- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2008

So how old is Sen. John McCain? Six-packs, automatic transmissions and the American Express card were all introduced after he was born, not to mention computers, which Mr. McCain admits he doesn’t use.

Mr. McCain himself jokes that he’s older than dirt. Though his age is being raised as a campaign issue, medical experts say voters shouldn’t be concerned that, if elected, the Arizona senator, at 72, would be the oldest man to assume the presidency.

In politics and other fields, they explain, it’s not unusual for talented people to do signature work late in life, when they can apply the cumulative wisdom of experience and leverage personal connections cultivated over time.

Nonetheless, a significant slice of the electorate has qualms about Mr. McCain’s age. The presumed Republican nominee will celebrate his 72nd birthday shortly before his party’s convention. Polls show the age question isn’t going away despite the Arizona senator’s efforts to deflect it with self-deprecating humor or disprove it by keeping a grueling schedule.

“Sure, people live to be 90, but you are not as sharp,” said Virginia Bailey, 73, a retired administrative assistant who lives near Schenectady, N.Y., and is a Republican. “I’m not as sharp as I was 10 years ago, and I’m sure [Mr. McCain] isn’t, either, even though he wouldn’t admit it.”

Mr. McCain’s senior-citizen status raises more concerns among voters than Sen. Barack Obama’s relative youthfulness, a new Associated Press-Yahoo News poll indicates. Twenty percent said “too old” describes McCain “very well,” compared with 14 percent who felt strongly that Mr. Obama is “too young.” Overall, 38 percent said “too old” describes Mr. McCain somewhat or very well, compared with 30 percent who worried that the Illinois Democrat, who turns 47 this summer, is too young.

Capitalizing on the concern, New York City graphics designer Joe Quint has launched an Internet site called thingsyoungerthanmccain .com. Mr. Quint, a Democrat, said he doesn’t think septuagenarians should be disqualified from the presidency, but age should be part of the discussion. He’s planning a book of his Web site items to come out before the election.

The age issue is “clearly a potential problem” for Mr. McCain, said independent pollster Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “There is a larger issue of whether people will come to see him as old apart from his age,” Mr. Kohut added. “Will they think of him as having old ideas?”

Medical science suggests that concerns about Mr. McCain’s age are exaggerated.

“The presidential campaign is full of chatter - much of it quite misinformed - about the role of age,” said Dr. William Thomas, a geriatrician and professor at the University of Maryland’s Erickson School of Aging Studies. Geriatrics is a medical specialty that focuses on the elderly.

“People in old age are fully capable of imaginative and skillful work,” Dr. Thomas added. “A person’s age is not a block to doing fantastic work.”

Although U.S. life expectancy at birth is about 78 years, a person who reaches 70 can expect to live another 15 years. For a seventysomething president, that could work out to two terms in office, plus time for writing memoirs - and cashing in on book sales.

However, differences among people in their 70s can be stark because some already have started into a steep decline.

Dr. David Reuben, chief of geriatrics at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, said he sees no outward evidence of such a problem with Mr. McCain, despite the occasional gaffe.

“As a clinician, I look at whether they appear to be robust, whether their sentences flow, whether their thoughts connect, whether they are easily distractible,” Dr. Reuben said. “McCain appears to be quite robust.”

The main medical concern about Mr. McCain is not his age, but his history of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. If Mr. McCain is elected, Americans would have to get used to the idea of their president as a cancer survivor, closely followed by doctors for any sign of a recurrence.

However, Dr. Reuben said there’s very little difference in clinical terms between Mr. McCain’s age and that of Ronald Reagan, who turned 70 soon after he was sworn in for his first term. President Reagan managed to avoid the “old” label by often riding horses and clearing brush on his ranch in California, but he could seem to be forgetful at times. In Iran-Contra testimony in 1990, a year after he left office, he couldn’t remember that Gen. John W. Vessey served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for three years in his administration.

Mr. Reagan’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis came later, nearly six years after he left the White House.

Mr. McCain has embraced what he calls his “oldness.” He jokes that he’s older than dirt and has more scars than Frankenstein but he has learned some useful things along the way. That seems to put many voters at ease. In the AP-Yahoo News poll, 58 percent said the term “too old” doesn’t describe Mr. McCain at all well, or does so only slightly.

“I figure he’s a very experienced man,” said Robert Covarrubias, 38, a trucking company manager from Los Angeles and a Republican. “We’ve had presidents who were up there in age before.”

Mindful that it could backfire on them, Democrats mostly have broached the age issue indirectly, by trying to link Mr. McCain to festering problems that Washington hasn’t resolved. That may resonate with some voters.

“Not only agewise is [Mr. McCain] old, but he has also been a politician for a long time,” said Aaron Andrus, 28, a software developer from Salt Lake City, who is not affiliated with either party. “I don’t see how what he would do would be any different from what has been done time and time again, and has brought our country to the point where we are today.”

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