Journalists are suddenly willing to ask questions about the Democratic front-runner’s age. But they’re still unwilling to answer them.
Some consider it taboo to ask whether a candidate is too old to serve as president. Not the press.
The New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico, CNN, the Atlantic, the Associated Press, Slate and just about every other premium and low-rent outlet you can name has crossed the ageism line to ask the “too old” question in recent articles about Joe Biden, age 76, often in the headline itself. These pieces render judgment on Biden’s physical stamina (damn good), verbal skills (he’s a little mush-mouthed), processing speed (seems a tad lost sometimes), memory (better on stuff that happened 30 years ago than five years ago) and tendency to gaffe (you have to ask?).
But after tallying Biden’s repeated stumbles, miscues and mental lapses, journalists tend to retreat from calling Biden too infirm to run the White House. The greater press taboo, it seems, isn’t asking the question about Biden but answering it.
The press corps’ refusal to resolve the question has made Biden’s age and his state of mental and physical fitness the primary lens through which it views his candidacy. Was he rusty on the debate stage, Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty asked, or bewildered at finding himself there? Was it a minor slip of the tongue when he told debate viewers to “go to Joe30330” instead of “text JOE to 30330,” or does he not know how texting works? Were Biden’s debate comebacks tellingly “slow off the mark,” as the New York Times put it, or did he consciously decide the best way to fend off Kamala Harris and Cory Booker’s punches was to rope-a-dope?
Other politicians of a certain age would be punished by voters and the press if they were as consistently loopy as Biden. But his career-long reputation of gaffeing in public indemnifies him from the charges that he has just now gone addle-pated. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he asked Missouri state Sen. Chuck Graham to stand up at a rally so the crowd could see him. Graham is a paraplegic. During the same campaign, he claimed that “jobs” is a three-letter word and introduced his running mate as “Barack America.” In an interview with CBS News that year, he said Franklin D. Roosevelt went on TV after the great stock market crash. That was a twofer: Roosevelt wasn’t president in 1929, and White House television broadcasts were not yet a thing.
Biden has further indemnified himself from his loopiness by embracing it. “I am a gaffe machine,” Biden acknowledged in December 2018 during a book tour. As long as his doddering and meanderings don’t exceed his par on the course, Biden obviously hopes to attribute flubs to his nature, not his age.
Biden can’t complain too much about people fussing over his age. After all, he asked supporters and friends whether he was too old to run last year when contemplating his campaign. One proposed strategy to deflate the issue, the Associated Press reported, would be to pick a young running mate after winning the nomination.
Instead of dodging the “too old” question, Biden has encouraged people to ask it, which should give reporters all the latitude they need to probe and arrive at an answer.
“I think it’s totally appropriate for people to look at me and say if I were to run for office again, ‘Well, God darn, you’re old,’” Biden said at an October event. “Well, chronologically, I am old,” but implying that he’s mentally and physically top drawer.
In June, Donald Trump, nobody’s idea of a young, healthy man at 73, accepted Biden’s invitation to assess his fitness. Biden, he said, looks and acts differently than he once did. “He’s even slower than he used to be.” Days later, Trump expanded the wound he’d inflicted on the Democratic front-runner, questioning Biden’s “mental capacity.” He “doesn’t have what it takes” to be president, Trump remarked.
Biden didn’t appreciate the assessment he had invited, making him sound hypocritical. His fitness was “self-evident,” Biden told reporters. “You know it’s a ridiculous assertion on his part,” he said of Trump. Trying to have it both ways, he returned to his original script, re-inviting one and all to doubt his fitness. “People have a right to question all of our ages. That’s totally legitimate thing. But like I say, watch me. Just watch me.”
This makes Biden sound like he’s being open about his age, when what he’s really doing is limiting the discussion to the way he reads a speech. A month later, when Trump savaged him on age again, Biden’s response was a promise to challenge Trump to do push-ups on stage if he ridiculed his age or mental state in a debate. Joe! Joe! Nobody is saying you’re not pumped enough to direct the President’s Council of Sports, Fitness and Nutrition! They’re saying you’re acting unusually slap-happy!
The irony of the Biden age question is that as a 29-year-old candidate for Senate in 1972, he made the age of an older opponent an issue, tagging Senator Cale Boggs (R-Del.), who was his elder by 33 years, as a member of his father’s generation who has “lost that twinkle in his eyes.” Biden won. If Biden raked Boggs for his age a generation ago, why can’t reporters do the same to Biden today? Unless Biden believes only candidates can disqualify other candidates on the basis of age, he has some explaining to do.
Do reporters worry about being charged with ageism? Maybe. But the fear seems to be unfounded. According to two recent polls, large numbers of Democrats espouse ageist notions about presidents. In a May poll by the Pew Research Center, 47 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said the ideal age for a president is someone in their 50s. Only 3 percent thought a 70-something would be ideal. A Reuters/Ipsos poll produced similar findings. This isn’t just damaging news for Biden but for his opponents Elizabeth Warren (70) and Bernie Sanders (77) as well. (Trump’s age seems not to deter Republican voters.)
A candidate’s advanced age should never be an issue as long as he can flex his mind with the agility of a Warren Buffett, who will turn 89 years old at the end of this month. But Biden is no Buffett, and he seems to know it. He’s yet to submit to the probings of a town hall with voters or demonstrate that he can master all the executive functions for very long without the benefit of a script.
Biden owes voters a series of long, probing, detailed interviews that prove that his mind is up to the job. The press owes voters a stronger verdict on whether age has dimmed his mental powers to the point of twilight. Until Biden submits and the press assesses, his age will reign as campaign 2020’s most pressing unanswered question.