considering that one of the greatest presidents in history—FDR—was confined to a wheelchair during his terms in office. 

So why the concern about Sanders and Biden being “too old”?

To my mind, it reflects the widespread ageism in our society. 

This has always been a pronounced feature of American society, as compared with, say, Japan’s. Just look at the way we treat our elderly. Throughout our history, moreover, young thought leaders have often belittled older people and the traditional notion that with age comes wisdom. Henry David Thoreau, for example, wrote in Walden that he had never heard “the first syllable” of valuable advice from his “seniors.” Likewise, you may recall, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” became a popular slogan among young activists. 

As Baby Boomers aged, of course, they softened their stance on aging, going so far as to embrace the notion that “60 is the new 40.” 

And yet I’ve noticed evidence of ageism, not only among many Millennials but among our older city leaders who trip all over themselves trying to attract the “young creative class”—as if the young had a monopoly on creativity. 

That’s nonsense, of course. Picasso, to cite one famous example, was remarkably prolific well into his 80s. Many other such examples abound. 

None of these observations are meant to denigrate young people. I was as delighted as my daughter was when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to Congress at the age of 29. 

The truth is, I get as irritated when I hear older people bashing Millennials as I do when I hear young people dismissing members of my generation. Many of my closest friends are in their late 20s and early 30s, and while in some cases I’m struck by how young they are, based on things they say, I regard most of them as peers, both socially and intellectually. But in my observation of society at large, ageism cuts both ways. 

We would be much better served in both our political and social lives, it seems to me, if we considered people based on “the content of their character,” to borrow MLK’s memorable phrase. 

Alas, it is a characteristic of both human nature—and the American mind, in particular—to try to put people into boxes based on race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and age among other things. 

We’ve paid a lot of attention to those other prejudices in recent years—and that’s all to the good. Ageism, on the other hand—or age-consciousness, at least—remains a problem that is largely ignored. 

That’s sad because when you get right down to it, age is an illusion. We should pay less attention to actuarial tables and more attention to the facts. We assume that life will unfold according to “normal” processes—and therefore, that people will “age”—and die—on some kind of predictable timetable. But in innumerable instances, this is not the case. 

Whenever I think about this, I’m reminded of the story of the relationship between former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall and his much younger wife, Jane Kenyon, a marvelous poet in her own right. Hall was 19 years older, and the natural assumption was that he would die much sooner. That assumption was reinforced when, in his 60s, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Two years later, Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia, and a year and a half later she was dead. Hall’s cancer, meanwhile, had gone into remission—and he lived another 25 years. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that some of this is personal for me. I’ll turn 63 this year, and over the last few years, especially, I’ve grown much more conscious of my age, not because I feel old but because society is constantly telling me that I am. I’m not just talking about the junk mail from AARP or the television commercials for “communities for active seniors.” I get it from friends, too—although, ironically, not usually from younger friends. A case in point: Six years ago, when I told a slightly older friend that I was thinking of going back to school for another graduate degree, he responded, “School? You should be thinking about retirement.” 

With this in mind, I’m often reminded of an exchange in Crocodile Dundee in which Sue asks Mick how old he is. His response: “I have no idea.” What a concept. Imagine if none of us, nor our acquaintances, had any idea how old we are. We’d be more inclined to take every day as it comes rather than thinking, “It’s time I had children,” or “I should be contemplating retirement.” 

Alas, those aforementioned actuarial tables have had far too great an impact on our thinking; this impact cannot be undone. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering a fundamental truth: The amount of time and vitality that remains for any of us is unknowable. We would do well—whether we’re making assumptions about someone in our personal or professional lives, or evaluating a candidate for the presidency—to take people as they are, rather than judging them by the dates on their birth certificates.