- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2008

Not all candidates can be as smooth as Ronald Reagan, who addressed detractors of his age head-on in a memorable debate moment in 1984.

“I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue in this campaign,” Mr. Reagan said. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

At 71, presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain could consider borrowing such a line in the general election this fall.

Even before Democrats have a candidate, the drumbeat of “too old to lead” is being felt from party leaders reminding voters that Mr. McCain, if elected, would be the oldest person to take office, at 72.

First, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean suggested in a sideways shot that undecided voters were bringing up Mr. McCain’s age without prompting. Then it became a public pile-on as Rep. John P. Murtha, himself 75, used the age card to denounce Mr. McCain’s fitness to lead.

“This one guy running is about as old as me,” said Mr. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat. “It’s no old man’s job.”

While Democratic contender Sen. Barack Obama has said publicly he doesn’t think age is a problem, and 60-year-old Hillary Clinton is easily old enough to join AARP, Mr. Murtha’s comment drew fire from one national seniors advocacy group, who called on him to apologize.

“What rock has Murtha been sleeping under?” asked Jim Martin, the founder and head of the 60-Plus Association, whose spokesman is none other than the 73-year-old Pat Boone.

“Doesn’t he know that here in the 21st century, 70 is today’s 50 or even 40?” Mr. Martin asked. “Ageism is one of the last remaining prejudices that parades openly in our society.”

Mr. Martin, who at 72 swims a mile daily and plays in three basketball leagues, points to world leaders who have made their mark well into their senior years, including France’s Charles de Gaulle, Britain’s Winston Churchill and West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer. Those three men left office at 78, 80 and 87, respectively, and all of them did so decades ago.

He also points out that third in the current succession line for the U.S. presidency is West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, 90, followed by Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who continues a long and productive Senate career at 76. He adds that Pope Benedict XVI celebratred his 81st birthday at the White House last week, appearing confident and rested as he conducted two stadium Masses with a combined audience of more than 100,000.

“I just saw and spoke with John McCain last week and frankly, physically and mentally, he’s on top of his game,” says Mr. Martin, a former Marine who once hired a young George W. Bush to work on a Senate campaign. “He looks tough as nails, and he is. I think they are going to have a helluva time trying to say he’s too old. He’s sharp.”

Indeed, Mr. McCain emerged from the brutal presidential primary cycle thinner and looking no worse forwear, having come from behind in New Hampshire and broke away from the pack to lead his party in what many saw as an unexpected victory.

All of this after having survived repeated bouts of skin cancer during his 21 years in the Senate, as well as 5½ years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, where he was tortured.

Testament to his longevity on the campaign trail is his own mother, Roberta McCain, now 96 and still outspoken and feisty in the Barbara Bush vein.

She has accompanied Mr. McCain on many campaign stops, a welcome, if not glamorous silver-haired presence who has defended her son’s detractors with the limited self-censorship one would expect from an Oklahoma-born wildcatter’s daughter who married her husband, a Navy admiral, in a bar in Tijuana, Mexico.

Asked what kind of support her son had within his party, she resoundingly offered: “I don’t think he has any … Maybe I don’t know enough about it, but I’ve not seen any help whatsoever.”

Mrs. McCain continued to lay into party leaders, telling reporters that they were “holding their nose,” but are “going to have to take him.”

“He worked like a dog to get Bush re-elected,” she defended as only a proud mama could. “He’s backed Bush in everything except [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld … . And I’ve never seen any public recognition of the work that he’s done for the Republican Party.”

Mr. Martin says watching Mrs. McCain in action is inspirational for seniors who can embrace her frankness and vitality in an age of political correctness.

“She is awesome out there, like the Energizer bunny,” he said. “I think she helps to dispel the myth that Murtha is trying to promote.”

AARP spokesman Drew Nannis says his organization isn’t interested in comparing candidates’ ages, but rather their ideas, and “judging people on their ability, not their age, their race or their gender.”

“I think voters have shown that the traditional stereotypes have been thrown out about what it means to be older,” he said when asked about attacks on Mr. McCain’s age.

“People are working longer and retiring later. They are being active longer. The idea of an older person is certainly something that continues to adjust,” he said. “It depends on the person, not how many candles are on their cake.”

Robert Watson, a professor and presidential scholar at Lynn University in Florida says Mr. McCain’s mother testifies to familial longevity and is an asset as he campaigns.

“It helps that he takes her everywhere,” Mr. Watson said. “He also uses humor. He always has that funny line where he says: ‘If you think I’m too old, meet my mom. She still drives.’ ”

But, in terms of Mr. McCain’s age, Mr. Watson says he thinks it’s legitimate for critics to show concern, particularly where the senator’s health is concerned.

“It’s not just that he’d be the oldest president … With all due respect to him, McCain years are like dog years,” Mr. Watson said.

“This guy’s been around the walk. Anybody who can survive 5½ years in POW camps being tortured on a regular basis is a survivor. He’s survived four bouts of melanoma, the worst kind of skin cancer, and he can’t raise his arms above his head. He was also a very heavy smoker up until he was about 45. This adds up,” he said.

Mr. Watson cites presidential history and health to make his case. Four presidents have died in office from causes other than assassination, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Warren Harding, and a number, including George Washington and Woodrow Wilson, have been seriously ill.

“The public is concerned about the health of a president,” he said. “This year in particular, the new president will have a full plate. The country is divided. We are fighting two wars. We are going to need a healthy president to put a full day in, and the type of workload that’s needed would be devastating for a person half John McCain’s age.”

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