Eighty years old, in this age of magical pharmaceuticals that keep blood pressure low and heart rates steady, is not really old.
But US President Joe Biden at 80 is a very old man. He stoops. He forgets sentences. He trips. He stumbles through news conferences. He forgets sentences. “I think that uh … I hope that uh … ”
Does this disqualify Mr Biden from being a capable president? Probably.
And yet his Democratic Party is still solidly behind him – despite recent polling that revealed 70 per cent of Americans think someone else should be running as a Democrat. After a fumbling, embarrassing news conference in Vietnam last week, Mr Biden’s party attempted to save face by releasing a campaign video of him from last February in Ukraine.
There he is, robustly striding alongside President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The point being: this is a man with vigour. This is a man who holds his own in war zones.
“In the middle of a war zone, Joe Biden showed the world what America is made of,” a narrator says.
It ends simply with: “Biden. President.”
Mr Biden might be able to hold his own in Kyiv during a surprise visit, but he clearly can’t hold his own on a podium. After the Vietnam debacle, former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr reluctantly said what everybody was thinking: Democrats must step in and ensure Mr Biden does not run again.
“I thought it was a tipping point,” Mr Carr said. “A large part of American opinion is going to conclude he is too old for the job … too old and too frail.” Mr Carr called the news conference “a milestone in his deterioration”.
To be fair, Mr Biden has never been a Barack Obama or an Abraham Lincoln or even a Franklin Roosevelt – leaders whose oratory skills were celebrated. He is not a master communicator. He has always struggled with his stutter. If he is off script, he doesn’t follow well. His strengths lay in his ability to do Washington-style deals and form alliances, the result of being a lifelong political player. They do not lie in articulate speech.
But it has become worse. Now, Democrats seem confident that they will win the 2024 elections. Their sense is that nobody wants to vote for Donald Trump, who grows more erratic as election time nears.
But Mr Trump is a young 77. His health strong, his appetite hearty, his orange toupee luxuriant. It is true his party has run amok. Republicans are doing everything to blow up their future – the impeachment against Mr Biden – for example. Rather than enact policy, all they seem to do is use inflammatory television to try to score points. But as far as health goes, Mr Trump appears as strong as an ox: an antithesis of a frail Mr Biden.
Historically, young presidents – John F Kennedy or Mr Obama – tended to usher in a new era in Washington.
Kennedy’s Camelot was the Arthurian name coined by his wife, Jacqueline, to describe his youthful, idealistic, glittering administration. The White House was refurbished. Fashion designer Oleg Cassini came to dress Jackie. Adorable young children ran down the halls of the West Wing.
Decades later, in 2008, Mr Obama’s “Hope” campaign brought in a team of young staffers who played basketball with the president. It was a wave of optimism after the misery of 9/11.
There is nothing in the US Constitution that sets a limit on presidential age – one must be 35 years of age and a natural-born citizen. George Washington, the first president, was actually 65 years old when he left office, and died two years later. Lincoln was 52; Ulysses S Grant, a Civil War hero, was 54; Harry S Truman 60 and Richard Nixon 56. Bill Clinton and Mr Obama were youthful 46 and 47 respectively, and Thomas Jefferson 57.
I’d like to point out – having just spent the past five years living there – that America is obsessed with ageing in a way that I have never seen.
The question is not whether you are too old but whether you are fit for the job
This is a country where the recommended age for women to get Botox is the late 20s. But when it comes to Washington, some of the players refuse to go. Mitch McConnell’s recent cognitive deterioration (he froze during a news conference for 20 long seconds) was shocking; California Senator Dianne Feinstein, at 90, is refusing to step down and points to sexism when anyone suggests she leaves gracefully.
Yet in other parts of the world, like in Africa – where ageing is regarded as the coming of wisdom – there is an entirely different culture. Cameroonian President Paul Biya was born in 1933 – between the two World Wars. Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara is 81. Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, who left office in May, is 80. Guinea’s Alpha Conde was 83 when he stepped down two years ago. Manuel Pinto da Costa was well into his 70s when he began his second stint as president of Sao Tome and Principe.
This is not to say they are or were great leaders. Africa is young, and many of the continent’s leaders are longstanding, dictatorial and out of touch with a youthful population. Many of them should not have remained in office as long as they did. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, a former freedom fighter-turned-authoritarian leader whose mantra was “Zimbabwe is mine”, died aged 95 in 2019, having left the presidency just two years previously. Gabon’s Omar Bongo had been president for 41 years when he died in office, aged 73, in 2009.
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I could look at Asia or Latin America for other examples. But the question is not whether leaders are old, it is whether they are competent.
Mr Trump fuelled the “Biden is too old” debate when he went on a radio show recently.
“Age is interesting because some people are very sharp, and some people do lose it, but you lose it at 40 and 50,” Mr Trump said. “But no, he [Mr Biden] is not too old at all. He’s grossly incompetent.”
Mr Trump then cited Winston Churchill, who was the same age as Mr Trump when he became British prime minister for the second time, as a great leader.
Age is a number. The question is not whether you are too old but whether you are fit for the job. US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, 83, recently announced she will run for re-election, although she no longer leads Democrats in the House of Representatives.
Instead of telling a crowd in Hanoi that he needs to go to bed, Mr Biden needs to step down and let a younger Democrat take over. Mental acuity, particularly in a job where you basically run the world, is imperative.
Australia’s Mr Carr summed it up when he said: “Joe, we love you, but we think the American people will want someone younger.”